Saturday, August 18, 2007


I'm not entirely sure why I originally booked tickets for Aria. By the time I went to see it last night, I'd completely forgotten what it was. In the interests of eliminating all preconceptions, I decided not to bother checking, and just showed up anyway.

It's billed in the Film Festival programme as an "Eccentric, beautiful road movie from Japan." I suspect that the oddball plot synopsis may have attracted my attention.

"Lonely piano tuner Ota," it begins, "befriends Kuzo, an elderly man who performs an unsettling stage act with a lifelike girl puppet. When Kuzo becomes gravely ill, Ota agrees to undertake a quest on his friend's behalf: to track down the lost but strangely significant piano that once belonged to the puppeteer's late wife. But who is the beautiful young woman who insists on coming along for the ride? Is she really Kuzo's daughter? Or could she be his performing partner come to life...?"

Reading this, as I recall, I was anticipating something endearingly quirky. And that's kind of what it is. But I should have been tipped off by another line in the programme listing: " particularly urgent need to explain its own mysteries..." If I'd remembered that line, then my alarm bells would have started ringing when the director stood up before the screening and informed us that the film was quite slow.

And yes, it's that most intimidating of arthouse sub-genres: the elliptical Japanese fable that Will Not Be Rushed. I've stumbled into a couple of these before, and frankly, I find them a bit wearing. I seem to remember a thoroughly incomprehensible film from a few years back which consisted mainly of a policeman looking at a misshapen tree.

This is... somewhat more comprehensible. It does have a plot. Ota's wife has died and he's very sad. She asked for her ashes to be scattered on a beach, but since she only identified the beach by a photograph facing the sea, and all beaches look much pretty much alike from that angle, he's had some difficulty carrying it out. He ends up on a road trip trying to find the aforesaid piano as a tribute to the late Kuzo, accompanied by Kuzo's apprentice and a woman who claims to be Kuzo's daughter. The suggestion in the official plot synopsis that she might in fact be the doll come to life completely flew over my head when I watched the film, although I'm not altogether sure that it would have transformed my understanding of the story. ("Aria", by the way, is the name of the doll.)

They go looking for the piano (eventually), and they find it, in a resolution that is more poetic than logical. Somehow or other this seems to symbolically resolve all the other plot threads as well. In more conventional road-trip fashion, Ota starts off withdrawn and hostile, and ends up being slightly reconciled to his travelling companions. So there's kind of an emotional turning point there.

Now, I'll give it this. It's beautifully shot. It's got a curious sort of dream logic to it, which allows it to pull off a finale that by all rational standards shouldn't work at all. There's something rather timeless about it, with anything invented in recent decades studiously eliminated from shot. And there are indeed gently amusing moments.

But I suspect a lot of the subtle details are lost in cultural translation. Extended sequences of characters wandering around remote temples leave me strongly suspecting that if I was Japanese, I'd probably have a much clearer idea of the connotations that the director was aiming for.

And dear god, it's slow. It's so slow. They don't even get around to looking for the piano until about halfway through the running time - and it's only 100 minutes long. I mean, I'm trying my hardest here to avoid using words like "mindbendingly dull", but it really is glacial, and it stretched my patience almost to breaking point. With the best will in the world, the vast majority of cinemagoers will find this film oppressively tedious. Even for the tiny minority who have the patience for this kind of thing, I'm not sure that it's sufficiently rewarding to justify the endurance test.

In the admittedly unlikely event that you ever see it playing near you, give it a miss unless you're a very, very hardcore cinephile.