Rustling Leaves

The apocryphal story gets told again and again, perhaps because it cuts to the core of one kind of cinematic fascination: what purportedly captivated the first people who saw the Lumières’ Repas de bébé (1895) was not the ostensible focus of the action – the couple feeding an infant in the foreground – but the sight of the leaves rustling in the trees behind them. Whether or not the tale is true matters less than its tenacity. It speaks to an idea of cinema that has flickered in and out of view throughout the medium’s history, constituting a stubborn countertradition to the narrative contrivances that monopolize so many screens. It is a cinema not only of blowing leaves, but of dust particles, flower petals, and strands of hair; of clouds and eyelashes, cresting waves and stray insects. It is, in other words, a cinema animated by the world’s uncontrollable contingencies. Small, ephemeral details sting the spectator with their unruly indifference to all grand plans and occurrences, proclaiming the reign of transience, as if to say: ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’

Typically, as in the ur-text of Repas de bébé, these microevents are relegated to the margins, where they may or may not catch the attentive spectator’s roaming eye; here, what is at stake is perhaps less an approach to filmmaking than a way of film viewing. There are, however, instances in which this aspect of the medium surges forth from the background to flood the frame, soaking the cinematic experience in the pathos of time’s passing. Such is the case with Haneda Sumiko’s extraordinary 43-minute film The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms (1977), screening this month as part of the Open City Documentary festival at ICA London and in October at the Courtisane festival in Ghent; it will appear in a double bill with the director’s first short, Women’s College in the Village (1958).

Born in 1926 in Dalian, China (soon to be Japanese-occupied Manchuria), Haneda is likely unfamiliar to most audiences, even within Japan, despite her immense and accomplished body of work. From Women’s College in the Village to her most recent film And Then Akiko Is… A Portrait of a Dancer (2012) – which returns to Kanda Akiko, the subject of her 1985 feature Akiko: Portrait of a Dancer – she has dealt with an array of subjects including colonialism, elder care, women’s political activity, traditional arts, and the lives of performers. In his 2002 book The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan, a rare discussion of her work in English, Eric Cazdyn describes Haneda as ‘a documentarist whose political commitments over the last four decades of filmmaking are matched only by her subtle sensitivity to the aesthetic’.

Like Ogawa Shinsuke and Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Haneda began her career at Iwanami Productions, a company making educational and promotional films, founded in 1950 as an offshoot of the illustrious publisher Iwanami Shoten, before striking out on her own. Yet she has never achieved the same recognition as these contemporaries, let alone that of celebrated male auteurs working in fiction. In Cazdyn’s words, ‘Haneda, who has directed more than forty-five films and assisted on scores more, deserves the same status as any other director in the canon of Japanese film history. At the same time, her struggles as one of only a handful of women in the industry raises her significance to near-heroic proportions.’ Subtitled copies of her films are hard to come by – none have been formally issued on DVD – making the upcoming screenings a special opportunity to encounter the work of this underacknowledged figure.

The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms was Haneda’s first independent venture, initiating a new phase of her practice. In 1969, while in the central Japanese prefecture of Gifu to attend a kyōgen theatre performance, she visited a cherry tree in the Neo valley said to be one of the oldest in the country, planted by Emperor Keitai in the early sixth century. As she would later recount, faced with its ancient, animistic majesty, a thought entered her mind: ‘With this tree, and this tree only, I could make a movie’. Haneda initially planned to use poetry written by her younger sister to ‘make a film similar to a small piece of music that sang praise of the cherry tree’, but only one year later, her sibling died of cancer. By autumn 1972, when Haneda returned to the project, the solitary tree, with blossoms that turn the colour of watery calligraphy ink as they fall to the ground, had become ‘something ominous’ to her. She shot intermittently over two-and-a-half years to capture its changing state across four seasons – in close-up and at a distance, in glorious bloom and dusted with snow – and then worked for a further 18 months to complete the film. The result is a poetic reckoning with mortality and memory at the crossroads of the human and nonhuman, anchored by a female voiceover, haunting appearances of an adolescent girl, and, of course, myriad images of the titular entity. It is a portrait of a village and its inhabitants; a cultural history of a celebrated tree; a film like no other.

