16 September 2009

Lemon Road (檸檬の路, 2008)

© Tomoyasu Murata Company

Lemon Road (檸檬の路, 2008) is the latest installment in Tomoyasu Murata’s contemplative My Road series. Previous films featuring the pianist as a central character include Scarlet Road (朱の路, 2002), White Road (白の路, 2003), and Indigo Road (藍の路, 2006). Last month, I reviewed the film Sky Colour Flower Colour (空色花色, 2006) which also ties into the series of puppet animations. Like my other reviews of Murata’s work, this is really more of a ‘reading’ of the film than a proper ‘review’. Although I do call this blog a ‘review’, I do really see it more as a journal of my viewing habits and reactions to Japanese film, art, and literature.

Tomoyasu Murata creates a wide variety of animation and other art, and his Road series is among the most personal and introspective of his work. The films are also, perhaps the most iconic images of Murata’s for the average Japanese because footage from White Road was re-edited into a music video for the song ‘Hero’ by the popular J-Pop band Mr. Children. The films require several screenings because they don’t give up their secrets very easily. There is no dialogue or narration, but a great deal of emotion is imbued into the films by music. Most of the Road films have loss as a central theme: the death of a child (Scarlet Road), the death of a pet and lost friendship (White Road), and the loss of a partner (Indigo Road). Lemon Road, by contrast, is a film about recovery and starting anew.

The first indication that something different from his previous puppet animations is afoot comes with the startling open sequence which subverts our expectations both aurally and visually. Instead of the romantic music of the other films, Lemon Road (aka Lemon’s Road) opens with an avant-garde soundtrack that draws attention to the film as a film. The sound of a 16mm film projector whirs while a cacophony of sounds weave in and out mimicking the editing of the avant-garde style opening. Pastels on paper create, scribble out and recreate what we later learn to be images from the main narrative of the film. Sounds include a harmonica, a piano, and radio or TV feedback (from the days of turn-dial tuning). As Murata cuts to a wider shot we see that the images are actually appearing on an old-fashioned TV screen. The final images are done with cut-outs. We see a lemon being sliced, then a coffee and a tea appear on the screen with a lemon slice falling into the later. The scene then shifts to a rural scene with a gaping hole in the middle of it. As a ringing phone joins the cacophony of noise on the soundtrack, the cutout figures of a human and some animals get sucked up into the hole.

The TV turns off and we are introduced to a stark motel-like room as the soundtrack quiets down to just the sound of the phone ringing. The pianist character sits contemplatively on the sofa looking towards the sunlight coming in the window. On the whole the room is quite dull in its colours – greys, browns, blacks – but on the wall are two colourful paintings that add a glimmer of cheerfulness to an otherwise melancholy scene.

© Tomoyasu Murata Company

This seems to be general theme of the film: a gradual lifting of the melancholy that pervaded the previous films. After several viewings of the film, I have come to interpret it as a kind of literal and spiritual road trip that the pianist is going on. Whereas Scarlet Road had an Asian setting, and Indigo Road seemed influenced by the architecture of Eastern Europe, this film is set in the countryside of Arizona. From his lodgings, the pianist takes his scooter to and from a library across a typical North American roadside landscape with a wide open sky. The passing of time is indicated by the changing of the weather and it seems that the pianist has come to this location to do some kind of research.

© Tomoyasu Murata Company

Thematically, the library is a great location because it is a place where people often go alone, as shown in the film and it emphasizes the theme of solitude. The solitude that the pianist experiences in all of the Road films is a part of the spiritual journey of the character. The melancholy nature of this quest is emphasized by the theme music, which is composed by Tatsuhide Tado, who also did the music for Indigo Road. The music starts when the pianist opens his journal. The music recalls the theme music of Indigo Road but it features a guitar rather than the usual piano. The piano (joined by a bass and an electric guitar) does return in key sequences such as an extended dream sequence which occurs when the pianist falls asleep while watching TV. It begins with the ringing phone being dragged by the cord out of the window and into a gaping hole in the earth, then goes on to reprise many of the images from the opening sequence. In particular, the image of everything and everyone being swallowed up into the hole.

The dream sequence ends back in the pianist’s room but with a giant lemon filling the space. The lemon spits out a piece of paper like a ticket vending machine, which we later learn has a telephone number on it. The lemon fits with the theme of starting anew for the pianist because of its cleansing properties and its association with freshness. After he wakes up, the pianist takes the piece of paper to the phone booth on the side of the highway and tries dialing it. Although there is no answer and he leaves the paper behind, the film ends on an optimistic note with the pianist sitting in the sunshine outside his room drinking coffee.

© Tomoyasu Murata Company

Murata leaves the Road films deliberately ambiguous, so the film’s meaning is really open to numerous interpretations which would be influenced by whether or not one has seen the other films in the series. My own view, when considering this film together with Indigo Road and Sky Colour Flower Colour, is that the woman in Indigo Road did not die like the child in Scarlet Road or the dog in White Road. Rather the pianist and the woman have separated. The ending suggests to me the possibility of a reconciliation between the two. This idea is implied by the sound of the bird that one hears singing when the pianist makes the phone call. It is the hiyodori (brown-eared bulbul), whose call was also a key theme in Sky Colour Flower Colour. Now the hiyodori would not be found in Arizona, so I am reading it as an aural reminder of the woman. This may sound like I am reading too much into it, but I feel that this interpretation is supported by the fact that a butterfly (which a theme in Sky Colour Flower Colour) flies out of the phone booth as the guitar theme song returns. Even though the phone call does not seem to be answered, perhaps the pianist has made peace with whatever problems there were between them. Another image that points to this are the red flowers that are growing up out of the cracks of the concrete outside the door of the pianist’s room. The red flowers are another image that thread through the Road films.

© Tomoyasu Murata Company

I really enjoyed the dream sequences in Lemon Road – not only are dreams are an important metaphor in Murata’s work they are also a recurring theme in films of many great filmmaking artists from Hitchcock to Cocteau. The dream sequences in Lemon Road give us many clues into the psychology of the mysterious pianist whose silence and sad eyes are so beguiling. The optimistic ending – the first time full sunshine has been used in the series – increases my desire to see what will happen to this fascinating character in the next installment. I do hope that his journey continues.

Lemon Road can be ordered online at tomoyasu.net (within Japan only). Customers outside of Japan should send requests to Murata's company by e-mail.

Tomoyasu Murata Sakuhinshu - Ore no Michi / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009