Daughter of the Good Earth [THE WORKS AND DAYS (OF TAYOKO SHIOJIRI IN THE SHIOTANI BASIN)]

The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by C.W. Winter & Anders Edström

Of course, the conception of an extended film like The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is inseparable from the experience of watching it, and that is true to an immense degree here, but one of the first things that comes to mind when I think about this film came immediately following the film, during the Q&A given by co-director C.W. Winter. He described the conception of the film as stemming from a documentary that he and co-director Anders Edström had been planning to make chronicling the last stretch of time in the life of Shiojiri Junji, the eponymous Tayoko’s husband and Edström’s father-in-law, who passed away roughly a week before they were planning to fly to Japan. After the funeral — shot and included in the film — Winter and Edström came up with the idea to make this film over the next year of theirs, Tayoko’s, and the village’s lives. The process was essentially conceived to act as both catharsis and do-over for Tayoko, who deeply regretted that the last year of Junji’s life was one of the only times that they had ever fought; Winter and Edström would give her the space to say the words she never had the chance to say, do the things she wished she could have done.

This information is present in substantive reviews and interviews of the film (like Lawrence Garcia’s review for Reverse Shot and Mark Peranson’s interview for Cinema Scope), but I hadn’t read them and so I experienced the peculiar feeling of recontextualizing close to an entire day of experience in the moment and yet, any worry about misinterpreting the film without this crucial information almost seems to fade away when confronted by the particulars of this mammoth work of intimacy, so concerned it is with operating according to its own drumbeat, sans annotation or inflection outside of what can be conveyed with film grammar, performance, structure, and other such cinematic devices.

There are a great deal of those in The Works and Days, which runs eight hours across five chapters of unequal length, each devoted to a season (beginning in winter), and designed to be shown in four parts with two fifteen-minute intermissions and one hour-long lunch break, in emulation of the work day. Within this span, aside from the slow death of Junji, which comes more and more to the fore as the film moves through its second half, attempts at establishing narrative or concrete throughlines are almost completely elided, so much so that the relationships of the forty-some characters within this are astonishingly tenuous and difficult to grasp. But this is very much part of Winter and Edström’s project, a kind of deep immersion founded upon the hybrid documentary-fiction form so en vogue in the current festival trends.

What quickly becomes apparent is that the film manages to downplay even those elements: each part begins with a black screen accompanied by a dense soundscape of natural sounds; Winter says that such a conceit is designed to acclimate the viewer to the change in season heralded by these interludes, and which additionally serves as magnificent breathers, pauses that feel compelling in the darkness of the theater. But the lack of human presence in what may very well be the majority of this film arises not long afterwards; what initially begins as seemingly standard establishing shots of nature reveals itself as a vital leg on which The Works and Days stands. The images of trees, skies, horizons, plants, streams, mountains, and exteriors are themselves not long: the film itself relies little on extended takes — which when they do appear are focused on conversation and storytelling — and the nature shots are even shorter, typically lasting in rhythmic fashion around five or six seconds. However, the sheer volume of them is impressed upon, though it isn’t applied in a punishing fashion, varying and interweaving with the actors’ performances.

And it is important that these be recognized as performances, and as a narrative, albeit one constructed with much the same process as a Hong Sang-soo film, if he was inclined to shoot thousands of shots of nature: scenes were written the night before or the day of their shooting, various obstacles were incorporated in the narrative, though the scattered, open, and almost improvisatory process of filming meant that the scenes ended up being filmed entirely achronologically. Of course, Pedro Costa might be a better comparison point: Edström had been regularly visiting the village for 21 years as a family member prior to beginning filming, and the process was undertaken in close collaboration with Shiojiri herself, along with her family and fellow inhabitants; it’s worth noting that Winter and Edström themselves have a fairly significant presence onscreen as family members, not as directors.

Still, Costa’s work, wedded at the hip to his intense chiaroscuro and desolate settings as it is, feels far different from what Winter and Edström are achieving here, and thus the length returns to the fore. At such a length, what is intended as a fictionalized recreation of the previous year of a woman’s life metamorphosizes into a near-documentary telling of the processes of living and cultivating, in a manner not dissimilar at all from the use of time (if not shot) duration as Jeanne Dielman, or, more perversely, The Mother and the Whore. What is, as in Rivette and Godard’s famous quotes, implicit in each film’s document of its creation and its actors becomes in the viewer’s mind explicit.

