Sunday, July 31, 2011

REVIEW: The Catcher on the Shore

やぎの冒険 (Yagi no Boken)

Released: 2010

Ryugo Nakamura

Munekazu Uehara
Seima Gima
Susumu Taira
Taeko Yoshida
Yayoi Shiroma

Running time: 80 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

Often, a filmmaker’s traits or back story will provide just as much incentive to see a film as details about the film itself, if not more. That is most likely to be the case for most viewers regarding Ryugo Nakamura’s debut feature film, "The Catcher on the Shore." At the age of fifteen, Nakamura is already a highly accomplished filmmaker, having made "Catcher" when he was fourteen and thirty shorts since embarking upon his career at eight. The opportunity to take the plunge into features came in 2009 when the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a contest for story ideas for a production in the region. Nakamura, of course, ended up winning, and has since proven himself worthy of the chance given to him with quite a remarkable coming-of-age story.

"The Catcher on the Shore" stars Munekazu Uehara as sixth grader Hiroto, who catches a bus to Okinawa where he is to spend the winter with his grandparents and father. Life in the warm rural village unfolds at a relaxed pace and Hiroto’s days are filled by taking leisurely excursions to a stream in the woods, tending to the pair of goats owned by his grandparents and blowing up firecrackers to scare a comical election candidate. Yet Hiroto’s contentment is disrupted after one of the beloved goats is killed in preparation for a communal meal of goat soup. When a prime opportunity arrives, he tries to help the other animal escape before a similar fate befalls it. His efforts bring about teasing and conflict, highlighting his outsider status as a naïve (or just soft-hearted) city boy. When night arrives, Hiroto camps out in the jungle wilderness, testing his bravery against the forces of nature and helping further his acceptance of the at-times uneasy relationship between humans, animals, life and death that permeates the world.

For me, "The Catcher on the Shore" was one of the standout films that screened at Toronto's 3rd annual Shinsedai Cinema Festival, where it received its international premiere. Within the first few scenes, it became clear that the film would reflect an especially disciplined and visionary creative spirit behind its production. The camera movements and shot compositions by Nakamura and cinematographer Akihiko Nitta are executed with visible confidence, lingering on the Okinawan vegetation and giving an added eloquence to Hiroto’s experiences. Some sequences come across as especially inspired, such as one long take in which Hiroto’s father has a lengthy conversation with a friend about how to properly kill a goat. It isn’t until the slowly panning camera has covered most of its trajectory that the boy is shown listening close by – as he pets the remaining goat, no less. Little later on, the film momentarily picks up its pace in a lengthy, comedic chase after the runaway animal taken up by Hiroto and several of the town’s inhabitants.

However, not all of the pursuer’s intentions are as noble as Hiroto’s, which is just one of the ways in which a near-anecdotal narrative about a young boy’s bond with a bleating goat is amplified into a more universal story of maturity and the pain that can accompany it. During the chase, a local boy goes from being a close friend to Hiroto to something of a bully, leading to a tense struggle in a field of tall grass. From this point onwards, the film becomes noticeably more steeped in elemental imagery and the action loses its light, carefree quality in favor of a tone more befitting an age-old rite of passage. When night falls, the two boys build a large fire, setting the stage for a striking sequence in which they respond to crying wild dogs with their own howls as a storm rages around them. Afterwards comes the calm of the morning and perhaps the film’s finest shot, which lingers on Hiroto as he walks away from the gently rising camera into a sublime, still realm of trees and floating mist.

Having been made by a fourteen year-old director, it is of course totally acceptable that "The Catcher on the Shore" has its flaws. If there is one worth mentioning, it is the slightly stunted quality of the film’s dramatic weight and thematic exploration, as the story and subject matter certainly provide fertile potential for a more fully developed work. But that is not to downplay the existing film’s genuine sense of poignancy, mainly offered up by its consideration of the necessary harshness of life and its natural clashes with innocence. Enhancing this deep concept with assured technical skill, an insightful approach and naturalistic performances, Nakamura fully manages to make a strong impression in his first venture as a feature filmmaker. As he continues to accumulate more experience and sharpen his artistic instincts, he is all but bound to rise to even more impressive heights as he continues to follow his passions.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog


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