Japanese Film - Firefly Dreams
Dreaming in Japanese
by Richard Donovan, October 2003
In 1999, two Brits and a Japanese set up a film production company called 100 Meter Films in Nagoya, Japan. What made this unusual was that it was the only foreign-run independent production house in Japan.
Director John Williams and producer Martin Rycroft, in association with designer Kazuaki Kaneda, have since moved their offices to Tokyo, but still retain strong personal and professional contacts in Nagoya, where they began their movie collaboration with the feature film Firefly Dreams (2001).
Fireflies are a potent symbol of nostalgia for the Japanese. They are synonymous with summer, of course, but beyond that they illuminate in many minds a pre-modernization, pre-industrialized era of childhoods spent in sleepy little towns and mysterious mountain forests. It is therefore unsurprising that the triboluminescent little critters have featured in a number of modern-day Japanese media works.
First of all, the Japanese for firefly, hotaru, can be a girl's name, and in the world of television it will forever be associated with the girl that Japan virtually watched grow up on screen in the long-running occasional series Kita no kuni kara (literally, From a Northern Country), about a rural family in Hokkaido.
Then there are the films, such as Hotarugawa (River of Fireflies, Eizo Sugawa, 1987), based on a beloved coming-of-age novel by Teru Miyamoto, in which a boy and girl observe a mass confluence of fireflies in a river valley, and are bonded together forever. The dawn of the new millennium saw the release of two films entitled Hotaru, both tragedies of a sort, evoking the melancholic side of firefly nostalgia: the beguiling yet evanescent nature of their gentle glow reminds us that we are all but ephemera on Time's stage.
It is perhaps ironic, then, that the Japanese title for Firefly Dreams contains no reference to fireflies! (Producer Martin Rycroft confides that one reason for this is the very fact of the two other Hotaru movies' jostling for recognition at much the same time.) Ichiban utsukushii natsu would come out as the nondescript The Most Beautiful Summer in English.
Translation differences do not end here: the film-within-a-film that our heroine searches to find a copy of is named Hotaru no tani (Valley of the Fireflies) in Japanese, but this becomes Among the Fireflies in the English subtitles. Still, there is perhaps method in this manipulation, for the English subtitles are among the best I have seen on a Japanese film.
They capture the essence of utterances rather than either pedantically translating everything, or lazily omitting difficult-to-capture nuances (although it is arguable that in the early part of the film, occasionally language in the English is unwarrantedly strong). Such differences in diction are evidence of the filmmakers' attempts to cater for the differing tastes of two largely unrelated culturesthe job you set yourself when your production company straddles two worlds.
Another irony is that the eponymous firefly makes only a brief cameo appearance in the film, and that merely' in a dream sequence. In it, the protagonist Naomi (poutingly played by Maho Ukai), a rebellious city-bred seventeen-year-old with an orangutan-orange mop of hair, revisits herself as a child, seemingly in awe of her father and the innocent magic of a firefly glowing in the cage beside him.
In visiting the dream world, British writer and director John Williams is tapping into a potent vein in the Japanese psyche, one which many Japanese directors, such as Kurosawa in his film Yume (Dreams, 1990), have themselves exploited (in his case, using his own dreams!).
But in a strange way, perhaps the most telling comparison is with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), directed by Nagisa Oshima. This contains a reverie sequence in which Captain Celliers, played by David Bowie, reconciles with his dead brother in the garden of their childhood. Not only does this echo aspects of the scene in Williams' film, the two directors also have in common the fact that they have written and directed films that are predominantly not in their native language, and done so convincinglya considerable feat in itself.
Dreams are, as much as anything, communications with ourselves, and it is no coincidence that Naomi has her firefly dream during her stay in the countryside that she used to visit when she was a child (filmed in Horai-cho, Aichi Prefecture). The family crisis that precipitates her sojourn in the country with an aunt and uncle is a source of much pain and disillusionment, and perhaps a great deal of her truculence, but at the same time it provides a valuable opportunity for her to reconnect with the world around her, and refashion herself in a new, empathetic, mould.
That she is able to do so is due in no small part to Mrs. Koide (veteran actor Yoshie Minami), an old woman walking the tightrope of senility, who in her youth went up to Tokyo and appeared in the film Among the Fireflies. The pair develop an emotionally symbiotic relationship, Naomi gaining insight into another's hardships and the fortitude they have engendered, while Mrs. Koide finds a kindred spirit to assuage the loneliness of old age.
The fact that, in the dream world of the film, the young Mrs. Koide walks the same path in the forest as Naomi's father in her dream, suggests the impact that both people have had on her life, and perhaps on shaping the path that she is to follow in the years to come.
Williams got his idea for the film and Naomi from a real schoolgirl acquaintance, and despite the cultural and geographic distances involved, found himself waxing nostalgic during filming: While we were shooting the film I often thought about my childhood in Wales and the happy summer holidays I spent fishing in the river near my grandmother's house. Even though I now live on the other side of the globe, I found numerous similarities to Wales in the Japanese countryside. I felt that I had come a long way but that I was in some strange way back where I had begun.
While it is evident that Firefly Dreams does indeed treat universal themes of iconoclasm, self-discovery, betrayal and compassion, and thus emphasizes the commonality of much of human experience wherever it may occur, we must not forget that Williams has chosen to tell a Japanese story. For me, the character who best epitomizes this elusive quality is Naomi's cousin Yumi, brilliantly played by Etsuko Kimata.
Yumi has developmental problemsmay, in fact, be mildly autisticand as such plays the Id to Naomi's sulky Ego. She is utterly open and giving, like a young child, but at the same time has a great hunger for affection, and a morbid fascination with drowning that she feels compelled to articulate in a way that comes across as creepy.
Naomi senses her emotional vulnerability and is repelled by it at first; eventually, however, she finds that Yumi has an inexhaustible supply of unconditional love to offer her, should she learn to reciprocate. Yumi could be seen to embody the essence of a bucolic childhood in Japan, the primeval, unself-conscious closeness with nature that so many Japanese have lost in the process of growing up and urbanizing.
Overall, Williams has produced a near-pitch-perfect piece in Firefly Dreams. The only note that does not ring true for me is the introduction of a tragic element that I think was unnecessary for Naomi's journey. In a way, it is an indication that Williams has assimilated almost too completely the popular culture of Japan, because the supposedly realism-inducing shock tactic of an unexpected heartbreak is now in fact the stock-in-trade of mass-produced Japanese cinema and television drama. Nevertheless, Williams, like Oshima, has successfully crossed over into the world of an adopted language and culture, and as a shrewd cross-cultural observer has much of worth to reveal to us all as a consequence. I expect that he sometimes dreams in Japaneseand after viewing this film, some of his western audience may, too.
is available on DVD in Japan & overseas from Amazon.
100MeterFilms website, with links to Firefly Dreams