Understated films where nothing happens are common in Japanese cinema. It makes sense for the country with an exceptionally low crime rate. Perhaps, by Japan’s standards, a lot happens in Call Me Chihiro by Rikiya Imaizumi, but I believe there is another reason.
If you track down the writers of Japanese films available on Netflix, you will find that, in most cases, they are based on comic books. Call Me Chihiro is no exception; it’s based on the series titled Chihiro by Hiroyuki Yasuda. Besides the convenience of not having to storyboard the script, there must be other influences or artifacts of the source medium.
Why would an artist draw or paint a picture instead of writing if she were capable of both? In other words, what would her choice be based on? The motivation cannot be the same. Let’s say you are on the beach, moved by the beauty of the sunset. You could write down the scene in detail on your phone, but you are more likely to take a photo instead. It’s not because you are lazy; you want to capture something particular about that scene. The same scene in the photo may evoke different emotions in different people, but at least they would be looking at the same scene.
In contrast, each reader will visualize the written description differently, and the emotions evoked by it will be further different. If the artistic substance you are trying to capture is in the particularity of the specular information, pictures are superior to words—hence a picture is worth a thousand words.
Words are superior if the beauty is in how the artist interprets the scene or what the visual information symbolizes for her. As Chekhov advised, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter, it absolutely must go off.” Within the scene of the sunset, there are countless details you can choose to describe. You choose specific details because they mean something to you. If the scene made you cry because it reminded you of what your friend said on his deathbed, a photo cannot capture the sentiment.
When we ask someone what happened, we are asking him to interpret what he experienced, to translate something in the imaginary register to the symbolic register. In this sense, even a description of the sunset is an event, what happened to him, not what it was, as a different person would choose to describe different aspects of the same scene. The choice represents an event. Without it, nothing can be said to have happened. An event in history is always necessarily subjective.
A picture allows artists to defer the interpretation or symbolization to the audience. There needs to be no event in it. Journalists’ photos supplement their stories, but photography as an art form stands on its own. What happened can be left to the audience to figure out.
When you make a film based on written words, you start with what has already been interpreted by the writer. In other words, you are working with what happened. Given that the vast majority of films are based on written novels or scripts, it’s only natural that we have come to expect something to happen. “What will happen?” becomes our preoccupation when viewing films, and if nothing does, we feel denied of something.
A comic book adds a time dimension to drawings by presenting them in sequence, but this does not necessitate an event to take place. Just like a single drawing, it can defer symbolization to the audience. Directors basing their films on comic books can choose to forgo interpretation as well, resulting in films where nothing happens, or something happens only in the audience’s mind. These films are described as “understated” because they don’t explicitly state anything.
Call Me Chihiro captures a series of unsymbolized moments. One of the characters, a high school girl, does exactly this in the film. She is drawn to Chihiro for reasons she cannot comprehend. The best she can do is secretly photograph her as if the photos can offer some explanations for her own feelings.
In a conventional story, we would expect the protagonist to take us through her inner journey culminating in profound transformation. In Call Me Chihiro, our protagonist is more like a “McGuffin” as coined by Hitchcock: “an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself.” What is more meaningful is the trace she leaves behind, that is, how she influences other characters. At times, the camera shifts focus to other characters, which feels like irrelevant digressions from a conventional filmmaker’s point of view.
Hollywood rarely explores visual storytelling of this kind, so the American audience may be disappointed by Call Me Chihiro, but it is only a matter of having the right expectations before pressing the play button. Your mind may habitually look for a plot, but I suggest you let it go. Like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre people-watching at Café de Flore, just sit back and enjoy the moments.
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