This isn’t to say that an uninflected non-fiction retelling was Winter and Edström’s goal at all. Indeed, The Works and Days is replete with devices that are intended to, if not break the viewer’s experience, then to question it, to augment the sense of a created world with blatant fictions and interventions. The casting of Kase Ryō, one of the preeminent cineastes’ actors of the past two decades, is certainly prominent, though he apparently plays a character with a different surname. But the more pervasive and fascinating break stems from Winter and Edström’s penchant for shooting in near-total darkness, where they trust that the Blackmagic’s digital sensor will pick up something that varies the black expanse. This often results in some truly stunning moments of abstraction, where a few pinpricks of light are all that can be seen, which hover in extended shots. Such moments could function in a similar way to the proliferation of images of nature, but they pop out of the texture with their sheer uniqueness.

Such openness to experimentation and variety is what makes The Works and Days such a rewarding and surprising experience. This even extends to the dedication to a single location, heralded by the title, which is disrupted by a train trip to Kyoto and, in one of the wildest production stories I’ve ever heard, a phone call to Sweden, in which two cameras rolling simultaneously capture an actual phone call taking place nearly 5000 miles apart. Two moments, one involving a sublimely uncanny dissolve effect and the other telling a story only in subtitles, come and go without acknowledgment. And of course, there is that soundtrack, whose dense, enveloping nature-based sounds belie the thorough mixing and sculpting done in post-production.

Winter and Edström’s use of these sequences doesn’t disrupt the astonishing mood sculpted throughout the film. Though they have disavowed the slow cinema label, it might be more accurate to say that the concept doesn’t rely solely on long takes and is more about a certain ethos, for which the emphasis on nature and work surely applies. Indeed, one scene early in the second part feels illustrative of what is so entrancing about The Works and Days, in which Tayoko walks through a series of rooms, as the film cuts to a different shot on each door closing. The artifice of the film is revealed in a moment as mundane as the rest of the film’s actions; though the film was frequently shot with two cameras, there are too many rooms for it to be a continuous action. The two impulses within the film are evoked simultaneously: the almost iconoclastic tendency to show the rhythm of the scene, aesthetic be damned, and the contemplative style, focusing in on one action and how it can say so much about its subject.

I realize now that I’ve said little about that subject, and suffice it to say that Tayoko is remarkable, in large part because of, even under such emotional circumstances, how willing she is to be part of the ensemble, which ranges from the quiet to the rowdy in a way that feels utterly true. Some of her most emotional moments come when she reads some of the diary entries she had actually written during the prior year; her reading is off-the-cuff, as if she is coming up with them in the moment. It is in the pauses of thinking, just before the stream of thoughts resume, that The Works and Days finds its focus, its reason for being, and it is glorious.

Simple Top Tens (Mid-Lengths Only)

Decades: 2020s, 2010s, 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, 1940s, 1930s, 1920s, Pre-1920s

Main list.
A version of this without television episodes, YouTube material, music videos, and other non-film media objects.
A version of this with feature films only.
A version of this with shorts only.

Ten Favorite Films

  1. WAVELENGTH (Michael Snow)
  2. (NOSTALGIA) (Hollis Frampton)
  3. NIGHT AND FOG (Alain Resnais)
  4. ZORNS LEMMA (Michael Snow)
  5. SURVIVING DESIRE (Hal Hartley)
  6. SEVEN CHANCES (Buster Keaton)
  7. IT FELT LIKE A KISS (Adam Curtis)
  8. A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (Jean Renoir)
  9. THE HAND (Wong Kar-wai)
  10. THE PRINCESS OF FRANCE (Matías Piñeiro)

2020s

Best of the Decade

  1. THERE ARE NOT THIRTY-SIX WAYS OF SHOWING A MAN GETTING ON A HORSE. (Nicolás Zukerfeld)
  2. EDUCATION (Steve McQueen)

2020

  1. THERE ARE NOT THIRTY-SIX WAYS OF SHOWING A MAN GETTING ON A HORSE. (Nicolás Zukerfeld)
  2. EDUCATION (Steve McQueen)

2010s

Best of the Decade

  1. THE PRINCESS OF FRANCE (Matías Piñeiro)
  2. NO NO SLEEP (Tsai Ming-liang)
  3. THE GRAND BIZARRE (Jodie Mack)
  4. JOURNEY TO THE WEST (Tsai Ming-liang)
  5. A WORLD WITHOUT WOMEN (Guillaume Brac)
  6. CLASSICAL PERIOD (Ted Fendt)
  7. WATCHING THE DETECTIVES (Chris Kennedy)
  8. HEAVEN IS STILL FAR AWAY (Hamaguchi Ryūsuke)
  9. FOYER (Ismaïl Bahri)
  10. THE PETTIFOGGER (Lewis Klahr)

