The first feature from director Satoko Yokohama, Bare Essence of Life finds at its centre Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama), a young man who lives in a small town in the north of Japan and helps his grandmother grow and sell vegetables. Somewhat mentally disabled, Yojin is a free spirit, only partially independent and prone to flights of fantasy. One day, young kindergarten teacher Machiko (Kumiko Aso) moves to the town from Tokyo to escape the memories of her dead boyfriend. She catches Yojin's eye, and through an odd event, he finds a way to control his impulses and forge a connection to her. But his choice may have surprising results.
Kenichi Matsuyama, who is also at the festival this year in Kamui, and who I saw last year in Detroit Metal City, is a versatile actor who brings both comedy and drama to the role of Yojin. It's always difficult playing a character that is mentally challenged without resorting to a series of tics or over-the-top antics, but Matusyama does a good job of it. While the story can be somewhat surreal in places, it never strays far from the core story of a young man who can't help but affect those around him and who helps Machiko to move past the tragedies in her life. Bare Essence of Life is a quite competent feature directorial and writing debut by Satoko Yokohama.
Yokohama did a Q&A after the screening:
- Yokohama was born and raised in the Aomori prefecture where the film is set. Aomori is the northernmost prefecture on the island of Honshu.
- One of the houses in the film is actually Yokohama's grandmother's house.
- She doesn't think it's just Japanese people, but maybe many people around the world struggle with holding themselves in, and having to endure the social repression they live in. She wanted to create a film where people were completely freed from that, that they were liberated from having to hold anything in, where they could be free and open.
- She was aware of the fact that we're all different in form and shape and that you don't agree with or deny the difference, it's about holding it or acknowledging it and there can be friction there.
- Everyone has a different idea of what the bare essence of life is to them, but for her, she always wants to be living in a way where she is thinking what is it that she needs, what is that she wants most now.
- The biggest influence on her is manga author Kazuo Umezu. She remembers hearing a discussion with him in which he was asked what horror was, and his comment was that modern people don't fear anymore or live in a state of fear in many countries, so they aren't stimulated and aren't using their heads in the way they used to. Without that kind of stimulation, people will not continue to evolve. That theme was very much at the base of what she made.
- Kenichi Matsuyama was 23 when he shot this film. He had already been featured in such films as L: Change the World and Detroit Metal City as lead characters. In both of those cases he played a very enigmatic, powerful character, whereas in this one he plays an ordinary man, so she wasn't sure how he would go about doing that. She looked forward to working with him, but she was kind of unsure or frightened about if it would work or not. In the end, she found he was incredibly sensitive, honest, straightforward, really just an easy person to work with. She didn't need to do a lot with him, he just seemed to take on the role and become that himself. He's a quite amazing actor and looks forward where his career goes from here.
- None of the people in the film are friends from the time she lived in Aomori. Kenichi Matsuyama was born and raised in Aomori. The children in the kindergarten were not professional actors and did not having previous acting experience. They just collected up local children through an audition. One local actor was the woman who had a vegetable fight with Yojin.
- That's not a real brain at the end of the film. It was made with a kind of pudding and gelatin, molded into the shape of a brain, and bears love sweet things like that.