The Inland Sea Documentary Review

This is a review of the 2018 Japanese documentary Inland Sea, directed by Kazuhiro Soda.

I know how to fish, but not farm.

I descend from a long line of farmers, those that toiled under the hot Southern sun. The lands belonged to their fathers, and their father’s fathers, and so on and so forth. A paper trail that extends through the centuries, even if we have been here since the beginning of time.

My grandfather was the last farmer in my immediate family, owning and working the land up until he died. My grandmother, knew how to make anything grow. Each summer I would go visit her in her adopted home of New Mexico. Under the shadows of ancient mountains, tomatoes grew red and plump and ripe. She used whatever visitors had left behind to birth the garden. The tomato plant spines were never as daintily made as those hybrids found in the store, but they sure tasted better.

I’ve never had fruit like that since.

Out of my grandparent’s nine children, no one took over the occupation of farming. Or carpentry. Or butchery. Sure, I have cousins descended from my grandmother’s siblings who do these things. They can fix cracked steps or put up a drywall, but that’s the extent of it. They aren’t building homes for their loved ones, as my great grandfather did for my great grandmother.

Carpenters make no real money nowadays. And farming is slowly becoming a lost art.

The remnants of knowledge still remain within them though, even if just orally. They have the ability to point a birch tree out in a forest, or know the difference between all of the white and black oak species. I would have to log onto Reddit for that knowledge. Even then, I couldn’t fully trust it – there are always trolls abound.

We’ve been on these lands since the beginning of time. Our location, language, and looks might have changed, but our core identity has not. As peoples of this land, the oral knowledge and traditions practiced for thousands of years before have been lost in the span of 60, 70, 80 years. The older generation is gone, and their knowledge of the land with it. That is very difficult to get back.

So with this in mind, to say that Inland Sea hit me like a ton of bricks would be an understatement. I’ve sat in a state of solemn meditation four days now, trying to process it all. Trying to formulate. Articulate. Attempting to spread pretty words across your computer screen.

In the end, it seems I have failed.

Inland Sea is not a documentary that leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling after your initial viewing. You feel pain, and a deep seated sadness as a witness to this loss of life. Loss of vitality in a once booming community.

In this film, Kazuhiro Soda takes us on a journey through the remnants of a collapsing ecosystem. The seas below the town lay home to fish, once abundant with variety and including the highly prized sea cucumber. The assortment of marine life sustained the community, and employed its proud fishermen.

Today, the forgotten dynasty lies within the wrinkles etched on Mr. Murata’s face. An old man inching closer to ninety, still going out on his boat alone at night. The hauls just aren’t what they used to be. He can no longer make ends meet. Having only a daughter, she has been successful in life. Mr. Murata nonchalantly mentions she has made three times the amount of money that her father had seen in his lifetime. There is no bitterness in his voice, only the repeated phrase that things are now backwards.

Back in those days, the nets were cheap and the fish sold expensive. Now, the equipment is too expensive for the cheap yields of fish available at the supermarkets.

What is the point anymore?

The Famous Mr. Murata, affectionately known as 'Wai-chan'. Taken from Inland Sea (2018)
The Famous Mr. Murata, affectionately known as ‘Wai-chan’. Taken from Inland Sea (2018)

Mr. Murata threatens to retire, but is back on the waters the following day.

Doing what he has always done, despite the changing world outside of his insulated alcove.

Then there is diligent Mrs. Koso, co-owner of a fish shop with her husband. When asked how long she had this particular profession, she pauses – before reciting that it had been nearly half a century. The marker was her marriage date.

Back in those days, the demand was high. The nets were cheap and the fish sold expensively.

Now she drives through the streets to her long-time clientele, too feeble from age to stop by themselves. Mrs. Koso even purchases fish from Mr. Murata’s auction lot. One day remarking she wished he came by the day before when she needed a particular species.

They sustain one another, two pieces still afloat in a dying ecosystem.

I believe Ms. Komiyama annoyed me the most. So much so that when this old woman appeared on screen I had visibly adverse bodily reactions to her likeness on screen. Why was she there? Is she the town gossip?

In each sequence I watched this woman insert herself into the situation at hand, before trying to divert the attention elsewhere. I thought it was selfish – you’ve had your screen time, why do you keep showing up?

Why don’t you ever go home?

And as I kept watching, I received my answers.

The Famous Ms. Komiyama, Inland Sea (2018)
The Famous Ms. Komiyama, Inland Sea (2018)

Ms. Komiyama is lonely. Extremely so.

In ways fully beyond my comprehension, her disabled child was recently taken from her. She no longer finds a need to live. She was adopted, considering her family foreign and alien to her. Or maybe herself alien to society, wondering if she was really Japanese.