2019

  1. SUBJECT TO REVIEW (Theo Anthony)

2018

  1. THE GRAND BIZARRE (Jodie Mack)
  2. CLASSICAL PERIOD (Ted Fendt)
  3. FILM CATASTROPHE (Paul Grivas)
  4. NOTES ON AN APPEARANCE (Ricky D’Ambrose)
  5. LA CARTOGRAPHE (Nathan Douglas)

2017

  1. WATCHING THE DETECTIVES (Chris Kennedy)
  2. PROTOTYPE (Blake Williams)
  3. THE GREEN FOG (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson & Galen Johnson)

2016

  1. HEAVEN IS STILL FAR AWAY (Hamaguchi Ryūsuke)
  2. FOYER (Ismaïl Bahri)
  3. THE ILLINOIS PARABLES (Deborah Stratman)

2015

  1. NO NO SLEEP (Tsai Ming-liang)
  2. FIELD NIGGAS (Khalik Allah)

2014

  1. THE PRINCESS OF FRANCE (Matías Piñeiro)
  2. JOURNEY TO THE WEST (Tsai Ming-liang)
  3. JANUARY (Jhon Hernandez)

2012

  1. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (Don Hertzfeldt)
  2. VIOLA (Matías Piñeiro)

2011

  1. A WORLD WITHOUT WOMEN (Guillaume Brac)
  2. THE PETTIFOGGER (Lewis Klahr)
  3. SLOW ACTION (Ben Rivers)

2000s

Best of the Decade

  1. IT FELT LIKE A KISS (Adam Curtis)
  2. THE HAND (Wong Kar-wai)
  3. DISORDER (Huang Weikai)
  4. THROUGH THE FOREST (Jean-Paul Civeyrac)
  5. L’IDIOT (Pierre Léon)
  6. LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS (Hong Sang-soo)
  7. PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND (John Gianvito)
  8. LOOKING FOR TSAI (Patrik Eriksson & Erik Hemmendorff)
  9. DONG (Jia Zhangke)
  10. BLONDES IN THE JUNGLE (Lev Kalman & Whitney Horn)

2009

  1. IT FELT LIKE A KISS (Adam Curtis)
  2. DISORDER (Huang Weikai)
  3. LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS (Hong Sang-soo)
  4. BLONDES IN THE JUNGLE (Lev Kalman & Whitney Horn)

2008

  1. L’IDIOT (Pierre Léon)

2007

  1. PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND (John Gianvito)

2006

  1. DONG (Jia Zhangke)

2005

  1. THROUGH THE FOREST (Jean-Paul Civeyrac)

2004

  1. THE HAND (Wong Kar-wai)

2002

  1. LOOKING FOR TSAI (Patrik Eriksson & Erik Hemmendorff)

1990s

Best of the Decade

  1. SURVIVING DESIRE (Hal Hartley)
  2. THE MAMMALS OF VICTORIA (Stan Brakhage)
  3. XIAO SHAN GOING HOME (Jia Zhangke)

1995

  1. XIAO SHAN GOING HOME (Jia Zhangke)

1994

  1. THE MAMMALS OF VICTORIA (Stan Brakhage)

1991

  1. SURVIVING DESIRE (Hal Hartley)

Best of the Decade

  1. STANDARD GAUGE (Morgan Fisher)
  2. LES SIÈGES DE L’ALCAZAR (Luc Moullet)
  3. AMERICAN DREAMS (LOST AND FOUND) (James Benning)

1989

  1. LES SIÈGES DE L’ALCAZAR (Luc Moullet)

1984

  1. STANDARD GAUGE (Morgan Fisher)
  2. AMERICAN DREAMS (LOST AND FOUND) (James Benning)

1970s

Best of the Decade

  1. (NOSTALGIA) (Hollis Frampton)
  2. ZORNS LEMMA (Hollis Frampton)
  3. THE BENCH OF DESOLATION (Claude Chabrol)
  4. POETIC JUSTICE (Hollis Frampton)
  5. BERNICE BOBS HER HAIR (Joan Micklin Silver)
  6. ITALIANAMERICAN (Martin Scorsese)
  7. FROM THESE ROOTS (William Greaves)
  8. LIZA WITH A Z (Bob Fosse)
  9. THE INNER SCAR (Philippe Garrel)
  10. LA SOUFRIÈRE (Werner Herzog)

