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For decades, theatrical exhibition has been synonymous with tent-pole event movies, with smaller films typically relegated to the home video/streaming sphere. But my viewing of They Say Nothing Stays the Same (hereafter They Say) would have dramatically benefited from a theatrical screening, not so I might better soak in its impressionist panoramas (lovely as they are), but simply for the sake of concentration. At 137 minutes, actor Joe Odagiri’s directorial debut quietly requests an immersion not easily sustained when emails and a “pause” button are but a few finger taps away, and the will is weak.

The film centers on Toichi (Akira Emoto), an aging ferryman in an unnamed forest. He spends his days spiriting people across a calm river, so they might access a nearby, unseen village. Like The Tragedy of Macbeth, the limited geography of They Say suggests a kind of purgatorial existence for Toichi and his passengers. What becomes of them once they exit the old man’s small boat and march off into the wilderness? At one point a chatty doctor muses that Toichi won’t have trouble crossing Styx because he’s a ferryman himself, and game recognize game.

They Say takes place during the Meiji era (1868-1912), the period marking Japan’s transition from feudal isolation to modern industrialization, the Samurai displaced or dead. Hollywood likes to set its westerns around this time to delineate the “closing” of the frontier and the end of the cowboy, ever clinging to the creation myths of Frederick Jackson Turner. This is communicated in They Say through the construction of an arch bridge that will soon render Toichi obsolete. The clanging of metal breaks the tranquility of flowing water and cicadas. Soon enough it’ll be the rushing of cars. 

That’s not to suggest that They Say is a maudlin ode to a romanticized bucolic past, though that might have given it a more coherent thesis. For all its contemplative long takes and pillow shot close-up of lightly rippling water, They Say is, counterintuitively, overburdened with incident. Toichi discovers an unconscious young woman (Ririka Kawashima) floating downstream and nurses her back to health. Her identity and backstory is presented as a literal mystery threatening to undermine the more figurative, existential mystery underpinning Toichi and his labors, betraying a lack of trust in the material or the audience, or both. At its best, They Say recalls Abbas Kiarostami’s excellent Ten in the episodic nature of Toichi’s elliptical interactions with village denizens, my favorite involving a dead hunter’s final offering to the wilderness. At its weakest, it plays like a truncated Netflix series dropping narrative breadcrumbs to keep you compulsively watching. Perhaps Odagiri realized this movie was doomed for home viewing and planned accordingly.

In Ursula Le Guin’s review of Star Wars (reprinted in Dancing at the Edge of the World), she admired the scenes involving lost robots traversing a desert wasteland, but rhetorically wondered what place nostalgia had in science fiction (imagine what she might have made of The Book of Boba Fett). The world of possibility evoked in They Say feels similarly constrained, not by serials of the 1930s but the current conventions of prestige television.

They Say Nothing Stays the Same (2019)

Runtime: 137 minutes

MPA Rating: No rating

Streaming: Available to rent

Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....