Document type
16 March 2008
Format viewed

Faces of a Fig Tree

picture: Faces of a Fig Tree (2007)picture: Faces of a Fig Tree (2007)

Original title
Ichijiku no Kao
  • Kaori MOMOI
  • Hanako YAMADA
  • Saburo ISHIKURA
  • Katsumi TAKAHASHI
Running time
94 mins.

picture: Faces of a Fig Tree (2007)

Robin Gatto

Premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, Faces of a Fig Tree is Kaori Momoi's first feature film, in which the actress shows an inventive streak likely to baffle or enthrall. But the seasoned actress, whose diverse range of experiences includes collaborations with Art Theatre Guild and Akira Kurosawa, as well as Memoirs of a Geisha and Aleksandr Sokurov's The Sun, does not hide the fact that her intention was to rock the stereotypical world of filmmaking in Japan. It is interesting to note, in this regard, that the Ministry of Culture refused to fund the film.

"People either love or hate my film", said actress turned director Kaori Momoi at the Paris premiere of Faces of a Fig Tree, at the Kinotayo film festival. Without going to such extremes, the audience for Momoi's film will likely be wondering what to think of the film. The original title Ichijiku no Kao translates roughly as "Faces of Flowerless Fruit", according to the Chinese ideograms. The second title gives a better and fairer hint of the kind of film which Kaori Momoi seems to have wanted to make: as the fig is but a "false fruit" (it is in fact a hybrid, a "flower-fruit"), one may wonder whether Momoi's film is not actually a "false film". Although Momoi has acted her way through movies with such great masters of Japanese cinema, it seems that for her first great directorial effort, after helming episodes of TV series, she wanted to do away with the classic notions of filmmaking and opt for a purely avant-garde approach, more akin to the makings of younger directors like Takashi Miike (with whom she made Sukiyaki Western Django) or comic-turned-director Hitoshi Matsumoto (Dai Nipponjin).

"I have always been the protruding nail, the actress challenging directors about their way of making films. I know the rules but can't help turning them on their head". The vision of Faces of a Fig Tree is a testimony to Momoi's intentions: cinematic grammar and traditional storytelling are discarded in favour of jarring camerawork, with lots of eye-to-camera shots, and surreal narrative vignettes. The story is adapted from a series of short novels written by Momoi in her twenties, which she updated and condensed to obtain a viable screenplay. The central character, played by Momoi herself, is a fairly traditional okasan (a domestic mother-wife) striving to maintain a standard behaviour though faced with daily meaninglessness and ever-shifting social mores: while the husband is increasingly coarse in his demeanor and absent from home, the kids are now more concerned with themselves than with family life.

What seems to be a very classic storytelling pattern along the lines of the haha mono (mother film) or tsuma mono (wife movie) genres, turns in the hands of Momoi into a softly hallucinogenic experience where, unfortunately, the director's efforts to alter the rules of movie-making more often baffle than provoke. Momoi has stated that she wanted to make a film in which storytelling was less important than the actors and the characters. She justified her intentions by saying that very often in her career, she had felt like a mere toy in the hands of all powerful directors ; consequently, her first feature film experience should entail freedom of composition for her players. While the cast can be said to be very good overall - including Momoi herself -, the camerawork does seem, at times, to get in the way of their performances, of their expression - as if Momoi were struggling against her cast to make at all cost an original film which could have been original all the same - and even touching - without the compulsive stylistic endeavor.

Yet, the film does provide a few oddly moving moments, as when Momoi's character, in very long and more static sequence-shot, can be seen reacting to her sudden husband's death (shown sleeping the moment before) with ironic and funny detachment. "You're in the way, dear", she complains as she walks past her hubby's body. Another absurdly funny scene shows her, a few months later, working in a restaurant where a signs says "Talking is forbidden", as in a public library. It does appear nonetheless that such eating places exist in Japan: it is even said that some great noodle masters are so proud of their cooking that they forbid their clients to utter a word!

The artificial nature of the movie is best expressed in the photography which playfully blends studio-like lighting, replete with oranges and blues, with more subdued pictures. The home interiors, a blurring of theatricality and urbanity, were shot on a Nikkatsu studio lot, with colorful sets courtesy of the great Takeo Kimura (who designed countless Seijun Suzuki films, including Gate of Flesh). The fig tree reigns besides Momoi's domestic presence, a symbol of a hybrid life where the difficulty for beauty to flower in the face of modernity does not make existence a fruitless experience. Although the mother-daughter relationship is difficult (and not developed enough in the film), Kaori Momoi's character ends up resting in her daughter's baby's cradle. A beautiful picture in a film that, like the central fig tree, branches out into many promising directions without ever yielding the kind of fruit and savour one might expect.