‘For me, this film meant becoming true to myself when creating’, Haneda wrote, describing its making as ‘an act of searching for myself’. Whereas others of the director’s films engage directly with large political issues – such as Proof of Women (1996), which explores women’s participation in the labour movement – The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms refrains from social commentary. If it manifests the political commitment of which Cazdyn writes at all, it is in its claiming of documentary as a domain of philosophical and poetic expression and in the ecological humility that pervades Haneda’s approach to the tree and its environs. Although the endeavour feels deeply personal, the film contains no mention of her sister’s death, no traces of autobiography. Haneda does not position herself at the centre of The Cherry Tree; nor, for that matter, does she grant such a place to any human, even the ever-silent teenage girl. The film instead adopts an expansive, non-anthropocentric perspective that sees any one life as but a small part of a vast entanglement, inextricable from the surrounding environment. In its inaugural sequence, images of a flowing stream and a cemetery overgrown with grasses and wildflowers are accompanied by a hymn to impermanence, whispered in voiceover, in which the accumulation of time occurs in inverse proportion to the capacity for human memory: ‘A day passes, then a month, and so the years go by. Fifty years – people will remember. A hundred years – some will remember. Days will pass, months will come again, and so the years will go by. Two hundred, three hundred, five hundred years, none will remember anymore. Seven hundred, a thousand years, all memories fade into oblivion.’ Haneda then cuts to a series of shots of the girl, standing on a bridge, turning repeatedly to meet the camera’s gaze before walking away. The usuzumi sakura has not yet made its first appearance, but already the film has hinted at the nested temporalities it will unfold. From daily rituals to annual seasons, from the span of a villager’s life to that of the venerable tree, all things are bound by the bittersweetness of cycles that recur at their own pace. It is a far cry from the gales and gusts of post-war industrial development. 

Discussions of cinematic duration tend to centre on the long take, a unit of filmic vocabulary that has prospered in the era of digital cinematography, since cameras can now capture expanses of time far greater than the roughly eleven-minute maximum possible with photochemical film. One way of inspiring wonder at the ceaseless becoming of the world, of dwelling with the weight of time, is to let the camera roll and roll. The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms pursues the same ends through very different and less commonly employed means, assembling relatively brief glimpses of the same subject matter filmed over a prolonged period so as to foreground continuous transformation. (In this regard, Haneda finds a contemporary inheritor in another must-see film playing at both Open City and Courtisane, Anders Edström and C.W. Winter’s eight-hour-long The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) [2020], shot over fourteen months in a Kyoto Prefecture village.) The gesture echoes Claude Monet’s serial views but more directly stands as a cinematic iteration of the sensitivity to seasonal variation that has long marked Japanese art and culture. More than formal play, it bespeaks an attunement to the poignancy of transience, a philosophical orientation that is indebted to Buddhist and Shintoist principles.

Across these metamorphoses, the tree’s placid endurance stands against the brevity of human life, as Haneda frames the former as a steadfast witness to the births and deaths of those who live in the six houses surrounding it. After a villager tells her that, years before, bones were found under the tree and taken away to determine whether they were human, she explores the abandoned, crumbling home of the long-dead doctor who had been entrusted with the task. Weeds engulf the house; thick moss blankets the roof. The tree still stands while so many who once laid eyes on it have disappeared. As if to buttress this theme, throughout much of the film Haneda concentrates less on the tree’s leaves or flowers – icons of fleeting beauty that mark the coming of spring ­­­– and more on the hulking solidity of its mottled trunk, carefully documenting its many lichenous bulges and mossy crevices. Possessing little of the vertical elegance of a redwood, let alone the suppleness of the girl who stands in front of it and caresses its bark, the cherry tree wears the scars of its stubborn persistence on its misshapen core, watching over the village as the days, years, and centuries pass.

At the same time, the film emphasizes that the tree, too, is prey to the ravages of senescence. The survival of this elder body is never assured; because it lives, it may die. Unable to sustain its own weight, it is supported by a host of wooden crutches that guard against collapse. It owes its continued health not only to the daily ministrations of the villagers, but to the actions of a dentist from Gifu who in the 1940s grafted 238 young roots onto it, saving it from a termite infestation. The voiceover addresses the aged being with intimacy and directness: ‘You have lived too long; your life is already over. Yet you linger, still surviving…’ Like the inhabitants of the village – indeed, like all of us – the tree is vulnerable, existing within a web of interdependencies, beholden to the care of others if it is to persevere.

The horticultural technique of the graft, used to save the tree from rot, encapsulates ideas that inform The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms as a whole: it is a figure of mutual implication and non-autonomous growth that denies any strict separation between nature and culture. It also speaks to a powerful desire to make things last. As much as the film is imbued with an awestruck acceptance of impermanence, its reconciliation with the inevitability of disappearance remains incomplete. Humming within it is the urge to forestall loss by intervening in the cruel arc of another’s decline, as well as the saturnine resentment that takes hold when this proves futile – affects that complicate the cherry blossom’s famous associations with vernal optimism and the soft sadness of evanescence. There is something harder, sharper, in The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms, even as its delicacy astounds. There is the bittersweetness of mono no aware, yes, but also the sour tang of grief.

Read on: Erika Balsom, ‘Camera Lucida, NLR 129.