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Written by Hayley Scanlon on 26 Sep 2012

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Saudade is one of those pesky words that’s so unique to a particular language that it’s extremely difficult to translate into another. The recent Portuguese film, Tabu, is almost a literal expression of 'saudade' itself but offers this brief explanation of it - that is a feeling of deep yearning or nostalgia for something that is past and can never be regained. Each of the residents in the small town of Kofu (which is in many ways a character itself) are all yearning for something themselves, whether it's a new life, opportunity or just a simple return to the promise of one’s youth. As the town’s prospects continue to decline, its residents continue to long for something different - some kind of progression to lift them out of the tedious downward spiral in which they feel themselves to be trapped.

Seiji works as a construction worker employed on temporary and project specific terms - when there is work going that is, something that’s becoming increasingly scarce. He’s married to a beautician whom he’s come to dislike due to her ambitions of climbing the social ladder and desire to start a family. He fantasises about running away with his Thai mistress and starting a new life with her in her home country. He’s joined by a new friend Hosaka who, coincidentally, has just returned from a long period of time living abroad in Thailand but seems to have his own problems and perhaps serious reasons for his traveling and subsequent return. The newest member of the construction crew is the reluctant Amano, a leader of right leaning hip-hop group, who has come to blame Japan’s immigrant population for his own inability to find work and ultimately progress in life. 

There are also, of course, the immigrant populations - the Brazilians who came to Japan on the promise of earnings ten times what they could earn in their home country to have found only poverty and discrimination. Many of them have decided to return home, others contemplate emigrating elsewhere - perhaps to the Philippines in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Others have been in Japan so long that although they are proud of their Brazilian heritage they barely remember their home country and feel they have nowhere to go besides Japan. They desperately try to walk the line between integration and embracing their own culture whilst trying to gain acceptance from the local population. That’s not to mention the Thais working as hostesses or dancers or elsewhere in the entertainment industries - accepted but perhaps only in that specific context.

In painting a portrait of his own hometown in this way, director Katsuya Tomita shows a side of Japan that is often absent from Western perceptions. The blue collar workers trying to keep pace with the economic downturn while old prejudices rear their ugly heads in defence. The fact that most of the actors in this film are non-professionals and residents of Kofu themselves gives the film a new weight; indeed the two main actors are friends of the director from childhood. Tomita spent a year researching his subject matter and many of these actors are simply repeating their former conversations in a new context for the camera. As the city crumbles and people pull away from each other in their search for something better the tensions of everyday life grow stronger and threaten to tip over into violent intensity.

The film, however, seeks to remind us that we are all the same. We all have "saudades" for one thing or another - something we strive to reattain even though we know it’s impossible. The immigrants yearn for home or for the acceptance they once felt, the Japanese for the prosperous Japan they grew up in and all the possibilities it afforded them in their youth. Seiji must know on one level that his dream of running away to Thailand with his girlfriend is an impossible fantasy which is completely unattainable yet he continues to long for it with varying degrees of intensity. Amano’s problems are perhaps more to do with his own circumstances than the political stance he gives them - longing to be ‘someone’... admired, respected and perhaps loved even if the reason for that acclaim is something abhorrent.

Tomita’s film is not without its faults. At 164 minutes it’s certainly a long film which, being an ensemble drama, perhaps lacks enough narrative focus to engage the majority of viewers. However, for those with long attention spans it excels at character detail and a truly authentic feeling in the depiction of the decaying Kofu. Not always an easy watch, and somewhat less cheerful than the output from Japan we’ve been seeing of late, Saudade is an interesting look at an aspect of Japan which often lies hidden.

Saudade screened as the closing film of the third Zipangu Fest at London's Cinema Museum on 16th September 2012.

An interesting look at a side of small town Japan we don't often see. Engaging, if a little on the long side.


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