Masakazu Sugita's debut feature Joy of Man's Desiring takes a surprisingly low-key and intimate look at a huge event that nonetheless gives some indication of the vast implications it can have on people. In this case the event is one that is of considerable concern and the experience of many people living in Japan; the impact of an earthquake. It's an experience that the director has experienced himself as a survivor of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, and the film's power lies in how it views this life-changing event from the perspective of two very young children.
Haruna and Shoto are survivors of an earthquake that destroys their home and kills their parents. Haruna is old enough to be aware of the horror of what she has witnessed, but Shoto is too young to understand what has happened or why they are now being looked after and brought up by relatives. It's not just the two children who find it difficult to cope with the change in their circumstances. Their aunt, uncle, young cousin and grandfather who they share a home with are taking on more than just the responsibility of bringing up the children now that their parents are dead; they will have to help them deal with loss, with trauma and give them the time they need to adjust to a new life.
The childlike perspective on children having to cope with adult problems is very much in Hirokazu Kore-eda territory, but first time director Masakazu Sugita adopts a more naturalistic approach in Joy of Man's Desiring, particularly in relation to narrative. He allows the subject to dictate the pace of the film, the underlying tragedy of the earthquake and the devastation it causes rarely being specifically referred to, yet remaining always there in the background. You can feel its presence bearing down on the children as they attempt to move on with their lives, unable to comprehend the nature of what has occurred or know how they are supposed to behave in reaction to it. It's slow cinema, but for the reason that these things take time.
The simplicity of the film and the manner in which it treats its subject also takes it far beyond being merely a film about surviving in the aftermath of an earthquake. In Haruna and Shota we can recognise the same kind of difficulties, losses, secret sadnesses and unknown pain that most of us carry around with them and have to learn to live with. Find a way to relate to the world, to take pleasure in it again can sometimes seem impossible with the enormity of hidden dramas that no-one really knows about. It's the wide openness and raw honesty of the director's approach that provides the room, the time and the means to reflect and consider how sometimes we can all need a little help and understanding.
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