Re-igniting the Fires of Youth

Peter Matanle, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield [About | Email]

Volume 6, Issue 1 (Film review 1 in 2006). First published in ejcjs on 27 March 2006.

Kamataki (2005)
Dir: Claude Gagnon
Cast: Matt Smiley, Tatsuya Fuji, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Lisle Wilkerson, Naho Watanabe, and Christopher Heyerdahl
Language: English, French
Length: 110 mins
Production and Distribution: Zuno Films
Website: http://www.kamatakimovie.com/

Ken (Matt Smiley) is a troubled young Canadian-Japanese, who finds himself at his uncle's home in Japan, having been sent there by his mother in an attempt to encourage him out of his deepening depression. In addition to not knowing what to do with his life, and wishing to give up on attending medical school, Ken is also trying in vain to find ways of understanding and dealing with the sudden death of his father. We quickly learn that, off screen, Ken has already miraculously survived an attempted suicide by throwing himself off a bridge into icy water below, and the film begins with a vivid shot of an icy river flowing slowly but menacingly past a Canadian cityscape. Ken's eccentric and somewhat wild uncle is Takuma (Tatsuya Fuji - In the Realm of the Senses, In the Realm of the Passion), who is a professional potter living and working in rural Japan, and who welcomes Ken into his home and his pottery in an effort to try to help him, and thus also his sister-in-law and dead brother, to make sense of his life and to break out of his depression.

Kamataki centres on the developing relationship between these two protagonists and their mutual character traits and flaws; how Ken is able to find peace and resolution through his new relationships and surroundings, and how Takuma discovers what it is like to love as a father does his son. In addition to this, a number of other sub-plots are explored, with Ken's relationship with an American student potter called Rita (Lisle Wilkerson) and both Takuma's and Ken's relationship with Kariya-sensei (Kazuko Yoshiyuki - In the Realm of the Passion), the widow of Takuma's former pottery master being the most significant. However, it is Takuma's unpredictable and earthy mixture of sake, sex, early mornings, hard work, art, and old-blokeish wisdom that kindles in Ken a desire to look deeper within and to discover the fire that had been missing in his life.

All of this takes place against the background of Takuma's pottery and, in particular, around the process of kamataki – hence the film's name – by which the ceramic wares are loaded into the single chamber wood-fired kiln, or anagama, and fired over a period of approximately ten days. The film was mostly shot on location in the town of Shigaraki, one of the six principal ceramics communities in Japan, and at Shiho Kanzaki's anagama pottery studio. The second half of the film takes place almost entirely at the pottery and, just as the wood-fired kiln gradually vitrifies the clay pots and slowly dusts them with their unpredictable ash glazes, so the main characters become progressively more involved in each others' lives, slowly forming a new chain of human belonging.

The various incidents in which Ken and Takuma find themselves, especially early on in the film, are very realistic of a deepening relationship between two very different people who are thrown together by the force of circumstance. One is therefore drawn into identifying with Takuma's earthy humanity as well as feeling sympathy for Ken's confusion and, thus, indulging his passive aggressive behaviour. Thus, thankfully, the film does not over-romanticise either Japanese rural life or the world of traditional Japanese ceramic arts. Potters the world over tend to be very down to earth people – maybe it is the nature of the materials that they work with – and Takuma is no exception here. Early on we see him drunk, singing erratically with a local band, and in flagrante with the mama-san of a hostess bar. Ken, on the other hand, is altogether more sensitive, moralistic, and flighty. He is disgusted by his uncle's brashness and storms off, only to be arrested on his way home in preparation to go back to Canada. From this scene on Ken takes a deepening interest in the life and art of his unconventional uncle, and thereby begins to defeat his own secret demons.

Directed by Canadian Claude Gagnon, who has himself lived in Japan for a decade or so and speaks Japanese, and produced by Yuri Yoshimura, Samuel Gagnon, and Toru Kanzaki, Kamataki is refreshing and unusual among films made by western directors in that its portrayal of Japanese characters is natural, relaxed, and un-forced. Gone are the strange two-dimensional stereotypes so favoured by patronising, prejudiced and, it has to be said, racist Hollywood production teams, and in are the complexities, nuances, weaknesses, and plain humanity of ordinary Japanese. Thus, while recognising that Takuma is considerably older and wiser than Ken, the film is not tempted to descend into orientalist fantasies of portraying him as an eastern mystic. Instead we are left in no doubt that Takuma is simply a man who has experienced much in life and who has made, and learnt from, his own mistakes. In fact, and in a strange reversal of usual practice, with the exception of Ken, played with great depth and sensitivity by Matt Smiley, it is the depictions of the film's two other north American characters, the student potter Rita and a visiting American ceramic artist named Scott (Christopher Heyerdahl), who appear wooden and in my opinion, in the case of the latter at least, superfluous.

Kamataki is a beautifully shot film that gracefully captures the peace and simplicity of Japanese rural life, the charm and warmth of Japanese rural folk (Naho Watanabe plays a perfectly understated role as Aunt Mio), and the difficulties that young people have with growing up in a sometimes lonely and complex world. The film leaves a lot of questions unanswered, such as the nature of the relationship between Takuma and Mio. But this is a good thing in that it gives us more to think about, and it also gives the director more time and space to devote to the flow of the story and its meaning. The music, by Jorane, was specially composed and performed for the film, and is a hauntingly evocative accompaniment to the film's delicate movement. Kamataki was first shown in 2005 and appeared at the Montreal Film Festival where it won five awards, including Best Director for Claude Gagnon. More recently it was shown at the Berlin Film Festival of 2006 where it won a Glass Bear (Special Mention) in the 14plus category.

Kamataki is a story about finding oneself again and re-igniting one's passions. It is about learning to love and to enjoy, without guilt, life's ordinary pleasures. But, most of all, it is about discovering what a joy it is simply to be alive.

About the Author

Peter Matanle studied for his undergraduate degree in History at St. John's College, University of Cambridge, and completed a Master's degree in Japanese Studies at the Contemporary Japan Centre, University of Essex in Britain. He received his doctorate from the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), University of Sheffield in 2001. He is now Lecturer in Japanese Studies at SEAS and is currently spending two years (2004-2006) as a JSPS Post-doctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Education and Human Sciences, Niigata University. He is the general editor of the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies and the author of Japanese Capitalism and Modernity in a Global Era: Re-fabricating lifetime employment relations (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).

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