Director: Souichi Takayama
“To destroy is to create. To create is to destroy.”
Such is the work of Seishi Kuniyoshi, master potter in the traditional folk art of Ryukyuan pottery – or, Yachimun – and the taciturn protagonist of director Soichi Takayama’s film of the same name. Set against the moody forests of the Yomitan mountains, Takayama’s film is crafted with the same patient, quiet deliberation as Kuniyoshi’s art. Anxious of small details but ambitious in intellect, its 14-minute runtime slowly uncovers a beguilingly mysterious elegy to an artist. Enacting the last days of Kuniyoshi’s life, Yachimun sculpts a tale of labour, loneliness, but ultimate transcendence.
If the core of Kuniyoshi’s craft is the uneasy alliance between creation and destruction, it is these two forces which permeate the film’s aesthetic vision. Creation is manifested in the dense jigsaw of the Okinawan forest, destruction in the hard crackle of fire. From the opening shot of the kiln in the jungle, the clashing greens and oranges flicker and obscure Kuniyoshi. The forest itself is a key player in the film. It is a place of calm but eerie potency. It is Kuniyoshi’s domain, even as it threatens to swallow him up. The fire, too, sets a hypnotic dance before the artist’s gaze. Even when the fire is not seen, the forest itself seems smothered in a perpetual smoke screen. At once foreshadowing Kuniyoshi’s demise, but also promising – in its rising wisps – his posthumous transience.
Like Kuniyoshi labouring over his art, this film takes its time. Even snakes move at a slow, unfurling glide. Trudging the forest floor for material, piling brick upon brick, staring into a hypnotic flame, the master potter’s days are bound by a dogged commitment to his craft – and a loneliness. A wailing, melancholic score cries out between troubled silences. Objects and people retreat into the distance. It is a distance which we are perpetually kept. Watching Kuniyoshi as a mere blip on the landscape, dwarfed by dizzying overhead shots, he is absorbed by the forest.
Particularly evocative is the image of Kuniyoshi curled in foetal silhouette, surrounded by a dark void. There is a haunting sense of the artist inhabiting a liminal space between life and death. He moves like a ghost through his landscape. Much of this is thanks to Jun Murakami’s performance, giving Kuniyoshi a haunting impenetrability. His Kuniyoshi is an unknowable figure; world-weary, tenacious, but ultimately distant. Disguised in reptilian sunglasses, he is as impermeable as his creations.
His only company appears in the the form of an unnamed young woman (Machiko Ono). Yet, whether she is real or merely an addled hallucination is one of the many questions left unanswered. Silence abounds. Dialogue is sparse. Like the young woman’s fervent plea of ‘where is your lust?’, met only with Kuniyoshi’s cold silence. Takayama’s film resists the personal at every turn, favouring the tonally sober, the emotionally distant.
This is not to say that Takayama’s study of Seishi Kuniyoshi lacks emotional depth. After all, it is dedicated to his memory. Rather, we are kept as a distance since his is an ‘inner fire’. Maddeningly elusive on camera, his passion is voiced through a pensive monologue. This voiceover, laid atop winding aerial shots of treetops, presents the meditations of the artist. It is this monologue which levels the film’s more abstract lens. From the dirt-under-its-fingernails reality, Kuniyoshi’s disembodied voice raises questions about the role of the artist and, quite literally, how one might become consumed by their craft. The transcendental power of art thrums with hope at the end of a weary life. The gleaming surfaces of vessels appear like celestial objects. The final dedication to the man himself plays as a posthumous testament to the incorporeal power of the artist.
His voice and his art, like vessels in a kiln, stubbornly endure the flame.