(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you walk into just about any screening of Naomi Kawase’s Vision about half an hour in, I guarantee you that a high percentage of the audience will be asleep, but they will be sleeping peacefully. No one shoots forests from above or rays of light that envelop tree trunks in a fleeting golden haze like Kawase. Usually, though, Kawase’s feast of gorgeous imagery feeds an intriguing story with quirky characters. Vision, however, is an eco-fable where the images are the story itself. It’s like a great episode of Wild Japan on the National Geographic channel with almost no animals.
There isn’t much plot, but what there is involves Jeanne (Juliette Binoche), a travel writer recovering from a tragedy that is alluded to but never completely spelled out, who goes to a Japanese forest to search for a magical herb called Vision that relieves pain. The herb comes from a plant that produces it only once in 1,000 years. In the forest, she meets Tomo (Masatoshi Nagase), a man who lives in the midst of nature. The taciturn Tomo becomes her lover and admits he is a refugee from urban life. He lives near and helps care for Aki (Mari Natsuki), a blind recluse given to interpretive dances in the woods and pronouncements such as “A thousand years ago, on the day the spores flew, I was born.”
A few other characters join them as they trudge the woods in earthtoned clothes, cook simple but delicious-looking meals, admire the beauty of the trees and speak to each other in deeply felt aphorisms. I could have quoted almost any line in the movie to give you the idea, but here are a few: “Sometimes because we understand language, we can’t understand each other;” “I don’t know if I can touch Vision. I don’t know its shape. I don’t know what it’s made of;” and “Love is like the waves. It never stops. It’s stillness and movement together.”
While the characters eat meat, hunters and developers are clearly shown as the enemy, which was reminiscent of Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor, about a middle-aged recluse living in a Polish forest who waged her own war against hunters.
Casting Juliette Binoche alongside Japanese actors will ensure that Vision is seen by a wide audience. Binoche is always watchable, and she tries hard to make this highly symbolic character human and down-to-earth. Masatoshi Nagase, who has starred in several of Kawase’s films, makes a strong impression with very few words and he turns Tomo into a believable figure.
Kawase has made films that mixed a feeling for nature with a compelling story, among them Sweet Bean (aka An), a movie about an elderly woman with Hansen’s disease, who was shunned by people as a leper all her life and was unable to have a family, who blossomed when she got a job at a pancake stall run by a man played by Nagase. Her previous film, Radiance, also starred Nagase as a photographer losing his sight and explored different ways of seeing.
People who love Vision will describe it as dreamlike, haunting, mythic and elegiac. There are magical moments that made me want to head for a Japanese forest as soon as possible: It really is that beautiful. However, if you are looking for something as pedestrian as a story or character development, you won’t find it here. The way to enjoy this film is to look at it like a museum exhibition of landscapes and just savor the beauty. It would certainly work as a midnight movie for stoned college students, but most audiences will get the same effect more quickly and enjoyably by thumbing through a book of photographs or woodcuts – or taking a walk in the woods.