A film doesn't need to be feature length and weighted down with a complicated plot in order to capture an audience. I was reminded of this point at this year's Toronto Japanese Short Film Festival when I was lucky enough to see a simple but profound half hour film called "A Third Skin". Written and directed by Kotaro Wajima the film centers around a homeless man who plays piano in a public park and what occurs when he is nearly robbed of both his music and his life. Inspired by a quote from French literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes, "...you will be touching what I have touched. A third skin unites us," Wajima has created a delicate story that uses music to communicate its message of giving and the power of shared creation.
While our homeless protagonist, played by Mitsuru Karahashi (Kamen Rider, Samurai Sentai Shinkenger) can bewitch visitors to the park with his music the spare change he collects isn't enough to get him off the streets. When night comes he wheels his stand-up piano to one of the many tent cities that sprout up on the margins of Japan's public parks; but one night his make shift home is invaded by a group of junior high school boys bent on destruction. These boys, who Wajima explained during a post-screening Q&A session are the victims of bullying who are taking their rage out on the most vulnerable targets - the homeless, not only beat the piano player into a bloody pulp but also set his piano on fire. Left for dead he is taken in by Chika, ("Vital" and "Asyl Park and Love Hotel" star Lily) a homeless woman who lives in a nearby tunnel. Chika has a gift hidden in the dark recesses of her home for the piano player - an old, out of tune piano that she lets him use as he recovers from the attack. The piano player and Chika are joined by an unlikely guest, one of the boys who unwillingly took part in the beating. He witnesses the piano player give Chika the only thing he has to offer in return for her hospitality - the joy of making music.
While the narrative of Wajima's film is as lean as can be (and may come off as a bit trite when read in a review like this) it's not what makes "A Third Skin" so magical. It's success comes from Wajima's grasp of what every good filmmaker knows - a story can be told just as successfully using sound, lighting, colour, the things that fill the spaces around the narrative just as effectively as the narrative itself. When Wajima shows us this homeless man pushing his piano through the park at dusk we can almost smell the crisp evening air, and when he warms himself by the propane heater in Chika's spartan but comfortable home in the tunnel we nearly get a physical sense of warmth. Of course the main tool used to convey the emotional message of "A Third Skin" is music. Franz Liszt's "Liebestraum" is used to lull us so that Wajima can then crash us to earth with the boys' attack on the homeless camp. It's a frightening sequence to behold and one that uses the sound of piano wires straining and snapping in the fire as its brittle climax. Another piece of music forms the emotional core of "A Third Skin" though. The duet the homeless man composes for he and Chika to play on her piano (composed for "A Third Skin" by Toshiya Fueoka, one half of Japanese indie duo Mondialito) brings Wajima's film to a lovely conclusion.
Having only graduated from the Film Department of Kyoto's University of Art and Design in 2006 Wajima shows boundless potential as a filmmaker with "A Third Skin". It's exciting to think what will come from this 26-year-old Yamagata native in the years to come. Thankfully New Directions in Japanese Cinema, an ongoing project managed by VIPO (Visual Industry Promotion Organization) and the Agency for Cultural Affairs in Japan, was there to give Wajima the opportunity to make "A Third Skin", one of the five the NDJC produced in 2008. In the same way that the piano player gives his gift of music to Chika I hope Kotaro Wajima's work can be shared with many more film fans around the world soon. Judging by "A Third Skin" he has many more gifts to give us.