When Carlos Reygadas’s debut film, Japón, came out in 2002, my generation was just starting to drive cars, smoke weed, use contraceptives. A movie ticket at the Cineteca Nacional still cost only twenty pesos then if you showed your student ID (it was free if you were a film student), and it was there that most of us were initiated into cinema as a culture and a way of life. The thing was, though, that it was really difficult, even at the Cineteca, to watch Mexican movies—or any Latin American movies, for that matter. Few films were being produced in Mexico, and we had anyhow been educated under the precept that good cinema was always synonymous with foreign cinema, especially if it was European—whether or not a specific film might seem particularly notable. So when Japón arrived, we were unprepared, taken by surprise; but also desperately thirsty for something that we could call our own—whatever that meant. I watched Japón at the Cineteca the year it was released and remember the state of awe and intermittent rapture in which I sat through its entire length. Or perhaps I should simply say the state of Fuck yes, this is possible. But also, What is this all about?
The film opens with a scene of Mexico City traffic, a scene almost identical to the one that was surely taking place right outside and around the Cineteca: a long line of vochos and Tsurus in the darkness of an underpass, their rear lights moving like embers of slow lava toward the light at the other end of the tunnel. The effect was peculiar, as if the screen were suddenly removed and the viewers who had just sat down to watch the movie were all back in their cars, moving within and across Mexico City. The camera follows a series of streets and eventually reaches a highway by night, continuing ever forward until we are blinded by the brilliant sunlight of a crisp morning in rural Mexico. The eye of the camera has left the city, and we have left with it. Because Japón is, perhaps, a movie about leaving and leaving behind.
The transition between the city and the countryside is not a trivial or cosmetic narrative device (nothing is in Reygadas’s films). From the outset, Japón openly lays out the poles of its narrative tension: urban and rural; the man-made world with all its mores and codes, and the natural world with its own bestial laws and logic. Once in the deep of the countryside—vast, beautiful, arid planes sprinkled with magueys and nopales—we finally see the unnamed main character (played by Alejandro Ferretis), a middle-aged man who walks with the aid of a cane and has a face at once fiery and melancholy. The man, about whom we later learn that he has left the city with the intention of killing himself, comes across a little boy who is hunting a bird but is unable to finally snap its neck once it has fallen from the sky to the ground. “My fingers are not strong enough,” says the boy to the man, handing him the bird. It’s among the first sentences spoken in the film, and one that does not seem casual. Because Japón is perhaps also a film about lacking the strength to ultimately consummate desire and impulse—whether it be Eros or Thanatos tugging at the strings of the will.
“While the human drama unfolds, the seasonal rains come, the river swells, animals die and are born, clouds form and pass.”
“The question with Japón is not what it’s about but what the film does—to us, in the deepest of our emotional strata and our innermost neurological wirings.”