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Enough miracles to hold us until the Second Coming
Written and directed by Satoko Yokohama in her second feature, Bare Essence of Life is the story of 25-year-old Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama), a farmer in the rural village in the Aomori prefecture on the island of Honshu. Yojin is different, very different. Prone to strange outbursts, throwing things, repeating words and phrases, and wildly disconnected thoughts, something has gone wrong in his wiring. Combining black comedy with fantasy and a little romance and drama thrown in to stir the pot, Bare Essence (in its literal translation (Ultra-Miracle Love Story) carves out a niche all of its own and shows enough raw talent to warrant a close watch of this director. This goofy but often brilliant film had many in the Vancouver Film Festival audience scratching their heads in disbelief and some heading for the exits, but most seemed to be having a good time.
As the film opens, Yojin wakes up to the ring of half a dozen alarm clocks, glances at the white board in his room where he records his daily schedule, then ventures out to begin his day helping his grandmother (Misako Watanabe) grow and sell products from her organic vegetable garden. Though often with poor results, the boy follows instructions from a tape left him by his deceased grandfather (no mention is made about his parents). Life is uneventful, however, until Machiko (Kumiko Aso), a new teacher, arrives from Tokyo to teach nursery school. We soon learn that the attractive teacher has come to this rural area to forget the death of her boyfriend Kanaké in a car accident in which he was driving with another lover. The story is that his head was severed and landed somewhere on a roof and Machiko consults the local medium to see if there has been any word from his spirit.
Yojin is immediately drawn to Machiko and wants desperately for her to like him but quite naturally, she is a bit frightened by him, especially when he tries to pull her out of her classroom through an open window. He loves the children, however, (all non-professional actors recruited from the local school), and they respond to him as well. One day, while playing with a young boy in his garden, he discovers that being sprayed with pesticide makes him calm and his mind clear. This also makes him more appealing to Machiko so he continues to spray himself with pesticide, ignorant of the potential consequences to his health. Though Yojin's outbursts are definitely off-putting, Matsuyama is an outstanding actor who makes the oddball character sensitive and appealing.
As the relationship between Yojin and Machiko progresses, we also hear ideas about the state of humanity's evolution, our ties to nature, and the health hazards of the spraying of pesticides on our crops. Yokohama has said in an interview that she wanted to create a film in which people were liberated from the conventions society imposes since too many people hold themselves together at the expense of expressing their vitality and freedom. To that end, she has endowed her film with a free-spirited exuberance and enough miracles and surprises to hold us until the Second Coming. If she believes that people will only continue to evolve when they are free, open, and stimulated, Bare Essence of Life may point the way to a new beginning.
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