FANTASIA 2023: Junta Yamaguchi’s RIVER is a Dreamy Whimsical Delight!

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

River is the triumphant return of director Junta Yamaguchi, whom most would remember from his previous time twisting sci-fi comedy Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. Here however, instead of a TV that allows those to see two minutes into the future, this time we have the staff and patrons at an inn in the picturesque and quiet Kibune, who are stuck in a two minute time loop. The strange part is while they are always forced to reset to their “initial position”, their consciousness do not. So like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day they are able to build on their experiences allowing those stuck in the loop to learn from each go round and attempt to solve the mystery of just what happened to get them stuck in the first place. The film uses this mystery and its plot device of the loop to tell a bright and whimsical tale about a cast of unlikely protagonists, who by being trapped are finally freed from the monotony of their day to day lives to live their life to the fullest 2 minutes at a time. 

Our protagonist here is the charming Mikoto (Riko Fujitani), a server/maid at the inn who gets stuck in a moment of prayer to the Kibune River Gods about her troubled relationship. It’s through her we meet the other staff and eccentric clientele who are also stuck at the inn as she spends her first few loops still trying to do her job so sooth and serve the confused and befuddled customers. Like most Japanese films the extenuating circumstance here is used to break our characters out of their politeness, and let them experience this event authentically without the polite facade enforced by Japanese society. The two minute time limit definitely adds some comedic value, since one couple is eating and one man is in the shower when it started. So effectively they are just stuck endlessly eating and showering. Eventually they have to learn to immediately break, and to meet as a group as they try to solve the mystery. 

The film is presented through a dream-like digital haze, coupled with a bright and sparse soundtrack which works more to accentuate the comedy and keep the mood upbeat, even though the film peeks in some dark areas here and there. That said, it’s very much a story of this ensemble of characters who all start the loop in the middle of a moment of uncertainty, whether that be a relationship or a choice. But thanks to the loop they are given the gift of time and experience to sift through that and explore their options to hopefully come out a better person. While Mikoto and her boyfriend take the lion share of the runtime, an eccentric writer Obata (Yoshimasa Kondô) on a time crunch to finish a serial novel consistently steals the show, pushing the scenario with his stress induced thoughts of death and destruction. It’s fun mix that is populated with a cast of actors who all do their best to make their moments shine.

Thankfully the film’s gimmick never gets in the way of the film’s message –  that no matter how hectic life may be, you should always take time out for those precious to you. Even two minutes as we see here, can make a world of difference! It’s that cheerful and wholesome “can do!” attitude that Yamaguchi applies to his approach to his story and characters, who are then tasked to utilize their time in the loop to not only break the cycle, but better themselves. Of course there are a few bumps along the way, and the film has to cycle through the requisite emotional beats, since there’s understandably some fear and panic to be involved being stuck in a never ending loop. But eventually the film finds its stride becoming a shot of serotonin that’s a whimsical delight that is thoughtful as it is clever.

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