1977

  1. LA SOUFRIÈRE (Werner Herzog)

1976

  1. BERNICE BOBS HER HAIR (Joan Micklin Silver)

1974

  1. THE BENCH OF DESOLATION (Claude Chabrol)
  2. ITALIANAMERICAN (Martin Scorsese)
  3. FROM THESE ROOTS (William Greaves)

1972

  1. POETIC JUSTICE (Hollis Frampton)
  2. LIZA WITH A Z (Bob Fosse)
  3. THE INNER SCAR (Philippe Garrel)

1971

  1. (NOSTALGIA) (Hollis Frampton)

1970

  1. ZORNS LEMMA (Hollis Frampton)
  2. THE GRANDMOTHER (David Lynch)

1960s

Best of the Decade

  1. WAVELENGTH (Michael Snow)
  2. THE IMMORTAL STORY (Orson Welles)
  3. NOT RECONCILED (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet)
  4. BLACK GIRL (Ousmane Sembène)
  5. THE WAR GAME (Peter Watkins)
  6. SIMON OF THE DESERT (Luis Buñuel)
  7. THE KOUMIKO MYSTERY (Chris Marker)
  8. THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (Robert Bresson)
  9. PASAZERKA (Andrzej Munk)
  10. SUZANNE’S CAREER (Éric Rohmer)

1968

  1. THE IMMORTAL STORY (Orson Welles)

1967

  1. WAVELENGTH (Michael Snow)

1966

  1. BLACK GIRL (Ousmane Sembène)
  2. TROUBLEMAKERS (Norman Fruchter & Robert Machover)

1965

  1. NOT RECONCILED (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet)
  2. THE WAR GAME (Peter Watkins)
  3. SIMON OF THE DESERT (Luis Buñuel)
  4. THE KOUMIKO MYSTERY (Chris Marker)

1963

  1. PASAZERKA (Andrzej Munk)
  2. SUZANNE’S CAREER (Éric Rohmer)
  3. JOSEPH KILIAN (Pavel Juráček & Jan Schmidt)

1962

  1. THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (Robert Bresson)
  2. ANTOINE AND COLETTE (François Truffaut)

Best of the Decade

  1. NIGHT AND FOG (Alain Resnais)
  2. STATUES ALSO DIE (Alain Resnais & Chris Marker & Ghislain Cloquet)

1956

  1. NIGHT AND FOG (Alain Resnais)

1953

  1. STATUES ALSO DIE (Alain Resnais & Chris Marker & Ghislain Cloquet)

1930s

Best of the Decade

  1. A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (Jean Renoir)

1936

  1. A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (Jean Renoir)

1920s

Best of the Decade

  1. SEVEN CHANCES (Buster Keaton)
  2. SHERLOCK JR. (Buster Keaton)
  3. THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN (Germaine Dulac)
  4. MÉNILMONTANT (Dimitri Kirshoff)

1927

  1. THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN (Germaine Dulac)

1925

  1. SEVEN CHANCES (Buster Keaton)

1924

  1. SHERLOCK JR. (Buster Keaton)
  2. MÉNILMONTANT (Dimitri Kirshoff)

Favorite Films (Mid-Lengths Only)

Decades: 2020s, 2010s, 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, 1940s, 1930s, 1920s, Pre-1920s

Main list.
A version of this without television episodes, YouTube material, music videos, and other non-film media objects.
A version of this with feature films only.
A version of this with shorts only.

2020

  1. THERE ARE NOT THIRTY-SIX WAYS OF SHOWING A MAN GETTING ON A HORSE. (Nicolás Zukerfeld, Argentina)
  2. EDUCATION (Steve McQueen, UK)

2019

  1. SUBJECT TO REVIEW (Theo Anthony, USA)

2018

  1. THE GRAND BIZARRE (Jodie Mack, USA)
  2. CLASSICAL PERIOD (Ted Fendt, USA)
  3. FILM CATASTROPHE (Paul Grivas, France)
  4. NOTES ON AN APPEARANCE (Ricky D’Ambrose, USA)
  5. LA CARTOGRAPHE (Nathan Douglas, Canada)

2017

  1. WATCHING THE DETECTIVES (Chris Kennedy, Canada)
  2. PROTOTYPE (Blake Williams, Canada)
  3. THE GREEN FOG (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson & Galen Johnson, USA)

