'Sky' views characters in surreal tones

Peter Porco

Hiroshi Toda, director of the beguiling "Sky in December," has made nine movies since his first in 2003. But he is not a career filmmaker. Toda holds a full-time job in Kyoto, Japan, managing a psychiatric clinic where he is also a nurse. He makes movies -- award-winning movies -- on the side.

His psychiatric work seems relevant to Toda's kind of cinema. He has a reputation for calm, emotionally charged films driven by character and void of gratuitous physical action.

"Sky in December," which played Sunday afternoon at Fireweed and replays there at 8 p.m. Thursday (in Japanese with English subtitles), is a good example. It's a movie about a small group of characters challenged by life circumstances and conflicts but who never resort to violence and never lose essential respect for each other even when angry.

It has its sentimental moments but only when they fit. The movie is never cloying, while its characters engross us with their humanity.

There's the old sidewalk fortune teller, Zenko, who gives his clients homemade amulets for good luck. Because business is bad, Zenko has turned to Yabuta, a young loan shark, who is now demanding repayment.

There's Nagoaka, recently widowed and crushed at his loss, who is suddenly penniless because he can't find the cash and bank book his wife hid for safekeeping. Nagoaka turns to the same loan shark for money, and to Zenko for help in finding the stash in his house.

Nagoaka also now yearns to find the daughter whom he disowned 20 years earlier because she took up with a "punk." Again, he turns to Zenko and to Yabuta for help. Plot lines ravel and unravel and there's a brief surreal interlude in which Nagoaka steps in to play rhythm guitar in a rock band.

Among the more unusual features of "Sky in December" is that Toda -- who's the film's writer, producer, cinematographer and editor -- recorded it in high-definition black-and-white video. The effect is strange, like watching mid-1960s television. Depth is diminished, the settings are reduced in importance almost to afterthoughts (the sky of the title has little meaning except to appear in the lens overhead at somewhat regular intervals), while the characters seem dreamlike.

But otherwise this is one very straightforward movie. Toda doesn't go in for fancy camera work. He keeps his lens still, trained on his actors. The film's pace is that of a patient man. He is not afraid of long moments of silence, of the contact people make even when they merely sit beside each other.

Peter Porco catches movies in Anchorage and blogs at adn.com/greenroom.

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