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Aria (2007)
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by Mel Valentin

"If you're a fan of Yasujiro Ozu's work, you'll like Aria."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Japanese filmmaker and Hokkaido native Takushi Tsubokawa took ten years to complete his first feature-length film, "Clouds of Yesterday" (before that, Tsubokawa made a silent short, "Tricycles of December"). "Clouds of Yesterday" went on to win both the Grand Prix and Audience awards at the Turn Film Festival in 2005. Less than two years later, Tsubokawa is back on the festival circuit with his second film, "Aria," a character study that explores the grief recovery through the elliptical prism common to arthouse films. With an eye toward observation, "Aria" unfolds slowly over its 104-minute running time. Incident and plot points are few and far between, but "Aria" has more than a few rewards for fans of arthouse cinema and Japanese films.

A widower, Ota (Masayuki Shionoya) ekes out a living as a piano tuner. Ota is haunted by his inability to fulfill one of his wife's last instructions, to scatter her ashes on a remote beach. Ota refused to look at a photo of the beach or learn the beach's location. Now, all Ota has is a sepia-toned photo of the beach and the crushing burden of grief and guilt. When he's not tuning pianos and engaging in superficial conversations with his clients, Ota watches an antique/repair shop owned by his friend Kojima. One day, an eccentric puppeteer, Kuzo, appears at the door, asking for Ota's friend, the shop owner. The puppeteer drops off his prize possession, Miss Aria, an eerily lifelike doll he uses in his act, for repairs with Kojima. Later, Kuzo's apprentice, Senju, appears to pick up Miss Aria.

Ota and Kojima attend one of Kuzo's performances. Kuzo collapses during the performance. Ota visits him in the hospital and the men strike up a tentative friendship. As it turns out, Kuzo also lost his wife at an early age and he still mourns for her. Kuzo's wife played the piano during his performances. Kuzo asks Ota to look for the piano he and his wife used during the performances. The piano is long gone, though, and Ota doesn't feel a sense of urgency to discover its whereabouts until Kuzo dies. At Kojima's suggestion, Ota decides to track down the piano. Senju volunteers to drive Ota to its last known location in Hokkaido. Before they can leave, however, a mysterious young woman, Kako (Mariko Takahashi) arrives at Kojima's shop. Kako claims she's Kuzo's long-lost daughter. She also wants to join Ota and Senju on their search for the piano.

At that point, Aria switches from character study to road movie. Ota gradually comes alive as he interacts with Senju, who whimsically adopts a Chaplinesque mustache, and the short-on-words Kako. On a nearly abandoned road, they encounter an eccentric innkeeper who once owned the piano (he's helpful with maps too), an elderly hitchhiker prone to non-sequitars and performing a song about the sea, and a religious procession making their way to a Shinto shrine. When the elderly hitchhiker disappears, leaving only her scarf behind, Kako spontaneously decides to adorn a fox statue with the scarf. Aria slips increasingly into metaphorical and narrative ambiguity. Kako's presence gradually revitalizes the uncomfortably numb Ota, but the question about her identity, real, imagined (unlikely), or supernatural (possible), remains unanswered. Whatever she is, Kako functions as a catalyst character for Otaís emotional and spiritual recovery.

Tsubokawa complements his slow-building, elliptical approach to storytelling with an equally minimalist filmmaking style. Tsubokawa relies primarily on static shots, often at a remove, with minimal cutting between shots, eschewing the far more common master shot, shot, reverse-shot style that filmgoers have seen countless times in Hollywood films. Taking his cue from Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (Drifting Weeds, Early Spring, Tokyo Story), Tsubokawa often shoots straight on from a low angle and doesnít ďcutĒ in to show the characters reactions. Paradoxically, that keeps us at armís length, but given its rarity, it also forces us to engage the characters at a deeper, more personal level, where every nuance of language, movement, and mise-en-scene (placement of objects within the frame), gain increased, heightened importance.

Thatís not to say "Aria" is for everyone. It isnít. With a slow-moving storyline that emphasizes character over incident (e.g., the puppeteer doesnít die until forty minutes in, the characters donít begin their quest until the fifty-minute mark) and a filmmaking style to match, "Aria" will probably alienate some moviegoers and bore others unfamiliar or uninterested in arthouse cinema. The small subset of moviegoers who are, however, interested in less familiar approaches to exploring character through film, should make a concerted effort to find [i]Aria[/i] and give it a try (a difficult proposition since "Aria" doesn't have a stateside distributor).

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originally posted: 05/06/07 06:38:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2007 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

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