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Young Critics Workshop – Adjusting to Nature’s Rhythm in Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water

Still The Water (Naomi Kawase, 2014)

Part of growing up is about learning how to deal with complex themes such as love and death, about adjusting to your surroundings, and above all about accepting that things don’t always go how you would like them to. In Still the Water, we follow the young protagonist Kaito and the girl Kyoko in their coming of age.

The starting point is Kaito finding a dead body washed up on the shore. Overwhelming as such an experience can be, he starts questioning his position in this world, and his relationships with the people surrounding him. Like Kyoko for example, who can’t help but feel rejected as she tries to develop her relationship with him. The question of man’s position in nature is a strong theme in the film, which is also suggested by the visual motif of the grand and raw wilderness. The sea is wild and a storm threatens the island they live on. Perhaps this serves as a metaphor for Kaito’s turbulent state of mind. The message seems clear: don’t resist the nature of things.

A particular scene that illustrates the idea of finding natural harmony shows Kyoko’s ill mother coming home from the hospital to lie down on her deathbed. Kyoko gathers with family and friends and they start to sing moving, traditional songs, which helps to cope with saying goodbye. The mother seems to be at ease as she accepts her fate, while her young daughter observes. It’s a strong and uplifting ritual, which won’t leave the viewer untouched.

On the other end, Kaito is seeking distance from his mother. It seems he still didn’t forgive her separating from his father, who now lives in Tokyo. Kaito literally shuts himself off from her and fails to communicate, which results in an inner struggle. At some point, Kaito does find ways to express himself and say what is on his mind, but only after his frustration reaches its peak when he finds out his mother had something to do with the dead body. After his inner storm has passed, he is able to connect to his surroundings again. Not only to his mother, but also to Kyoko, who couldn’t understand why he acted so distant all this time.

Stunning as the images of nature might be, the slow sequences and long silences result in a lingering narrative at times. This is the case specifically in the first half of the film as it takes some time to get into gear. The style changes throughout the film. At first the handheld aesthetic is very explicit and almost dizzying. Later the images find more calm and steady ground, which suggests a parallel in the character development of Kaito.

Still the Water is an intimate and sentimental portrait of rural Japanese culture, touching by its authentic, modest feel, and beautiful ritual music. At the same time its themes are universal. People everywhere are trying to find their place in this world, each in their own way. Be it under the neon lights of metropolitan Tokyo, or like Kaito, in reconnecting with nature.