After breaking her younger sister’s violin, a Japanese woman travels to Italy – to Cremona, home of the Stradivarius on the Po River – to have it repaired. The premise is unlikely, but just as well for a very strange film: Sasaki Shoichiro’s Kawa no Nagare wa Baiorin no Oto (translated roughly as The Flow of the River, the Sound of a Violin), released as an NHK television movie in 1981.
Strange, too, is Kawa no Nagare’s protagonist, portrayed hypnotically by Nakao Sachiyo, who wanders through a series of poetic episodes as if in a state of pantheistic rapture – like a butoh dancer or someone on an acid trip. She is known as A-ko, “ko” being a diminutive attached to Japanese girls’ names. It is an elision to parallel those found in the novels of Franz Kafka or Abe Kobo – as would be in keeping with the film’s symbolic imagery and emphasis of in-between states.
Almost everything in Kawa no Nagare is centred tightly around an apparent Freudian tension between life and death motivations. For example, A-ko enters a friend’s apartment to find a pistol on his desk. She picks it up, examines it, puts it down, and we never see it again for the rest of the film. In a wooded area, hunters pursue her, firing their guns. She runs, then crouches to the ground. When the hunters find her they are glad she is still alive, uninjured – they thought they had seen an animal. By chance, A-ko reaches the scene of a car accident not long after it has happened. Also by chance, she appears in a newspaper photo of the accident in which, we learn, another young woman has died. Later, in a city street, a man chases after her. She runs to get away, but it turns out he only wants to return her passport, which she dropped. They walk together for a while. A-ko encounters a violinist, and asks if she can touch his violin. He holds it out to her. In a state of what looks like ecstasy – even sexual ecstasy – she traces the shape of its head with her fingers. The violinist returns the instrument to a box. At a regular pace, A-ko encounters situations in which there is potential for the consummation of violence or sexual intercourse. Neither happens, and at the end of the film A-ko remarks only, “I wonder where I will go next?” In its emphasis on forward and backward motion and circularity, Kawa no Nagare is a depiction of the absurd – not in a pejorative or comedic sense, but as repetition and process: A-ko even draws a river map in which the water seems to circulate back to its source.
Notable, too, is the film’s treatment of foreign travel. A-ko enters a world that is foreign in both nation and gender: she is in Italy, almost exclusively in the company of men. As would be expected in a travel documentary (of sorts), the host environment is strange or exotic – but so is its guest. A-ko’s response to this new world is pantheistic and rapturous, in no way mundane. In strangeness, the host and the guest are equal, and perhaps for this reason receive one another with mutual respect: Kawa no Nagare emphasizes the trust, usually well placed, one puts in strangers when travelling in a foreign land – a statement echoed in some way by Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep – which is, to be sure, a very different kind of film.
In any event, Kawa no Nagare, despite perhaps being cheapened by the “made for TV” label, should be equally regarded among other strange and magical films such as The White Meadows (Rasoulof), Stalker (Tarkovsky), Death in the Country (Terayama), The Road (Omirbaev), or Three Days (Bartas). Such films downplay dialogue, favouring images and analogies as a source of meaning. This applies also to Kawa no Nagare, which can be enjoyed and understood even if one does not speak the languages of its script.