Kaori Momoi Interview

picture: Kaori MomoiWhat are the origins of your film?

Faces of a Fig Tree is adapted from short novels that I wrote at the age of 27. The script is like a condensed version of those. I started writing short novels and essays professionally at the age of 22. I wrote a long novel 10 years ago, which was such a big failure that I decided to stick to short novels ! (Laughs) I wrote the script of the film in only one day; I sat down and wrote it all between 10 am and 5 pm. Everybody told me: "Wow, it must have been so tough for you !" But it was not that tough; neither was the shooting. In fact, editing the film must have been the hardest part for me.

Had you turned your hands to directing before?

Actually, yes. I had directed, among other things, episodes of TV series. But until the age of 50, my name was always hidden. In Japan, actors and actresses who turn to directing are ill seen. They're seen as overly presumptuous people. Especially women. They are even more harshly dealt with. So, given that I was already considered arrogant as an actress, I decided to keep my name out of credits when I started directing. Later, I said to a producer that I did not want to direct anymore, just write scripts in anonymity. But when I was offered the opportunity to direct my first feature, I jumped at the chance and decided to go all out.

You break the rules of filmmaking with great relish in your film. Is it someting you considered doing from long ago?

I had felt that, as an actress, I was always a toy in the hands of directors. Furthermore, the experience of acting always entails precise rules; very often, the director or his assistant will say: "Look to the right, to the left, look here, don't look into the camera, etc." I have been an actress for 37 years now and I have always wondered why it was impossible to look straight into the camera. Why does the eye of the actor always avoid the camera? Why not film reverse angle shots where actors look directly into the camera as if it were their counterpart? That is why I decided to do just that in my film. When you film in a traditional way, very often a seasoned audience can guess what the next shot will be. It's boring. I decided I did not want to use the old tricks of movie-making, which I know from acting. But since I did not want to upset the audience too much, I polished the lighting, colors and sets as much as possible. My cameraman was not too happy; he told me that my reverse angles were odd and incorrect, that the shots did not assemble well. But it felt normal to me since I did want to make something different and fresh. I felt like a beginner willing to shake everything up. One director criticized me for doing "forbidden things". But there are no taboos for me ; just rules to be broken. Also, I did not set out to make a "beautiful" or "decent" film. For me, filmmaking is but a means of achieving things that one cannot achieve with either literature or music.

What did you want to express through the character of this domestic mother and her strange mirror-like relationship with this fig-tree, which seems to yield nothing while watching over everyone?

I intentionally created a female character that is quite stereotypical. She belongs to the old Japan. When her husband comes back home, she welcomes him politely by saying "Okaeri nasai". She always waits for her husband before eating dinner. This kind of woman does not really exist anymore in Japan nowadays. The fig-tree is like the symbol of this wife, as a woman and mother. Also, this woman's memories are linked to this tree, it is like her mirror. I wanted to express through this the great endurance of women in daily life. I have always felt like that about women. They are not that fragile, but they think they are and tend to think that they cannot live without a husband, or else they will be on the losing side of life. It's like an atavistic way of thinking with women. But they are much stronger than they think they are. When my character's husband is away from home, she begins to imagine herself living without him; everyday, it's like the simulation of a husbandless life for her. So that's why she can go on living almost normally after the death of her husband.

In general, emotions of sorrow linked to mourning reach a peak one year after the death of the beloved. In order to avoid despondency, the wife decides to go on living as normally as possible and to focus on her future. She is like a lizard that grows its tail back after it has been cut off. Although her daughter seems to be a stereotypical character as well, she is in fact quite a modern girl. She spends time in pachinko parlours, etc. Nowadays, young mothers do such brainless things as forget their babies in their cars until they die of insolation and dehydration. It's hard for me to sympathize with this kind of women, but they do exist and, like any mother in the world, they do have a heart. I think their spirit is a bit extinct, their emotions are subdued, they don't live or enjoy life to the full… I think my film confirms the doubts I had about the young generations nowadays, what I read about them in the newspapers. It's interesting to note that the young actress who plays my daughter thought that her character was not "emotional" enough. She thought this girl lacked willpower, energy, agressivity and that, in this regard, she felt like a girl of nowadays. Maybe what was most new to me with this film was that, through this young actress, I became conscious of how actual such a character was in Japanese society. Maybe I really became conscious of the fact that a new generation, quite different from mine, from ours, had been born and exists now in Japan.