No Home Movie
By Lawrence Garcia
The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)
Dir. C. W. Winter & Anders Edström, U.S./Sweden/Japan/UK, Grasshopper Film
The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) runs a total of 480 minutes, or the span of an average workday. Shot for 27 weeks, spread out over a period of 14 months, it follows Tayoko Shiojiri over the course of five seasons, in her village in Kyoto Prefecture, home to about 47 other (mostly elderly) inhabitants. Drawing its title from Hesiod’s The Works and Days, an ancient Boiotian epic centered on the theme of a useful farmer’s life, the film is structured mainly around Tayoko’s labors. We observe at length as she tirelessly keeps house, tills the surrounding farmland, interacts with neighbors and visiting family, while also tending to her dying husband Junji. The initial impetus for the project, C. W. Winter and Anders Edström’s follow-up to The Anchorage (2009), goes back a full decade—though for Edström, Tayoko’s real-life son-in-law, the undertaking extends even further, encompassing a 677-page monograph comprising 23 years’ worth of photographs taken around the eponymous region. Eight hours don’t make a day—but watching this film, one is reminded of how much can be contained within it.
These basic details are worth laying out not just to demonstrate that the film arrives with a sense of monumentality but also to show how little one has really said about the film after conveying this. The typical approach, when faced with works of such evident ambition, is to call them more than “just” films, often with some appeal to “life”—the implicit charge being that the pleasures of movies, as of art in general, must be justified by an external reference to reality. But however effective as advocacy, such statements are of no real use to criticism, and cannot be the basis for any genuine cinematic value. In other words, the question “What is The Works and Days?” cannot be answered solely by reference to the film’s production. Like the basic tenets of Hesiod’s explicitly didactic poem, it must be referred to the continuity of tradition.
Here, the lineage of the landscape film soon emerges as an indispensable point of reference. No doubt due to Edström’s photography practice and familiarity with the region, most every frame has visual interest; there is no shortage of striking low-light passages, geometrically pleasing compositions, and breathtaking transitions: a patch of forest gradually transformed into a starry expanse, the changes of light atop a mountain on a cloudy day. But in contrast to, say, certain works of James Benning (who is acknowledged in the credits), Winter and Edström do not rely primarily on the long take to fill the film’s runtime.
The directors have repeatedly distanced themselves from the more conventional conceptions of extremely long films. In an interview for Cinema Scope, Winter puts the film’s average shot length at 18 seconds, which already separates it from the durational exercises of, say, Lav Diaz. In this case, a median shot length may be even more illustrative, as the rhythms of The Works and Days more often recall the architecture films of Heinz Emigholz or the establishing sequences of Ozu, with most shots held for no more than a few seconds. Indeed, one way of looking at The Works and Days is to see it as asking what would happen if you multiplied the number of interstitial shots in an Ozu film. If one were to posit a “pure” landscape film on one end and a “pure” domestic drama on the other, where would one place, say, Floating Weeds (1959), if one tripled the number of its establishing shots? What about if they took up half the film, or even three quarters of it?
Ontology, Heidegger tells us, is the doctrine of categories, and watching The Works and Days, one begins to realize that the question, “What is?” cannot ultimately be separated from the question “Which one?” Another way of putting this is that questions of length and duration are also fundamentally questions of genre, or the differentiating factors in cinematic experience. Divided into five chapters, The Works and Days raises the matter explicitly in its second part, during a community performance of a song with the refrain “It’s a soap opera. / Women’s, women’s lives”—lines that continue to echo across the film, if only as counterpoint. For despite details like Junji’s terminal heart diagnosis and Tayoko’s growing sense of solitude and regret, it would be absurd to call The Works and Days a soap opera, just as it would be absurd to call, say, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles a melodrama. It would be easy enough to produce a sensationalistic summary of Akerman’s film—which like The Works and Days bears a long, intentionally prosaic title—but its originality lies in how its events are made inseparable from particular radicals of presentation. The rhetorical force of its ending, which is to say the force of its genre transformations, cannot be seen apart from its 201-minute runtime. Likewise, one might look at how the episodic segmentation of Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy (2015) allows it to expand into the delirious verbal deluge of “The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches,” or how the lengthy theater troupe rehearsals in Out 1 (1971) transform in the broader context of a labyrinthine conspiracy plot. Mariano Llinás’s La Flor (2018) is, on the whole, more convincing conceptually than texturally, but its unmistakable genre play cannot be detached from its immense runtime.
In The Works and Days, one can identify the generic seeds of a diary film and community picture, marriage drama and portrait study. Occasional journal entries, ranging from drily observational to movingly laconic, punctuate Tayoko’s seasonal labors, which in turn open onto the larger workings of the village itself, seen in details like a couple of amusingly brief news broadcasts and an annual town hall meeting. Her relationship with Junji, meanwhile, takes precedence in the film’s third and fourth parts: the couple takes a train to the Tenryu-ji gardens, a rare excursion from their home village which culminates in a startling confessional monologue from Tayoko, balanced by equally startling silence from Junji and the directors’ uninflected presentation of the surrounding scenery. But even as The Works and Days develops this marital dynamic, which constitutes the most conventionally dramatic part of the film, relatively speaking, it continually unsettles any sense of a linear trajectory with a bevy of unexpected formal moves: passages that plunge the viewer into complete darkness and a densely layered soundscape of natural activity; an astonishing car-ride anecdote conveyed entirely in subtitles, with the diegetic audio replaced by the sounds of nesting swallows; and, perhaps most memorably, the subtlest ghostly effect since Uncle Boonmee’s wife returned for dinner.