Ms. Komiyama was also “abandoned” at the age of four, a number symbolic of death in Japanese culture. Maybe Ms. Komiyama attributed this occurrence a marker, a force that sullied her life. Suddenly, her declaration of praying to the Bodhisattva each day didn’t seem so odd. Her jealousy of the other elderly residents who had lots of children in their old age, surrounded by family. Her declaration of “hating Wai-chan” (Mr. Murata) because of all the attention he received from wandering filmmakers.

Here Ms. Komiyama was, and they were collectively more focused on a man who couldn’t even hear anymore! What use is he, when she is able-bodied? She can walk, she can tell them the ever-changing history of buildings in their locality. Why wasn’t she being the focus of their narratives?

Ms. Komiyama desperately wanted that attention, that interest, that love – for herself. Desperately to be surrounded by those she can feel a kinship to. So she wanders, all day until she has to go back down the hill and return to her miserable home life.

Ms. Komiyama seeks to do kind things for others, subconsciously wanting to be remembered fondly when she dies. While going to bring dressed fish to the man on the bicycle with the dog named Bonta, she tells the crew (consisting of Soda and his wife Kashiwagi) the town of Ushimado’s history. The empty, exterior husks of once lively homes line the way.

“There are many abandoned houses. These are all empty. This one, and that one too. They’re abandoned. And that one is empty most of the time. This one’s empty too. There’re many around the bank too.”

“Why are they empty?”

“They all died.”

It’s as simple as that.

The Famous Cats of Ushimado, Inland Sea (2018)
The Famous Cats of Ushimado, Inland Sea (2018)

During the production of the documentary, you can notice a stark difference between how both Kashiwagi and Soda interact with subjects. Wanting further clarification for this observation, I found an interview that states the reason why. Kashiwagi’s mother grew up in Ushimado, and the married pair “…often visited (Kashiwagi) Kiyoko’s grandmother while she was still alive…”

This explains the odd occurrences of Soda chasing cats on film while Kashiwagi hangs back, talking to the villagers. Her grandmother probably knew these people. Kashiwagi probably passed them on the street as a girl. She is connected to them. And without this connection, their stories may not ever have been told. May never have been captured on film.

But then again, what is a story? What is the purpose of a film?

Because of my own reality I saw a cautionary tale. Against our disappearing root cultures for the semblance of modernity. I know it seems wordy, but stay with me.

What is popular culture?

To me, it consists of what is hot, trendy, and well – popular in the moment.

In an era of virality, overnight a nobody could become famous. If they are unwise, or present a different portrayal than expected – unlike that which shot them into our collective realities – they could fall from grace. They weren’t what people had hoped, and the general public is fickle. We all wash our hands of the nobody, who is now deemed a fraud.

In these constant trends, you either keep up or get shut out. Today this is a vast business, a livelihood where suits assemble around tables in stuffy boardrooms. Interns refresh and scour the internet for the next big thing. While everyone is so locked into the adrenaline of what will happen next, getting those addictive endorphins by the ping of a cell phone sending a new message – we forget about the past.

Who cares about some stuffy old fishing village that might not even have wifi? There are no internet cafes. You can’t go out on a group date there. You can’t play spot the foreigner downtown and then retreat to the net to talk about your perceived ‘chance’ encounter.

The food might not even be tasty.

Why would you want to be inland sea when you could be continental? Connected to the rest of the world?

How many once booming villages around the world have fallen victim to this phenomenon of ‘peak modernity’?

The closing shot of the film converts the outdated black and white overlay to color. Showing that this is a real place. Ushimado is in the present, even if their ways are stuck in the past. Or, maybe not stuck, but preserved and showcased as the films of antiquity once were.

In those last moments before the conversion, with the sun setting (or rising) over the town, I think of Ms. Komiyama one last time. I think of Ms. Muragimi, tending to graves. Even those not of her lineage. I think about the descendent of thirteen generations of Ushimado fishermen making the trek uphill to a small cemetery, cleaning and tending to the neglected grave stones.  

I think again of Ms. Komiyama, who passed in 2015, never seeing the premiere of this film.

100 years later, will elderly women still tend to the gravestones of the field? Will Ms. Komiyama be remembered, even if her stone falls or is misplaced? What would she have left behind, had not been for this documentary?

This film, depicting the seemingly mundane lives of an elderly population in Japan’s Okayama Prefecture.

Inland Sea will be available on Amazon, InDemand, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, and FANDANGO starting November 25th, 2019.

Please consider purchasing the film and experiencing the stories in this documentary for yourself. Help their stories live on, don’t let them fade into obscurity.

And don’t let the elders around you vanish from this world without first learning their stories. Without appreciating their histories, their lives, and those that came before.

Thank you to Rock Salt Releasing for the treat of viewing this film. It was truly something special!

☆ In Asian Spaces

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Author: In Asian Spaces

I write in my personal time and I haven't published much at all. I don't know if that qualifies me as a writer or not, but I'd like to change that. I have a deep passion for travel, cinema and (mainly) East Asian things, but I plan on writing various things to keep it spicy. Let's prosper together ~ よろしくおねがいします。

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