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.
The 22nd Annual New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 14 to July 30. For more information, click here.
I suppose that when you get right down to it, the most remarkable thing about Okiku And The World is that it’s a 90-minute movie almost entirely about shit, and that it’s not a metaphor.
I mean, certainly, you could read it that way; certainly, some of the characters do. But in the approach of filmmaker Sakamoto Junji, the shit is anything but a metaphor. It’s an inevitable, concrete, inarguable fact of life, a thing that exists whether we want to think about it or not. And has to be dealt with.
Also… there are samurai.
If I was twelve, there’s a decent chance this would have been my most anticipated film of the year.
(In reality it was Cool World. But there’s really no need to get into any of that right now)
But 12-year old me most likely would have been disappointed in the actual watching of it, and exactly for the reasons addressed above: while the premise is an off-color one, there’s very little in the film itself that ought to be considered transgressive in terms of actual content. The actual body of the film is less concerned with grossing you out, and more concerned with the characters lives, and struggles, and the halting love story that acts as the lynchpin of a movie that only pretends to be more interested in the bowels than the heart.
It’s a leisurely stroll through life and romance, and the droppings are the backdrop.
The film takes place over the course of seven chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue, and after the opening crawl that describes a political situation that boils down to ‘things are kinda shitty’, we open with that rarest of cinematic events: a three-way meet cute.
In an era where plumbing isn’t even a pipe dream, it is the job of Yasuke (Ikematsu Sosuke) to go from town to town collecting the shit from everyone’s outhouse, and reselling it in turn to farmers as crop fertilizer. It is on his travels that he meets Chuji (Kanichiro), an illiterate paper collector with whom he takes refuge under the roof in a massive rainstorm.
The titular Okiku (Kuroki Haru), despite her top billing, shows up to the party last, trying very hard to pretend she doesn’t need to… powder her nose.
The stuff of which true friendships are born.
It isn’t long before Chuji ditches his old gig in favor of becoming Yasuke’s apprentice, and the object of Okiku’s affections. Okiku, the stubborn, somewhat prideful daughter of former samurai Genbei (Sato Koichi), has yet to adjust to her loss of position.
Her world is upended when her father is paid a visit from some members of the clan that he had gotten in trouble for bad mouthing in the first place. Resigned to his fate, the old man goes directly from the toilet to the chopping block.
I will not lie; this is a point at which I got rather excited. The previous twenty minutes or so had been suffused with a level of casual scatology that managed to feel matter-of-course when it could have felt gleefully prurient.
Granted, the prurience would have felt nice. But it also, I suspect, would have gotten old rather fast.
So the approach to the subject matter had already won me over and endeared the film to me. Indeed, the only thing that could improve the situation is if they were to throw a swordfight.
So when Okiku hears what happened, silently opens a drawer, and pulls out a small blade, I was all hyped for shit to go down.
Shit, so to speak, does not go down.
Instead, we cut to a bloody aftermath: her father dead, her throat slashed, and all hope of badassery cut off at the knees.
When the next chapter opens, a season has passed, and Okiku is living in the aftermath of her tragic loss. But, interestingly, with the conflict deflated, the film never raises the issue of story again. It instead becomes what writer-director Sakamoto Junji clearly intended it to be from the start: a meditation piece.
For life continues apace, in spite of everything. And eventually, everybody falls into their new rhythms. Chuji learns the ropes of shit collection, Yusuke’s good humor starts to curdle as he becomes bitter over his lack of upward mobility and deference to his economic superiors; and a traumatized Okiku, no longer able to speak, slowly begins to emerge from her seclusion.
There’s something of genuine beauty in the whole of Okiku And The World. It’s as if Junji decided to take on the challenge of basing a movie around feces and still making it gorgeous, and against all odds, that’s just what he did. The black and white (with occasional flashes of color) cinematography is glorious (not to mention clever thinking when it comes to the actual images of crap; that would be wayyyy too much brown and far too real if they had gone with color) and the editing has a zen-like rhythm that makes the inevitable passing of time seem almost soothing.
But more to the point: it’s just plain pleasurable to spend time in the company of our main trio. Kanichiro and Sosuke make for an endearing comedy duo, with Chuji’s innocence and unfailing decency playing off of Yusuke’s rueful frippery perfectly. And while Okiku starts out intentionally a bit bratty, Haru never overplays her hand, and the scatological nature of her surroundings puncture her
All of which, of course, is mere prelude to her ultimate transformation in the second half, a humbled, entirely silent performance that’s equal parts reserved and moving. If the romance is somewhat less enthralling than just watching everybody go about their paces, it still succeeds in the sense we want Chuji and Okiku to get together, if for no other reason than they’re kind of sweet together and could both use a win.
A special shout out feels in order for Sato Koichi, in his brief role of Okiku’s father. It’s obvious why he can’t stick around for the entire film, but he makes the most of the limited time he has onscreen and runs away with every last moment he’s given; it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away with their dignity after being asked to say some of the lines he’s given here, but he does it every single time.
Just the way he muses that maybe someday he’ll fart and shit at the same time makes you realize our criteria for awarding performances is seriously misguided.
If you were to read a one line description of Okiku And The World, it would probably form a very specific picture in your head. That the movie refuses to be that will probably be disappointing to people who are like 12-year old me. But if I’m being honest, 12-year old me was an idiot, and his disapproval is kind of all the recommendation you need.