Camera Japan Rotterdam 2022: THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME Is A Stunning Masterpiece
Joe Odagiri's film about an old ferryman is a surprisingly wonderful cinematic experience.
In They Say Nothing Stays the Same, we follow Toichi, an old man living by a river which has a small village on one side and a large city a bit further on the other side. He earns his living ferrying people across the water all day, but his useful existence is threatened by the bridge which is being built nearby. We see many passages and hear the tales being told among the passengers and the ferryman, but no matter how similar it all seems after a while, change is inexorably coming... a truth even the ghosts start telling Toichi.
In error this is often touted as famous actor Joe Odagiri's first film as a director. It isn't: back in 2009 he had made Looking for Cherry Blossoms, an eclectic absurd comedy road movie. That film divided opinions a lot among those who saw it (read three of them here), and the barmy interview Peter van der Lugt and I had with the director afterwards (see that here) led me to believe that Odagiri was a happy lunatic who was just having a lot of fun for himself and that was the end of the story.
So you can imagine my surprise when I heard his next film had Christopher Doyle as its cinematographer, a man with a reputation for not suffering fools lightly. Then I heard rave reviews from unexpected corners, so when this film showed at Camera Japan I made it an issue to see it for myself. And ... wow. What a stunning and above all mature piece of filmmaking it is.
Words as "slow" and "sedate" do not mean the same as "boring", and while Doyle's camerawork was always going to make it look pretty, what impresses mostly is Joe Odagiri's command of the narrative. In a cinema, where the film gets your full attention, you get rewarded with full immersion, and you feel transported to early 20th-century Japan. Odagiri shows you the life his characters lead, and then starts to introduce ever more changes, to show which things bend and which things break. It's not a pamphlet against progress, but it does ask people to remember, and feel empathy towards that which disappears.
Don't mistake the film for a two-hour slice of nostalgia, as it isn't. Nor is it poverty porn. There is much happening here, stories big and small, including murder and mayhem. And there are cameos by famous actors, some uncredited, almost a "gotta-catch-them-all" of talent. It all makes the background richer, an ever more finished painting in which veteran actor Akira Emoto's fantastic portrayal of Toichi is the middle point. His inner turmoil almost never shows, but when it does, it is stirring and heartbreaking.
I do not want to spoil the film by telling too much about what happens, or raise expectations too high for those who seek it out. But to me, it was a great surprise, one of my favorite cinematic experiences of the past few years. And Joe Odagiri as director? He is a master. I cannot do anything but re-evaluate him after this. In hindsight, maybe Looking for Cherry Blossoms and the shorts he made were all indeed just practice, gaining experience, honing his craft to create something as good as They Say Nothing Stays the Same. I can only admire him more because of it.
Looking for Cherry Blossoms played at the Camera Japan Film Festival, where it got into the audience's chosen Top-5. The film is available on Amazon Prime and DVD (and hopefully at some point on Blu-ray, dammit...)