Review: KUICHISAN Defies Categorization With Its Haunting, Hypnotic Images and Soundtrack

Maiko Endo's remarkable debut feature Kuichisan is less a film in the conventional sense than a collection of very striking images with musical rhythms, befitting the director's background as a musician. This gives the film quite a hypnotic effect, and the rushing succession of images, and its very intuitive free form jazz-like approach to structure and filmmaking technique allows this piece to elide any sort of easy categorization. Kuichisan has elements of fiction, documentary, and experimental films, but it resists any sort of labels, and is its own very fascinating object.

Kuichisan is set in the town of Koza in Okinawa, Japan, and its thin sliver of a narrative centers on two figures. The first is a ten year-old boy (Raizo Ishihara) who we first see getting his hair and eyebrows shaven, in apparent preparation to be a monk. He wanders through the town, searching for his identity and a way to put his spiritual beliefs in practice. He is mostly a silent observer, and the film itself has very little dialog. The second reoccurring figure is an American traveler (Eleonore Hendricks) who wanders aimlessly in a similar fashion to the Japanese boy, and seems ill-at-ease and isolated within this bewildering culture she is in. At one point, she speaks her thoughts into a tape recorder, expressing her uneasiness at being stared at and not being able to blend into the environment as she hoped she would.

Okinawa's rich cultural and political history, as a place with a unique character quite distinct from the rest of Japan, which has been shaped by the legacy of its ancient traditions and its associations with the U.S. military, comes through very strongly here. However, it is all made deeply strange when filtered through an outsider's perspective, both of the two main characters the film follows, and Endo's own (she visited Okinawa for the first time only a year before she began shooting). Despite its more rural setting, Kuichisan can be said to be a sort of city symphony, a portrait of a place with a deep eclecticism in its physical environment and the artistic way in which it is presented. Street festivals with traditional dance performers, neon-lit nightclubs, a group of BMX-type bikers, street singers, and many other scenes come at us like an accelerated travelogue, it constant juxtapositions of history and modernity as disorienting as it is often visually seductive. These images are inextricably linked with its soundtrack and sound design, in which eerie electronic sounds meld with Japanese traditional music and pop songs, as well as musique concrete elements. This makes for an almost purely experiential sense of viewing, one that resists attempts to interpret what we are seeing.

Kuichisan was shot on 16mm, switching frequently between color and black-and-white, and its commitment to its own celluloid-based aesthetic is one that is admirable, and increasingly rare in this digital-dominated age. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams, a fixture of many micro-budgeted American independent films, is a crucially important collaborator here; he contributes greatly to the entrancing beauty of many of its images.

While Kuichisan will no doubt frustrate those viewers who prefer more conventional narrative, or a more strongly articulated and seemingly coherent approach to aesthetics, it succeeds on its own terms as a hauntingly dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness cinematic experience.

Kuichisan is currently having its New York theatrical premiere run at Anthology Film Archives, through June 27. For more information, visit Anthology's website.

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