Sway – Review
Takeru returns from Tokyo for his mother’s funeral in Hikawa, where he reunites with his former girlfriend Chieko, who is currently working with Takeru’s brother Minoru in the brothers’ father’s newly incorporated petrol station. Minoru is 35, has worked at the station for four years, and only works part time; he expresses his attraction to Chieko and invites Takeru and her out to Hasumi Gorge, a fondly remembered vacation site of the brothers’ childhood, but Takeru takes her out and they end up having a one-night stand. The triangle goes out to Hasumi Gorge together to allay Minoru’s suspicions, but the brothers’ childhood vacation site becomes a place of tragedy as after confronting Takeru, Chieko crosses a precarious bridge, and Minoru follows her, clinging desperately from his fear of heights. An argument breaks out and Chieko falls to the waters. The details are kept off screen and Takeru claims he did not see what happened; an investigation ensues, as the brothers separate to grieve. However, once Minoru turns himself in for the murder of Chieko, the two brothers and their family are pulled into a trial that comes to represent the surface tension of their relationship.
Despite being formatted around the court drama genre, this movie is a largely family affair. The conflict starts off immediately with Takeru’s father, who is brusque and confrontational, especially since Takeru shows up late and not dressed up for the funeral. He berates Takeru’s lack of presence in their lives by questioning why Takeru, a professional photographer, never took a picture of his mother. Underlying this statement is a clear mix of family and business relationship represented by Minoru’s placement in the company. Even coworkers Yohei and Chieko herself seem to be regarded at various points through the movie as family, and Chieko’s mother is harder for Minoru to face than his own father. Minoru’s defense attorney is his uncle, and the trial is so small and filled with so few extras that it plays out like a family meeting turned rigorous institution. The only character that really stands out from these intermixed relationships is the attorney for the prosecution, whose own confrontations of Minoru’s motivations is the only outsider perspective of a hidden story based around perspective. This outsider perspective is both necessary because part of the drama concerns whether the family members can regard each other objectively, and practical because the family cannot lend itself to prosecute each other. Even the movie’s self-referentiality in terms of photography and Super8 reels never provides extra evidence to the court but is used by Takeru to review his relationship to his brother.
What motivates the conflict within the family is a general shared feeling of rootlessness and meaninglessness amongst the characters: Takeru is berated for living far away in Tokyo, a common setting in Japanese cinema for uprooted and distant family members; he drives a Ford vehicle and smokes American Spirits, his coat looks like Tyler Durden’s from Fight Club, representing a detachment from Japanese values and culture. He comes to see his home town as ‘provincial’, a feeling shared by Chieko when she states she should have run off with him in their past and exclaims over his sense of style. Minoru feels oppressed by living with his father and working at the station, a situation eventually turned against him in court, and their father can only bring himself to be responsive and attached to the drama by roundly ranting at or punishing his children. Their family is established as establishment itself, represented far more clearly by the petrol station than the house they live in. The uncle is brought in on the principle of family, but considering that Minoru’s admission to murder severely undermines his defense in Japanese law, his belief in his nephew’s innocence has to be bought with a hefty amount of naivety, represented by his initial discussion with Takeru during the funeral. All their attempts at unification stand at odds to the decision Takeru has to make in order to determine whether his brother goes to jail or is let free.
Thus though this movie does not make it immediately apparent, the movie starts, in a sense, in media res as the family is already in crisis. The events portrayed at the beginning are all surface tension barely holding before the water starts to boil, but the heat has been on since Takeru left and hints are gathered that that may have been his cause for leaving. At one point Chieko says to Takeru that she wishes she could have gone with him to find a more meaningful life, but Takeru’s reaction indicates that he left for different purposes. The idea of finding meaning in life in this movie is never taken as a primary theme and is not resolved, but rather represents how little meaning this modern family feels with each member’s position. Takeru’s return to the family breaks the surface tension but in a destructive enough manner that ultimately is required so that they can build themselves back again. He is often shown in frame divided from other members: the glass in the prison between him and Minoru, or a child’s balloon string drawing a line across the frame that only he sits behind. The movie offers a glimpse of a chance of redemption, but such separations maintain the structure of the movie through and through.
Author: Dane Benko
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