It is always a joyful event whenever a new film by director Shûichi Okita is released; you can count on it, you know you will get a gift of beauty and laugh. His latest work, “Mori, the Artist’s Habitat” is no exception. Based on a day in the real life of the eccentric artist Kumagai Morikazu, the film is a loving portrait of a content man.
It’s a summer day of 1974 and 94-year old artist Morikazu Kumagai (Tsutomu Yamazaki) lives with his wife Hideko (Kirin Kiki) and jolly housemaid Mie-chan (Nobuke Iketani) in an old-fashion house in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, surrounded by a lush and rather overgrown garden. He is well known for his reclusive life – not having left the house for decades – and for his routine explorations of nature in the yard. Every day after breakfast, he gets ready to leave the house and heads for one of the many observation spots scattered between trees and bushes. It may be only few meters away from the front porch but he takes it as seriously as a proper hike. Once settled, he observes for hours the life of insects and little animals that populate the garden or even just a stone. Around this slow-moving man the word is buzzing with life; ants, dragonflies and goldfish but also a plethora of kooky characters that come and go all day visiting the artist, some hoping to get a little sketch done, some simply enjoying the amicable atmosphere and some others just to use the toilet. The doors of the house are open and Hideko and Mie-chan are restless with the guests and the daily chores.
Among the visitors of this day in Mori’s life, there is a man who tries to obtain a nameplate for his inn painted by the master, hoping it would improve his business, and a dedicated photographer (Ryo Kase) who visits the artist every day, with a clumsy assistant. He is particularly fascinated by the artist’s routine and he has sketched a detailed map of all his favourite spots to sit and observe.
Some affectionate neighbours join them at noon. They bring some leftover curry, but Hideko and Mie-chan were already cooking some udon noodles so they resolve mixing them all up – an unusual combo – and eating lunch together. In a sweet and funny scene, the artist struggles with the slippery noodles and solemnly pronounces one of his few lines in the movie: “Do not mix curry with noodle”. (Maybe a little homage to Tsutomu Yamazaki’s famous character, the noodle-savvy lorry driver in “Tampopo”?)
Later in the afternoon, two gangster-like property developers stop by; they are building a condo next door that after completion will leave the garden in the shade and they are disappointed with the protest the artist’s fans have organized. Nevertheless, the initial commotion will boil down to a big and loud dinner with the whole bunch of builders.
Okita once again is observing his characters moving in the Petri dish of their own environment, small communities, small teams or small spaces. Here we never see the painter painting but just inhabiting happily his microcosm. Beyond the easy moral of finding hidden treasures in simple things, the film is a wonderful waltz of alternate perspectives and proportions. Morizaki’s garden looks like a forest from within, but it is actually just an ordinary house garden when you see it from outside. The artist is a giant while observing the busy ants but from the roof of the condo next door, Hideko and Morizaki look like two little ants themselves; when Emperor Showa sees one of his work, he asks the age of the child who painted it and that is the film introduction to the 94 year old painter. Moreover, the endless observations and immense knowledge of details result in pure essence of shapes and colors in the artist’s wonderful work of subtraction. Big or small? Old or young? Complex or simple? Truth is in the pleasantly confused eye of the beholder!
My being biased in favour of Okita makes it difficult to find major faults in this film; surely it’s a slow-paced movie with several documentary-style shots of nature and little animals and therefore not everybody’s “cup of tea”. It is not a plot-driven film of course and slower and less openly funny than his previous “Mohican Comes Home”.
Okita’s portrait of the artist is spot-on accurate (with the added plus of the director’s usual quirky touches), and reveals a meticulous research on essays and old photographs, some of them faithfully reproduced in scenes of the movie. Tsutomu Yamazaki is a great actor and infuses the character with subtle comedy to the point of perfection; in his silences and comic timing, in his garden-gnome poses and also in his funny absorption when eating challenging food (the breakfast scene is hilarious). The gran dame of Japanese cinema Kirin Kiki is a terrific support and their exchanges fluctuate from deadpan funny to surreal, to very sweet.
Not last, one more reason to love this film is also the exceptional occasion to be introduced to a little-known-abroad artist who has managed to blend tradition and innovation and whose incredible modernity of style stems from a transcendent knowledge of reality.