VIFF 2022 Review: Riverside Mukolitta (川っぺりムコリッタ)

Riverside Mukolitta is the story of an unlikely bond between a young man who just lost his father and a group of strangers he encounters along the way who end up helping him in the end.

If you get tired of all the intense dramas during the film festival, Riverside Mukolitta may be the drama-comedy that you’ll want to see. It touches on a touchy subject, but makes light of it.

A train arrives in the Hokuriku Region of Japan. A young man arrives into town. His name is Takeshi Yamada and it’s unclear why he’d be coming to a fishing village. Over time, he finds a job at a fishing plant where he cuts freshly-caught seafood for a processed dinner. The boss doesn’t expect him to last long; most people only last two days. Through the boss, he is given a place to live in an old run-down village nearby where he works called Mukolitta Heights. It’s a quiet run-down place full of people one normally wouldn’t hang around. Takeshi is comfortable being there, but he’s disinterested in making new friends.

Soon one of his neighbors, Kozo, meets him and wants to use his bath. The heat does not work where he lives. Takeshi doesn’t want to, but he reluctantly gives in. To thank him, Kozo gives him fresh vegetables from his own garden. This is very helpful as Takeshi is down to his last yen. Soon he learns of his other neighbors. One is a door-to-door headstone salesman who sells with his young son, and hardly gets a customer. Another is Shiori, the landlady, who lost her husband years ago and still mourns his death. Takeshi finds her a calming presence. Takeshi also learns from Kozo of a monk who is not hired to do anything. So he does his own religious ceremonies himself.

Soon, Takeshi gets a reminder of his dark past. He learns that his father had died. Takeshi never knew his father as he left his mother when Takeshi was a small child. He learns from a city official in a town close by that his father was found dead in an apartment and the official asks him to claim the ashes. When Takeshi arrives at the city hall, the official is insisting Takeshi take the ashes and the cellphone his father was found with. Takeshi is reluctant but soon accepts. Returning back to the village, he doesn’t know what to do with the ashes of a man he never really knew. On top of it, he notices his father’s last phone calls were to a single number. He’s tempted to toss them anywhere, but Shiori stops him.

Over time, Takeshi continues with the squid job. The boss is surprised that he’s willing to stay with it longer than usual. One day, an earthquake happens. The earthquake causes the ashes to fall off the top of a bookcase. Takeshi is distraught. That becomes his first real emotion towards his father. Over time, the salesman’s son makes friends with the young daughter of the landlady. They find themselves making music over by the village’s pile of refuse. We learn that Shiori still has a bone of her deceased husband to maintain some type of connection and to keep from feeling complete loss. We learn Kozo himself has experienced loss of some magnitude. In addition, the salesman makes a sale, his first in six months, to a rich woman who wants a headstone for her dog.

Eventually Takeshi warms up to his neighbors and they all have one big dinner together. Soon Takeshi goes near the river where he crushes his father’s cremains to make a powdery ash. Shiori sees him and the two have a conversation. Additionally over time, Takeshi learns more about his father of the way he lived and the way he was found dead. He also discovers that the last number his father tried to call continuously is a suicide hotline. Takeshi eventually admits truths about himself. That he was abandoned by his mother when he was 16. That he eventually turned to a life of crime. That before he came to the village, he was in jail for a lengthy term. It’s after coming to terms with his past and the father he never knew that he can finally have the ash-scattering ceremony near the river with the monk leading and his neighbors being part of the march.

At the beginning of the film, the audience is told that a Mukolitta is a unit of time in Buddhism equal to 1/30 of a day: 48 minutes to be exact. The film features a lot of themes of Buddhism. There’s the monk who can’t be hired for anything, but is still prayerful, even if he is the only participant in any of his ceremonies. There’s the brief prayer Takeshi and the others have before eating their dinner. Outside of religion, the biggest theme of the film is about death and loss. People have their own way of dealing with the losses of loved ones. There’s Shiori who still has a bone from her husband and does something bizarre with it. There’s Kozo who also has a bizarre way of dealing with death. And there’s the headstone salesman who may try to make death lucrative for him and his son, but his value would be evident over time. It could be assumed the message of the film is the common Buddhist message that all lives and deaths matter. Even the most humble and those of the estranged. That was something Takeshi would eventually learn over time.

The film is not just about death and loss, but also coming to term with one’s own failings. The film just starts with Takeshi coming to a fishing village, but it’s not clear what the purpose is. Time would eventually tell that Takeshi moved to the village to escape his hard childhood and criminal past. The news of the death of his estranged father and the ashes he reluctantly accepts are possibly seen to him as ugly reminders of the past he wants to leave behind. It’s over time as Takeshi meets other misfit people like the neglected monk, Kozo the eccentric self-described “minimalist,” the headstone salesman, and the widowed landlady that Takeshi comes to terms with his own failings. He’s ready to see his late father as a failure of a person, but he learns over time that his father was another troubled person. Just like him. Takeshi may be a misfit but over time, he learns there’s nothing wrong with it.

The film does touch on a lot of dark themes like loss, abandonment and personal failure. However the film succeeds in doing it in a light manner. It manages to tug at one’s heart without trying to pull it. It also adds humor along the way without it being insensitive. Over time, the film that could have gone the direction of being dark turns out to be a light-hearted and even enjoyable film about loss and failure. Takeshi may see himself as a misfit and may have moved to escape his misfit label, but a village of misfits are successful in helping Takeshi come to term with himself as well as his late father. At the end, Takeshi had his own way of honoring his late father and does it with the help of the misfit neighbors he befriends along the way. The scattering ceremony at the end appears more to be a happy ending than a sad ending.

This is an excellent work from director Naoko Ogigami. Born in Japan, she studied at USC and did work in American productions for a few years before returning to Japan. Since her return, she has written or directed one short film, three television series’, and eight other feature-length films. Her most renowned film is 2017’s “Close-Knit” of a close-knit family coming to terms with one of their members outing themselves as transgender.

In this film, which is based on a novel she wrote, she touches on a subject that’s less controversial, but still causes discomfort to many. The subject of death is still something people are nervous about touching on or talking about. Even personal failures are something one would not want to talk about, especially since we live in a society that stresses success. She succeeds in taking a touchy topic and turning it into a parable about dealing with ones failures and coming to terms with family who left them behind in the past. Even though the Mukolitta is a religious element, the film is a good parable of the Buddhist belief of valuing all lives without stressing the religious aspect of it too much. The film also has excellent acting from Kenichi Matsuyama. He does a good job of portraying a young misguided man with a past he wants to keep secret from all he meets, but comes to term with it thanks to the help of his neighbors. Also excellent are the supporting roles of the actors playing the supportive neighbors. Hitari Mitsushima, Tsuyoshi Muro and Naoto Ogata were all good at playing their characters and owning their moments.

Riverside Mukolitta is a surprising film. It touches on life’s hurts, sorrows, and failures, but it adds comical elements to it. It’s a film that does all the right moves in telling its deep story in a humorous way.

And there you have it! This is the last of my reviews of films I saw during the 2022 Vancouver International Film Festival. Wrap-up blog coming soon!

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