One important consequence of this variety is that it makes narrative, so often seen as the primary basis of cinematic expression, a clear byproduct of more fundamental considerations of formal construction. Indeed, The Works and Days may be said to explore, in a particularly thorough manner, the notion that narrative in cinema is not in fact primary, but a secondary derivation of movement and time. This, in so many words, is a major tenet of Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, texts that, whatever their occasional obscurities, rise to the challenge of developing critical language adequate to cinema’s conditions of possibility. This explicit reversal of dependencies is one reason Deleuze is able to see Ozu, for instance, not as some paragon of “Japaneseness,” but as, quite simply, one of the great inventors of modern cinema. And it is this reversal, too, that enables The Works and Days to encompass such a breadth of stylistic variation.
Across its runtime, The Works and Days includes a number of unexpected segues into outright portraiture: inserts of significant objects wrapped in plastic, framed as if in a makeshift studio; sequences from a photo album, likely shot by Edström; glimpses of a book filled with paintings of horses. Like Morgan Fisher’s scintillating 2003 short ( ), which arranges insert shots culled from classic Hollywood movies, these sequences remind us that the narrative function of any given image is after all contingent—subject to rule sets, conventions, permutations, and possibilities of expression so often taken for granted. The Works and Days is no “mere” exercise in style, but rather reveals the extent to which all films are exercises in style. Like the best of experimental cinema, it involves us more directly into the construction of something we should call a world.
The French poet Paul Valéry once remarked that cosmogony, or “the total explanation of the material and spiritual universe,” is one of the oldest literary forms. Similarly, we might consider whether metaphysics is a genuine aspect of the cinema. This is not to suggest that filmmakers are “really” philosophers, whatever that would mean—only that in the study of film, one eventually has to contend with Deleuze’s statement that “The cinema does not just present images, it surrounds them with a world.” At no point in The Works and Days is this more strikingly brought out than when Tayoko, in Part II, steps through various rooms of her house, methodically opening and closing a series of shōji or sliding doors. Though entirely unremarkable on the level of narrative, the scene unfolds with so strict an adherence to classical continuity, heretofore absent from the film, that it feels genuinely uncanny. It becomes a rupture in the rarest sense. For it resonates not as a superficial break with convention, but as a radical rediscovery of it.
It is of course no accident that this startling formal recalibration accompanies the most nondescript, mechanical of movements. Much of the film may be said to work in this way: as renewing the significance of the everyday, of Tayoko’s actions especially. But if it is again worth emphasizing that the film’s originality is not limited to its depiction of a way of life, it’s because the last two parts of The Works and Days present something of a difficulty in this regard.
That Tayoko Shiojiri plays a version of herself throughout is clear enough. And for a while, the film’s protean formal grammar makes any unprompted speculation about its production-phase origins seem rightly irrelevant. One can contextualize the film within the recent vogue of so-called “hybrid” cinema, or within a more complex understanding of the documentary/fiction dichotomy that goes back to André Bazin and Italian neorealism—but in either case, the film’s achievement is not bound by its social content. As Junji’s deteriorating health comes to the fore, however, culminating in his death, the directors’ formal interventions give way to a more conventional pattern of withholding: the film’s fourth and fifth parts unfold with a methodical, if familiar avoidance of anything that might constitute melodrama or emotional intensity. Much of this material, it turns out, was filmed earliest, shot soon after Tayoko’s real-life husband passed away suddenly following a terminal heart diagnosis—and not long before Winter and Edström had planned to start filming a project based on the couple’s final time together. After receiving word of Junji’s death, the directors chose to shoot his funeral and wake, continuing on the project with Tayoko afterwards, with Junji played by her husband’s childhood friend Kaoru Iwahana. Thus, the act of filming The Works and Days was for Tayoko a kind of cathartic reenactment, an opportunity to relive those last days.
Still, even if these matters can account for the film’s lingering irresolution, its success or failure cannot be measured by it. And while much of the film succeeds beautifully, offering a continual sense of openness and transformation, the passages surrounding Junji’s death converge more prosaically onto a record of his passing. Every movie is a document of its own creation, yes—but one very quickly realizes that any masterpiece worth the designation cannot be reduced to mere document. The matter would of course be different if Winter and Edström had contrived to make explicit the project’s emotionally complex origins, but The Works and Days contains no definitive gesture in this regard.
In the end, the stately length of The Works and Days creates the impression of a film that has subordinated its narrative shape to its representational heft, one that lingers on the incidental and the transient, giving us time to take in the scenery. But watching the film, one feels, too, a kind of elemental energy that reality alone cannot account for—the forming and shaping power that Tayoko’s efforts at tilling the land may be said to epitomize. Over the course of The Works and Days, we are repeatedly presented with images of liminality: the fences of a garden, the borders of a farm, the ground on which human vision sets forth to work. And it is in such spaces that the film truly makes its mark, insisting, like all of Tayoko’s works and days, on the primacy of creative design—the forming and shaping power that constitutes a world.