On Riverside Mukolitta, dir. Naoko Ogigami. Japan. 2021.
The term “shokakko (小確幸)”, an abbreviation for “small, real happiness”, was coined by Haruki Murakami in the 1980s. In his writing, drinking a cold, refreshing beer after a good workout is a “shokakko”, as is having a drawer neatly filled with folded underwear. The same idea of cherishing the small things in everyday life became the foundation of a whole genre of cinema and TV drama after the turn of the century. These works focus on ordinary people’s daily lives with an overall tone of gentleness, in favor of location shooting, tranquil mise-en-scene, and melodious scores. Steady medium shots underline typical imagery such as cooking and eating, casual conversations by the table, a proper amount of manual labor, and relaxed walks down the road. The stories are usually set in charming weather (hiyori 日和), a simple place away from the metropolitan excitement and anxiety, and a small but inclusive community that harbors anyone who needs it. Because of these prominent features, the Japanese audience has come to a general agreement describing the genre iyashi kei (癒やし系, the emotionally healing type), a type of narrative that provides temporary comfort and relaxation.
Ogigami Naoko is arguably an iconic filmmaker of this genre since the release of her earlier works such as Kamome Shokudo (2006) and Megane/Glasses (2007) which were well received both at home and in Europe. The leading actor in both, Satomi Kobayashi, goes on to work with Glasses’ making-of director, Kana Matsumoto, for more of the same kind, including the film Mother Water (2010), the TV series Bread and Soup and Cat Weather (2013) and Pension Metsä (2021). Other actors familiar to the genre include the veteran Masako Motai, Mikako Ichikawa, Ryo Kase, Yu Aoi, and lately Haru Kuroki, etc. The Little Forest franchise (2014 & 2015), starring TIFF 2021’s festival ambassador, Ai Hashimoto, was another successful example that crossed national borders and touched the hearts of audiences in Taiwan, China, and South Korea. A few years later, South Korea made its own version of the story as well as a variety show based on the same idea where pop stars were invited to spend some quality time with their families enjoying nature. All these countries are facing urbanization problems such as congestion, housing difficulties, long working hours, and stressful working environments, where work-life balance may be nothing more than a pipe dream. On the other hand, the consumerist culture has been greatly exploiting the idea of “nature” and “tradition” in recent decades, from tourism to cosmetics. The idea of finding oneself while encountering a new community in rural Japan (or a Japanese enclave as in the case of Kamome Shokudo) is very much still alive since Japanese National Railways first launched its “Discover Japan” campaign in 1970. While the protagonists gradually adjust to the new community and learn to appreciate the new life, audiences also find themselves sharing that comfort and the appreciation of their own lives.
While maintaining the warmth in its DNA, Riverside Mukoritta smartly brings more bitterness to its palette, lightly touching on issues of criminality, lonely death (kodokushi 孤独死), broken family, and so on. Each main character is somewhat quirky and touching, without exception, and they all eventually reconcile with what life has left them. Buddhist thinking is once again deeply entrenched in the philosophy of life here, only this time it is brought up to the foreground by the term Mukoritta (meaning a slice of time) and the monk character. The small and real happiness remains in the center of the story, while the audience is constantly reminded by the other little incidents that no romantic fantasy is promised; no healing comes without pain.