Backwater (Tomogui) is a tangled and ultimately repulsive work: at times director Shinji Aoyama unravels the situational despondence of his characters with delicacy and skill, and there are points at which Backwater is both aesthetically appealing and emotionally compelling. However Aoyama, who has been referred to as the ‘director as cinephile’ for his dedication to film theory and criticism, is overambitious – and reckless – with his sliced appropriations of 1980s Japanese S&M porn. Together with some affrontingly unsophisticated characterisation, the film becomes bound to its offenses.
In a Japanese riverside port town in 1988, seventeen-year old Toma, a disaffected young man with a traumatic past and bleak future, is fixed in both his relationship with a psychopathically abusive father and the heavy stasis of the titular backwater. He lives with his father and his father’s girlfriend, Kotoko, but uses his mother, who he visits regularly, as an escape and his own girlfriend, Chigusa, as an outlet. All three women are abused by his father. Backwater opens on Toma as he walks impassively along the river and through his neighbourhood, and the film is at its strongest here as Aoyama establishes a deeply atmospheric temporal and regional specificity. Expansive framing and steady, slow tracking, create a sustained sense of emptiness and openness. Likewise, the use of extra-diegetic sound, relatively sparing for almost all of the film, is noticeably secondary to noises of organic banality – buzzing insects, creaking metal, running water, soft wind – which strengthen the suffocating insularity.
In these early scenes, Toma provides a retrospective voiceover, which dispassionately explains his family history – his mothers crippling, his father’s brutality – which is jarringly, but effectively, dissonant with the soothingly rhythmic editing and camerawork. The discomforting of the audience continues as Toma meets with his girlfriend, Chigusa, and has brusque, mechanical sex with her in a shrine storeroom. As Backwater progresses, the development of the relationship between Toma and his mother make for some of the most restrained and appealing parts of the film, despite the occasional exchanges of unnecessarily crude and confronting dialogue. Unfortunately, these exchanges are not momentary lapses or scripting misjudgements, but rather are part of Backwater’s defining inability to separate gritty, dark realism from the needless and facile appropriation of trauma for shock value.
Jinko, Toma’s mother, is understandably harsh in her honesty with her son about his father’s violence. We’re meant to understand that Toma fears becoming like his father and is disgusted by his behavior, to which he is forced to endure through observation. However, Toma is not all that unwilling of a witness and his inward self-loathing quickly begins to feel like unjustifiable self-indulgence: he attempts to rape Chigusa as warped comfort after discovering his father has conceived another child. The scene seems to be trying to convey a self-hatred so virulent that Toma is agonised into depravity by the idea of another sharing his cursed paternity, but for an audience to accept the legitimacy of this self-hatred requires more trust than the film earns. Toma’s retrospective voiceover is perhaps a failed attempt to show a future maturity, and imply that Toma grows into greater self-awareness and understanding than we see, but its fragmentary and half-hearted deployment precludes the potential redemption.
There are repeated, unnecessary and graphic POV slow-motion shots of Kotoko being beaten as Toma’s father rapes her, which appear to have been included with an unjustified presumption of their artistic worth. There is only one scene in Backwater in which the disturbingly violent porn-shots have the emotional weight and relevance to justify themselves. In it, naked and vulnerable under greened lighting, Toma masturbates to a montage of growingly disturbing images and the editing jumps between his imaginings; his wretchedly slumped back; and the grotesque yet beautifully shot image of his cum sliding across the bathroom tiles. In an interview with The Japan Times, Aoyama claims that he aimed to recreate “the taste” of ‘Nikkatsu Roman Porno,’ a specific genre of 1980s violent softcore pornography. Perhaps the shots are an experimental attempt to use ‘the taste’ of a period-specific genre to add to his otherwise-skillful capture of time and place, which are deeply important in Backwater. But Aoyama is deft enough without them, and their inclusion remains unwarranted. Aoyama also suggests that the ostensible climax of the film, in which Jinko spears the father after he beats and rapes Chigusa, redeems Backwater and circumvents the potential objectification of its female characters (“At the end the women go on to win… If that didn’t happen there would be no clear-cut victory.”)
Putting aside that the ending is impressively un-affecting, given how evocatively and skillfully done other parts of the film are – but also given how exaggeratedly dramatic it is (there’s even a melodic thrum as the father’s body slips into the omnipresent river) , Aoyama’s idea of women ‘winning’ is offensively callous and implies a significant desensitisation to misogyny and trauma. The suggestion that ‘the women’ can simply triumph over extreme and dehumanizing brutalization by just gutting a psychopath is much more objectifying that Aoyama would evidently like to think. Indeed, the very psychopathy of Toma’s father is a major weakness in the film – albeit one that might have been imported from the original novel -which reduces domestic and sexual abuse to a caricatured hell.
As the film thankfully nears the end, there are two sex scenes that, had Backwater been more restrained throughout, would have worked far better to close the story with a more thoughtful ambiguity – during one, Kotoko demonstrates a heartbreaking internalisation of her own abuse, and in the other Chigusa forces Toma to agree to have his hands bound during intercourse so he cannot hit her. The latter, though, still relies on the lazily deterministic rendering of misogyny that saturates Backwater. If a film could be broken into singular, isolated scenes Backwater would not be nearly as repugnant – but, of course, it can’t, and so it is. The well-acted moments of complex and achingly painful interactions and the fleeting entrancements of the atmospheric insularity are laid to waste by a reckless embrace of sexual violence, and a plot and script that undercut the latent potential of the characters.
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