A melancholic, nickelodeon arcade melody plays against the suffused, dreamlike image of a slow-circling merry-go-round, as a curious assortment of characters seated on the carousel gradually come into focus, then recede, before re-emerging again within the stationary frame. The nostalgic, surreal episode carries through to the voice-over narration of an aging author named Hatsu-rojin (Keiju Kobayashi) as he dispassionately – but longingly – recalls a fanciful childhood memory of throwing sandals into the air on an open field and imagining that the footwear had magically transformed into bats to be momentarily captured and then set free again and again, interrupted only by the sound of his mother’s (Nobuko Otowa) voice calling the children home for dinner. At home, life in the rural province proves to be laborious, but often joyful and rewarding as the children help with the household chores, run errands in the nearby village, take turns in preparing food for the New Year’s festivities, cultivate the land and, with the advent of warmer weather, participate in the annual crop plant ritual, an arduous task overseen by their aloof and stern father (Ichirô Zaitsu) who lords over the generations-old family farm (and his hard-working family) – while indulgently smoking his ubiquitous pipe – with the critical and proud complacency of a coddled, leisured aristocrat. Alternating between past and present, Hatsu-rojin traces his complex, unresolved relationship with his parents as the youngest child of an uncomplaining, overindulgent mother and a distant, seemingly callous father as the family struggles through financial hardship, personal sacrifice, and inevitable fracture. Now in the twilight of his career and the last surviving member of his family, the unmarried Hatsu-rojin searches for a way to pass on his fading, but deeply felt memories into a thoughtful commemoration of the simple life of his nurturing and resilient mother.
Rakuyoju is an elegantly composed, contemplative, and understatedly resonant meditation on mortality, devotion, and personal legacy. Using repeated imagery of everyday rituals and metaphorically unfolding against the constant changing of seasons, Kaneto Shindo reflects the transience and cyclicality of human existence: the opening carousel scene that collapses time by presenting the characters from different points in life into the same visual sequence; the father’s impenetrable stoicism in the face of his family’s unraveling way of life; the present-day Hatsu-rojin’s integration into episodes from his childhood; the constant toil of the land. Filming in stark black and white and using sensual and allusive, stylized compositions (and character traits), Shindo further illustrates the temperance of memory with age – the perspective of introspection and nostalgia that subconsciously recalls only evocative, abstract imagery in the absence of objective detail and specificity. Inevitably, it is this imperfect, colored memory of a disintegrated family that betrays the fracture in Hatsu-rojin’s own rootless and frustrated soul: the bittersweet, strange fruit of lost opportunity and inarticulable longing.
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