Some movies give you everything and manage to say nothing. Some movies give you what seems like nothing and use that to say everything. The Rebirth is made up of the tiniest details of the daily lives of two people who have died emotionally, and uses the smallest changes in those details to show us how they are coming back to life again. It’s not a movie most people will find interesting, I suspect—it’s in the same vein as the infamously static Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which also bode its time and struck like lightning. Very little happens in The Rebirth, but every frame of the movie commanded my attention completely, and when it was over I understood why it had been made in such a monomaniacal way.
Rebirth deals with two victims of the same disaster, the mother of a young girl who committed a murder and the father of the victim (director Masahiro Kobayashi). They are interviewed by an unseen third party; they squirm and can barely look the camera in the eye. (The woman wears dark glasses and lets her hair hang over her face to further obscure herself). The father doesn’t want anything to do with the outside world; the mother is half-dead of shame and guilt. Their lives are effectively over, and there is nothing left for them to do but disappear somewhere.
A year goes by. Both of them move to the same village in Hokkaido—a frozen, spare place that has all the charm of an uncapped landfill. He works at the local steel mill; she is a cook in the kitchen for the pension (or maybe worker’s dorm) where he lives, an unluxurious building surrounded by mountains of scrap metal. The movie is masterful at showing us how their lives are both separate and parallel. He feeds the furnace at the steel plant; she scrambles eggs and washes dishes, her face always obscured behind her low-hanging bangs. His favorite meal is a raw egg over rice with soy sauce in the cafeteria for the lodging house; he drinks an entire glass of tea at once. Some nights, he falls asleep reading; some nights, she simply sits in her bedding and stares at the wall. They may be numb in different ways, but they are both still numb.
Neither of them have lives apart from work. They do their jobs, they go back to their bare little rooms, they eat, they sleep. The movie’s entire first hour is devoted to making us not only see this but feel it—but it’s fascinating instead of boring, because the movie pays attention to an abundance of little things that add up. Consider the fact that the two of them are living so close to each other, and yet never meet. The movie makes this clear in its own way: for the first hour of the film or more, we never see them in the same shots. We could, but the movie has been designed to deprive us of such a thing. The camera angles, the editing, the selection of scenes have all but guaranteed this.
They are both in pain. In one early shot, we see her standing in the kitchen after her morning shift, her whole body rigid with grief. Then she leaves, goes around the corner to a convenience store, and buys herself a pre-made sandwich and a box drink. Why does she do that, when she can clearly cook things any number of times tastier than this horse feed? Simple: She cooks for them, but never for herself. It is her form of penance, or maybe better to say self-punishment. His pain is even more internalized: he walks with his shoulders rounded down, never looks anyone in the eye, lets work and the rhythms of his daily routine provide him with something like comfort. When eating, his attention drifts off to some space that no one but him can see. His dumplings, his noodle bowls, all go untouched.
Slowly we see more. He buys a cellphone—why? It’s not as if he speaks to anyone in the first place. Then his intentions become clear: he buys a second one and leaves it in the kitchen for her. It sits on the floor of her room, still in the box, like a bomb that hasn’t been disarmed. She leaves it at his door. He throws both phones away. The next morning they stare each other down in the kitchen—this is the first time we have seen them together—and he wrestles her outside. Not a word between them; the looks on their faces tell us everything. Later, she confronts him in the corridor. Not a word. Again, even though all we can see of him is his retreating back, that is enough to tell us what he thinks. Once more: she confronts him outside his car. Slaps his face. Leaves.
I’ve gone into a great deal more detail than I might with another movie, if only because I want to communicate some inkling of the film’s approach. It doesn’t hurry us from one plot point to another; it sits and watches, and lets things unfold as they must. If the frozen sea within them is breaking up (to paraphrase Franz Kafka), it is best that we watch it happen at an appropriate pace. When every day is the same, and the slightest change is an avalanche, it’s that much harder to make that register with an audience reared on seeing a cut every two seconds or less. All the more reason the movie takes its time. All the more reason why, for instance, it comes as such a shock when he returns to his room and sees one phone, not two, sitting next to the door. Or when she places his favorite variety of drink box on his plate, since he always takes the same food tray (the one that sits at eye level). Or when she finally tries to speak to him face to face.
Movies work best when they evoke a feeling, and sometimes that feeling is of a space in a person’s life. A single held shot of a now-empty room compels us to wonder about what is missing, why it vanished, who disappeared and to what end. This movie works that way: the plot is less important than the feeling it evokes, that of a death-march being disrupted by the messy cries of people who still, under it all, want what share of life they can take. Kobayashi also directed the similarly narrow and controlled Bashing, another movie where very little happens outwardly, but inside the characters, continents are colliding. I was also reminded of the soul-on-ice feeling I got from Akira Yoshimura’s novel On Parole, where a man convicted of a crime of passion uneasily tries to reintegrate himself back into the real world, finds what comfort he can in the minutiae of daily life, and is shattered when he realizes he has to feel something, sooner rather than later, one way or the other.