Directed by Hiroki Ryuichi

Drama, 89′

Two parallel journeys of overcoming personal sorrows is what one can find in Hiroki Ryuichi‘s ‘River’. Originally planned as an exploration of a 2008 incident of mass killings in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, the film – amended after the tsunami disaster of 2011 – introduces themes of national, as well as personal calamities.

It is slow-paced and intimately poetic, just like a river, with a pool of characters that complement and push each other to re-evaluate memories and ultimately be able to move on.

After her boyfriend Kenji is murdered in the shopping area of Tokyo by a man who drove a rented truck into a crowd of people, Hikari continues to revisit the place of tragedy. It is there she is encountered by a photographer, taken by her pensive woeful expression.

‘So uncomfortable, yet more at home than anyone else’ is exactly how Hikari‘s presence can be described, and as her strolls through the crowded streets of Akihabara bring her to a series of unusual characters, she becomes compelled to explore her grief and come to terms with the loss of a beloved one without becoming defined by it.

Among those curious encounters are a troubled young man, a female musician, a suspicious  business-owner, and finally Yuji who is suffering through his own personal drama. Director Hiroki juxtaposes Hikari and Yoji‘s lengthy walks and thus the misfortunes that have befallen them: the girl contemplating the loss of her boyfriend by the hand of another man through the crowded streets of Tokyo; and the boy coming to terms with the probable fate of his distant family as a result of an act of God.

Through this comparison, Hiroki skilfully emphasises the powerlessness of humans in the face of disasters, whether ones brought on by people or nature itself.

From its opening lingering close-up of Hikari‘s saddened face to the long walk among the throngs in the shopping district, the director sets the pace, tone and feeling of his film. There is no spectacular grandeur, no impressive majesty – this is a simple and beautifully tragic journey of a soul towards its healing. None of the other aspects of Hikari‘s life come into focus, as they bear little importance.

It is her journey back to the place of grief and her inability to let go which is significant, so is her interaction with others. Conversation is the catalyst of self-examination, when one has to face their demons, and Hikari finds herself finally able to speak out the words she has so been dreading and they come with little ease after a long time of soul torment.

With a combination of dynamic hand-held camera shots and long lingering close-ups of Hikari‘s vulnerability, Hiroki Ryuichi tells a straight-forward story about the healing of the human soul and the journey of moving on from tragedy.

By following two separate personal dramas, ‘River’ mixes the intimate with the socially and nationally significant and reflects the impact of contemporary adversities on Japanese society and psyche. And just like the river flows in a direction defined by greater forces, the lives of his characters aimlessly run their course until they meet a boulder and are forced into an introspective study of the self, coming out of the darkness and opening their eyes to the simple beauty of the pansies.

Review by Antoniya Petkova