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.