By Jonathon Norcross
“Inland Sea” is the seventh “observational film” by Kazuhiro Soda. It profiles the inhabitants of Ushimado, a decaying Japanese fishing village, as they cling to a way of life that is rapidly fading. One of the film’s primary subjects is Mr. Murata, popularly known as Wai-chan, an 86-year-old fisherman who wakes before dawn to reel in stonefish and filefish with nets he complains are too expensive, so he can then sell them at prices that are too low. His catch is sold at auction to a woman who delivers the fish door-to-door to whoever still lives in Ushimado, which seems to have a higher population of cats than humans. Wai-chan earns a meager profit, and one senses he is making just barely enough to live out his remaining years. He serves as our initial host as we enter a tiny corner of a world that seems like it should’ve stopped existing centuries ago.
Soda’s observational approach to documentary filmmaking is reminiscent in some ways of Frederick Wiseman’s work, but it possesses more spontaneity, as Soda is willing to be lured into uncharted territory by intriguing subjects who seem to float in and out of the film as they persist with their daily routines. In one instance, he briefly fixates on a man who bicycles around the village with a Shih Tzu named “Bonta” riding co-pilot. In another, he visits a young couple that cooks fish for a family of semi-domesticated cats. Then when a woman walks through one of his shots, Soda follows her to a dilapidated hilltop graveyard, where she tends to the burying grounds of long-forgotten ancestors.
Soda’s spontaneity allows for many striking improvised moments. However, the audience is often forced to infer many details concerning the film’s setting and characters. Bits and pieces of information fill in some gaps, such as when a fishmonger remarks that her business has suffered from an irregular sea current caused by global warming. But Soda has essentially dropped his audience into Ushimado and allowed them to experience it rather than have it explained to them. This is a style of documentary filmmaking that harkens back to earlier days of the craft, but it feels refreshing and almost revolutionary today.
Directed, shot, and edited by Soda, “Inland Sea” is undoubtedly the product of one man’s vision, but it suffers from the filmmaker’s compulsion to show the audience too much of the material he captured, rendering the film more of a fascinating historical document than a compelling narrative. The film could benefit from the addition of an editor who isn’t also the filmmaker, as there are excessively prolonged scenes— for example, the camera lingers on Wai-chan reeling in fish for far too long and a number of subjects recount stories that an audience will struggle to understand without context. However, much of the film’s editing is essentially done in-camera. Rather than utilize a more traditional editing approach, which could make a transition from one scene to another feel forced, Soda simply turns his camera from one subject to another and the film progresses organically.
Some will undoubtedly feel that the final scenes of the film, in which we hear an alarming but confusing (and perhaps not entirely believable) story, are unnecessary. But such is the risk of making an “observational” documentary. For every moment that lulls, there are many more moments that seem to jump out of nowhere and surprise you, like a caught fish trying to launch itself back into the sea.
“Inland Sea” premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. It was released on digital platforms November 25th.
Jonathon Norcross lives in New York City and is a co-host of The Post Cast.