By Brandon Kratkoczki
The title of Blank 13 refers to the number of years our main character’s father has been absent from his life. Their reconnection, unfortunately, is brought about by the father’s declining health at the hands of cancer. With this film, first-time director Takumi Saito has created a beautifully told story, one of heartbreak, loss, and finding something that represents forgiveness. Though the film does show first-time director jitters here and there, it is still a strong piece of work that represents many of the best aspects of traditional Japanese chamber storytelling.
I was running a bet in my head as to how long it would take me to mention Yasujiro Ozu. I was hoping that I could avoid bringing him up, as I would’ve liked to describe what an individualistic film this is. Alas, it is worth mentioning that this film very much apes the style of the seminal Ozu’s work. It most resembles Tokyo Story in its themes and pacing, which is notably slow. Though I do acknowledge that this film isn’t coming from a completely original place, I’m not going to complain too much about it, as I do love the work of Ozu, and because that sort of plotting and construction is rarely seen on the big screen anymore. I appreciated that the director of this film took the notes that he took from Ozu. There is generational tension throughout, as the children of the dying man simply can’t understand why their father would ever leave them or why their mother wouldn’t be willing to attend the funeral. I appreciate the borrowed pacing. I could see someone not in tune with Eastern storytelling not particularly enjoying this film, as it definitely does take its time. However, I found the slow pace extremely beneficial, as it really allows for some wonderful, quiet character moments throughout. The film is only 70-odd minutes, and it doesn’t waste a second. This tight running time keeps a lot of fat from the screen, which is an admirable move on the part of the director and editor.
It would be mistake if I didn’t mention the wonderful performances. The iMDB page for this film is unfortunately not well constructed at all, and I cannot tell which character belongs to which actor. I will say, though, that our lead gives a wonderful and quiet performance that carries much of the film’s emotional weight. Excellent, too, is the father character. Though it is clear in flashback sequences that he has a past of ill repute and behavior, he seems genuinely sorrowful and sympathetic when we return to his character later on in the film. But perhaps my favorite performance in the whole picture is the mother character. She is absolutely phenomenal as an abandoned woman on the verge of a breakdown following her former husband’s death. She’s removed, quiet, not wanting to do anything at all. A shot of her smoking a cigarette at a baseball game as she skips her ex’s funeral is the most powerful shot of the film, and one of the best scenes of the entire first weekend of the Heartland Film Festival.
In regards to my complaints about the film, they can mostly be chalked up to first-time director blues. The color grading is a bit all over the place. Many of the shots are blue in tone, but I didn’t feel as if that was completely intentional. There doesn’t seem to be strong enough of an artistic choice or aesthetic to confirm that. In addition, I found myself confused by a mid-film tonal shift. The film is extremely somber and reflective for most of its running time. However, right when we hit the father’s funeral, the entire picture sort of morphs into a wacky comedy, with every single attendant of the funeral getting to do a bit. It sort of reminded me of the funeral scene from Ikiru, but without the subtlety or grace that Kurosawa possessed. I also wished that there was more character development. The main character’s brother appears in the film, yet doesn’t have all too much to say or do before he’s talking about how much he hates his father. In addition, there is a pregnancy storyline that goes absolutely nowhere. I almost wish the film was an hour longer so we could really get into these characters and explore all of the dramatic possibilities.
Even after all that, I can’t find myself being all too down on this film. For a first time director, Saito has made a strong, dramatic piece that perfectly fits in line with a wonderful Japanese tradition of filmmaking. Here’s hoping that the director can get someone to write another draft or two of the screenplay next time, as well as a more competent color grader. As long as his talents keep improving, Saiko is definitely a director to look out for.