2016

  1. HEAVEN IS STILL FAR AWAY (Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, Japan)
  2. FOYER (Ismaïl Bahri, Tunisia)
  3. THE ILLINOIS PARABLES (Deborah Stratman, USA)

2015

  1. NO NO SLEEP (Tsai Ming-liang, Japan)
  2. FIELD NIGGAS (Khalik Allah, USA)

2014

  1. THE PRINCESS OF FRANCE (Matías Piñeiro, Argentina)
  2. JOURNEY TO THE WEST (Tsai Ming-liang, France)
  3. JANUARY (Jhon Hernandez, USA)

2012

  1. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
  2. VIOLA (Matías Piñeiro, Argentina)

2011

  1. A WORLD WITHOUT WOMEN (Guillaume Brac, France)
  2. THE PETTIFOGGER (Lewis Klahr, USA)
  3. SLOW ACTION (Ben Rivers, UK)

2009

  1. IT FELT LIKE A KISS (Adam Curtis, UK)
  2. DISORDER (Huang Weikai, China)
  3. LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
  4. BLONDES IN THE JUNGLE (Lev Kalman & Whitney Horn, USA)

2008

  1. L’IDIOT (Pierre Léon, France)

2007

  1. PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND (John Gianvito, USA)

2006

  1. DONG (Jia Zhangke, China)

2005

  1. THROUGH THE FOREST (Jean-Paul Civeyrac, France)

2004

  1. THE HAND (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)

2002

  1. LOOKING FOR TSAI (Patrik Eriksson & Erik Hemmendorff, Sweden)

1995

  1. XIAO SHAN GOING HOME (Jia Zhangke, China)

1994

  1. THE MAMMALS OF VICTORIA (Stan Brakhage, USA)

1991

  1. SURVIVING DESIRE (Hal Hartley, USA)

1989

  1. LES SIÈGES DE L’ALCAZAR (Luc Moullet, France)

1984

  1. STANDARD GAUGE (Morgan Fisher, USA)
  2. AMERICAN DREAMS (LOST AND FOUND) (James Benning, USA)

1977

  1. LA SOUFRIÈRE (Werner Herzog, West Germany)

1976

  1. BERNICE BOBS HER HAIR (Joan Micklin Silver, USA)

1974

  1. THE BENCH OF DESOLATION (Claude Chabrol, France)
  2. ITALIANAMERICAN (Martin Scorsese, USA)
  3. FROM THESE ROOTS (William Greaves, USA)

1972

  1. POETIC JUSTICE (Hollis Frampton, USA)
  2. LIZA WITH A Z (Bob Fosse, USA)
  3. THE INNER SCAR (Philippe Garrel, France)

1971

  1. (NOSTALGIA) (Hollis Frampton, USA)

1970

  1. ZORNS LEMMA (Hollis Frampton, USA)
  2. THE GRANDMOTHER (David Lynch, USA)

1968

  1. THE IMMORTAL STORY (Orson Welles, France)

1967

  1. WAVELENGTH (Michael Snow, Canada)

1966

  1. BLACK GIRL (Ousmane Sembène, France)
  2. TROUBLEMAKERS (Norman Fruchter & Robert Machover, USA)

1965

  1. NOT RECONCILED (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, West Germany)
  2. THE WAR GAME (Peter Watkins, UK)
  3. SIMON OF THE DESERT (Luis Buñuel, Mexico)
  4. THE KOUMIKO MYSTERY (Chris Marker, France)

1963

  1. PASAZERKA (Andrzej Munk, Poland)
  2. SUZANNE’S CAREER (Éric Rohmer, France)
  3. JOSEPH KILIAN (Pavel Juráček & Jan Schmidt, Czechoslovakia)

1962

  1. THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (Robert Bresson, France)
  2. ANTOINE AND COLETTE (François Truffaut, France)

1956

  1. NIGHT AND FOG (Alain Resnais, France)

1953

  1. STATUES ALSO DIE (Alain Resnais & Chris Marker & Ghislain Cloquet, France)

1936

  1. A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (Jean Renoir, France)

1933

ZERO FOR CONDUCT (Jean Vigo, France)

1927

  1. THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN (Germaine Dulac, France)

1925

  1. SEVEN CHANCES (Buster Keaton, USA)

1924

  1. SHERLOCK JR. (Buster Keaton, USA)
  2. MÉNILMONTANT (Dimitri Kirshoff, France)