“They Say Nothing Stays the Same” is a melodramatic, stately and beautiful Japanese period piece.
A sedate and painterly parable about “progress,” it unfolds as a dreamy fantasy about a ferryman rowing villagers back and forth across a river in a place that hasn’t yet met the automobile, but where a bridge is under construction to make life more “convenient” to everyone but Toichi, the solitary boatman.
Akira Emoto plays the stoic 70ish Toichi, an old man who remembers (in Japanese with English subtitles) it took “three days to learn the oar, but three years” to master the oar-pole that he uses to work his tiny flat-bottom boat back and forth across the river.
Some trips he overhears gossip, others he indulges passengers who want to make small talk. But many of the folks he rows from the riverside near the village to the rocky shore where his pauper’s shack lies on the way to “town” are old acquaintances, or even friends.
His antic, chatterbox younger pal Genzo (Nijirô Murakami) brings him potatoes, shares his simple meals of fish and vegetables and frets over his friend’s fate with this bridge being built just downstream.
“That bridge will be bad for you,” he tells Toichi, who already knows the obvious. “Let’s destroy the bridge before it’s done!”
In darker moments, when he’s been taunted by loutish bridge-building workers who still need his boat to get to town, Toichi fantasizes taking Genzo up on his offer and joining him for a little destruction and wanton slaughter.
Other friends are more philosophical in their worry for the very old man who doesn’t have any other means of support in what looks to be 1910s-early 20s Japan.
Toichi contemplates the water-striders, tries to ignore the “noise” of the distant construction and carries on — rowing a hunter friend, an inquisitive old woman, a local doctor, men trying to get their prized bull to market and a band and acting troupe on tour.
“A bridge will be more convenient” even the most tactful say. “Useless things disappear” the workmen joke.
And then Toichi finds a girl’s body floating in the dark and “They Say Nothing Stays the Same” (“Aru Sendo No Hanashi”) takes a turn towards melodrama and fantasy.
The melodrama comes from the fact that this injured teen isn’t dead, and Toichi nurses her back to life, with only Genzo in on their secret. And fantasy enters the story in a ghostly apparition Toichi starts seeing, a child in white rags haunting his thoughts and making him fret even more about his life, his past and his and the girl’s uncertain futures.
Actor-turned-director Joe Odagiri (“Adrift in Tokyo”) keeps the pace slow, serene and meditative. He finds his movie in the details of such a man’s life — the ritualistic way Toichi splashes water on the old wooden boat each morning to keep the planks from drying out, warping and leaking, the twig he picks up to brush his teeth in the river, the simple stick-down-the-throat manner he roasts his fish.
Each boat ride is an idyll, the conversations one-sided and spare, the suggestions of what brought Toichi here and what keeps him here oblique.
The impatient “town” folk and bridge builders might bark at him as they fling coins into the boat as payment, but we never see him spending any of that. The film limits its story to life by and on the water, to brides or children crossing with him and an old friend making one last journey to fulfill a post-mortem wish.
Odagari, an actor and musician who made his writing/directing debut with this feature, goes for a mournful mood here and somewhat undercuts that with a more violent and melodramatic third act. But even then, Christopher Doyle’s camera lingers on the snow of winter and Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan’s plaintive score underlines the tone that even the most jarring incidents can’t disturb.
They make “They Say Nothing Stays the Same” much more than a “stop and smell the chrysanthemums” homily, an immersive movie with a timelessness that makes up for any diversions the director dreams up for this ferryman on his last journeys.
Rating: unrated, bloody violence
Cast: Akira Emoto, Nijirô Murakami and Ririka Kawashima
Credits: Scripted and directed by Joe Odagiri. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 2:17