Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Aria is a film full of observation, paying attention to the small things. From the opening shot of striking a tuning fork, listening to the resonance, the film is arresting in its ability to tell us to slow down. There are many rewards for those who do. It is a terrific character study.

A widower Ota (Masayuki Shionoya) has a meagre living as a master piano tuner. He's grieving for his recently deceased wife - little is said about her, other than her last wishes. He has complied with the two basic requests, but the last - finding a beach to scatter her ashes - has proven elusive. Anyway, being a piano tuner isn't much of a living, so, to keep food on the table, he works as a shop-tender for his friend Kojima. In a dryly humourous shot, the movie illustrates just how well Ota fits in with the old and dusty curios that litter the store. During a spicy meal, Kojima presents Ota with a "Whatchamacallit" amulet, which will grant its owner's wish.

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An old puppeteer, Kuzo (Masao Komatsu), walks into the store and drops off Aria - a puppet straight from the Uncanny Valley - for repairs. They don't hit it off immediately, Kuzo labels Ota as a "freeloader", but nontheless they eventually become friends and Ota and Kojima show up for one of Kuzo's performances. The old man collapses onstage, and Ota visits him in hospital. It turns out Kuzo is also a widower who has never overcome his grief. His wish is to find the piano his wife and performing partner used to play. After Kuzo dies, it lights a fire under Ota and sets him off to find the piano.

The film transmutes into a road movie from this point - and gains characters at a comparatively alarming rate. Along for the journey is Kuzo's clownish (he often sports a Chaplin-esque fake moustache) apprentice, and a young girl Kako, who identifies herself as Kuzo's daughter. No one had ever heard of him having a daughter - but she is persuasive. The film even has visual references to benign fox-spirits - like guardian angels in Western folklore - which help sad and lonely people to find some purpose in their lives. The film makes no explicit statements about its characters, but the clues are there.

Taking his cue from established Japanese masters, director Takushi Tsubokawa drenches Aria in elegant widescreen photography, fully utilising the 2.35:1 scope frame. Like Ozu, he enforces a respectful appreciation for minimalist acting through his infrequent cutting style, forcing the viewer to amplify the small actions and reactions of the characters. The movie prefers to move the internal conflicts along and heightening the importance of small adjustments in framing, movement and sound.

He also employs, what are referred to as "pillow sequences", rather than "pillow shots". Japanese film scholars coined the term "pillow shots" for shots which are placed in between scenes to create mood and storytelling breathing space. Tsubokawa extends this paradigm to encompass full short films in their own right, starring the story's characters, which may or may not exist outside of the main story drive. The film also takes time for short musical soliloquies, or scenes of the characters sharing time rather than driving the simple plot. It shows a healthy disrespect for the Robert McKee Inciting Incident recipes for story construction.

Aria is a contemplative movie about many things, including realising your own mortality, in a personal and professional sense. It is a story of a man finally being awoken from a living stupor by his friends. It is simple and meditative cinema, mixing strong internal drama and light visual and audial puns to surprising effect - and is entirely refreshing.

Reviewed on: 18 Aug 2007
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Road movie about an elderly piano tuner who forms a friendship with an unsettling puppeteer.

Director: Takushi Tsubokawa

Writer: Takushi Tsubokawa

Starring: Masayuki Shionoya, Mariko Takahashi, Shojiro Kataoka, Masao Komatsu, Shimon Yotsuya, Shinichiro Uchida, Toshiyuki Kita, Koji Wakamatsu, Hideko Yoshida, Mickey Curtis

Year: 2007

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: Japan


EIFF 2007

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