Turning footage of your stay-cation destination into a fully fledged film seems like such stuff as dreams are made on, a project which many an aspiring filmmaker has begun but never quite managed to bring to completion. Yet for his second directorial debut, director and screenwriter Fumito Fujikawa accomplishes just this with seemingly effortless skill and aplomb. A seamless blend of fact and fiction, The Name of the Whale is an exquisitely crafted “drama-mentary” drawn from Fujikawa’s own childhood recollections and a two-year sojourn in the rural Japanese village of Miyoshi.
As unique in its plot content as it is genre-defying, this film is first and foremost the pre-coming-of-age story of Yuta, a middle-school boy whose love for whales and paleontology inspires him, as a summer project, to dig for cetacean fossils along the Miyoshi shoreline. He is joined by two friends, Sanshiro the artist and Naito the joker. However, fossil-digging soon becomes his least concern as Yuta learns to cope with some earth-shattering developments throughout the summer: his grandmother passes away; his mother’s new partner moves in; Naito leaves to live with his father…
Once again collaborating with actress Yuki Kimura, Fujikawa brings us a film that is organic in both construction and execution. In a post-screening Q&A, the director revealed that while the bulk of the film had been shot over the period of one month, he had already begun documenting local histories and festivals during his two years in Miyoshi. Yuta’s residence had in fact been the filmmaker’s own. Even the fictional parts of the film are true to life. While the protagonist’s family history is invented, a Miyoshi museum plaque testifies that a whale fossil had indeed been discovered by and named after a junior-high student in 1981. Fujikawa casted locally, and all three boys retained their own names in the film.
The Name of the Whale offers us a rare glimpse into life in a rural Japanese fishing village. In fact, one of the main themes of the story — the bridging of new and old — is embodied by the town itself. Antiquated architecture is installed with modern appliances. Traditional wooden apartments with sliding doors are fitted with electricity in a town where shores are still lighted by paper lanterns. Artisan family-owned businesses still pack products by hand. Ancient art transforms to fit the times. Sanshiro performs a kabuki dance sans mask on the street while Yuta’s mother works at a modern geisha house.
The contemplative ambience is matched with equally subtle cinematography. Fujikawa displays mastery of his medium by achieving a perfect balance of bustling cityscape, ocean views, and country landscape. Scene transitions are fluid and nuanced; a Hiroshima survivor’s account of the atomic bomb gives way to the explosive sound of festival fireworks.
At once hauntingly beautiful, profoundly thought-provoking, and down-to-earth accessible, The Name of the Whale transcends genres and cultural barriers to bring its audience a deeply satisfying experience. This is indeed groundbreaking work from Fujikawa.