J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

VIFF ’18: Mori, the Artist’s Habitat


All things must pass. That simple fact of life was already one of the primary themes of this gentle film, but it will hit home with extra force for viewers watching it two weeks following the death of revered co-star Kirin Kiki. She was the designated grandmother of Japanese cinema and a mainstay of Kore-eda’s films. Her loss is enormous, but she left behind a wonderful body of work, including Shûichi Okita’s Mori, the Artist’s Habitat (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival.

For decades (the year varies from source to source), modernist artist Morikazu Kumagai has confined himself to his Tokyo home and its sprawling backyard garden. Known for his cat paintings and nature studies, Kumagai has found all the inspiration he needs communing with the bugs and goldfish that share his world. Alas, the days are numbered for his Eden. A condo development underway will block out the sun from most of his beloved garden.

If you think this will be an angry protest movie, guess again. While there are protestors, primarily art students, posting anti-development signs around the neighborhood, Kumagai is above such things. He just continues Zen-like, present in every moment.

In some ways, Habitat is a small, partial cure for the divisiveness that ails us now. Instead of shunning and demonizing each other, two parties with seemingly diametrically opposed interests can come together, break bread, and forge connections. In this case, it is Kumagai with his wife Hideko (naturally played by Kiki) and protective neighbors that connect with the foreman and construction workers building the condominiums across the street.

Granted, we have seen characters like the nature-centric Kumagai and his protective wife in other films, but encountering them in their idyllic home, interacting with nature and the constant flow of visitors (Kumagai is not anti-social, but maybe just a little gruff) is quite endearing—even restorative.

Tsutomu Yamazaki’s portrayal of Kumagai is wonderfully subtle and finely calibrated, embracing his eccentricities without indulging in shticky foibles. Of course, Kirin Kiki is warmly charming as Hideko. Ryo Kase also has some nice moments as Takeshi Fujita, a photographer Kumagai has allowed into his inner circle. Plus, Yoichi Hayashi gets some dry chuckles as Emperor Showa (yes, since Kumagai no longer goes out into the world, the world will have to come to Kumagai—figuratively).

Habitat is a simple narrative, following a day in the life of Kumagai with a short epilogue presumably set a few weeks or months later, but it is all about art, nature, life, and mindfulness. Okita is quite attuned to natural settings and subjects, having previously helmed The Woodsman and the Rain. Somehow, he instills in Habitat a vibe that is both elegiac and life-affirming. Highly recommended, especially to remember the life and talent of Kirin Kiki, Mori, the Artist’s Habitat screens this afternoon (9/30) and next Sunday (10/7), as part of this year’s VIFF.

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