There is much to like and admire about Gisaburo Sugii's The Life Of Budori Gusuko as a fantasy and as an adaptation of one of the works of Kenji Miyazawa, Japan's Thoreau. It is less a straight-up story than mythmaking, fantasy, fairy-tale logic, and that makes sense in the light of how Miyazawa himself operated in his fiction and poetry. Its ambitious intentions seem to work against itself at the end, but that's no reason to sleep on it. Passion projects like this don't come around often enough.
Budori against nature
Miyazawa's name is probably familiar to readers of this site by now. He was a major name in Japanese letters in the early 20th century, albeit only posthumously — geologist, poet, author, and sometime utopian mystic as well. His Night On The Galactic Railroad is to many Japanese readers what The Little Prince was to Francophones (and later many others, too), and served as the inspiration for a magnificent animated film also directed by Sugii. Sugii transformed Miyazawa's characters into anthropomorphized cats, but less for the sake of being cutesy and more as a universalizing gesture. It was a fitting move for work from a man who studied Esperanto, converted to Nichren Buddhism, and whose work revolved around the total brotherhood of men as one of its many themes.
Sugii's Budori almost operates as a sequel to his earlier film. It has the same design aesthetic, the same unhurried pacing, and the same wondrous regard for the natural world and for humanity's place in it. It also deals with the cruelty of death and the inhumane indifference of nature to our lives, so it is not all starry-eyed sentimentalism.
Budori opens with the title character, a young man living in the forest of Ihatov (a fictitious country where many of Miyazawa's works are set) with his parents and little sister. Their lives there are bucolic and merry. Dad brings home firewood from the forest; Mom harvests from the garden out back. Then one year the winters stretch into spring, and the plants refuse to bloom. The following year is even worse, and in a chilling extended sequence, hunger overtakes the family one by one. (That the death of his family is offscreen and only alluded to only makes it all the more unsettling.) This phase of Budori's life comes to a tragic climax when his sister succumbs as well, and in a delirious dream state he fantasizes her being stolen away by a tall, wild-eyed figure.
Dreamscapes and ambitions
With nowhere else to go, Budori comes down the mountainside, and finds himself in the employ of a rowdy, chubby farmer and his ever-bustling wife. The farmer is reminiscent of another figure Budori has seen in a dream, an odd allegory where he imagined himself weaving a massive net out of silk. But the real-world version of this character is not the slave-driver his fantasy counterpart was; he's a big-hearted man, if not always the brightest bulb in the lamp. Budori, however, has intelligence and patience that his new patron does not, and so when the rice crop succumbs to blight, Budori is able to figure out a solution.
For a time, all seems well. Then the weather shifts once more, the flood plains dry out, and the cold refuses to lift. Rather than starve, Budori heads for the city, where he tracks down the professor whose writings inspired him while on the farm to find solutions. He's welcomed by the man's colleagues, who survey the local volcanoes and make Budori part of their team. As per on the farm, their work becomes his life.
But Budori is still haunted in dreams by visions of the wild-eyed figure, still obsessed with the idea that he might somehow he able to free her from his clutches. And then one day, when the weather changes yet again for the worse, he realizes it isn't a matter of saving her, but keeping any number of others, himself included, from dying.
The two halves of the movie — Budori's dream life, and his struggles to not be at the mercy of his waking world — at first seem to have little to do with each other. In many movies, dream sequences are essentially interstitials; here, they run long, almost to distraction. But I tried to take that in the spirit in which it was offered. If they ran that long, then perhaps that was because they felt as important to Budori as his waking life. And it wasn't as if the events in his dreams are all that difficult to interpret allegorically: This dark spirit is an outgrowth of Budori's sense of guilt over being unable to save his sister. it tempts him to follow her, to find her and restore her to the living. It doesn't matter if that's impossible; the urge is all.
One last thing
My main problem is not that Budori brings up these things or treats them in this fashion, but the way it chooses to resolve them is too ambiguous for its own good, even if that conforms to the movie's overall logic.
I'll have to spoil the ending to explain. Budori realizes it may be possible to offset the latest wave of cooling by forcing a volcano to outgas a significant amount of carbon. But the other scientists are worried about how difficult it may be to do that, and vote down the idea. Then one night in his garret, Budori is visited once more by the spirit that stole away his sister, who tempts him to go to the volcano and finish his work, and thus not only prevent more deaths like hers but be rejoined with her.
Here's the problem: we never see this last bit actually happening. It's all implied offscreen. My interpretation is that Budori stole an aircraft and finished the job himself at the cost of his own life. But because the details are not provided, it becomes the kind of ambiguous that works against the film, not for it. It's not good ambiguity if it deprives us of story details that actually matter. If the details of how Budori lived his life are important, then the details of how that life ended matter at least as much, don't they? For the movie to wave its hands and shoo us off over this is frustrating.
What I can't complain about, and what makes the movie absolutely worth seeing anyway, is just about everything else in it. Sugii's Railroad was gorgeous in every frame, and Budori is equally lovely. Sometimes the production team uses CGI instead of hand-drawn backgrounds, but with good taste — e.g., in the big-city sequences in the last third of the film, all steampunk-y in the Metropolis vein. But what's even better is how all this prettiness doesn't distract from the gentle and sad way Sugii regards Budori and all those near him. I keep coming back to the scenes where his family is torn away from him — not all at once, but in one painful layer after the next — and how effective that is at making us feel how isolated Budori is against nature, and all the more motivated for him to master it and not it him.
The least common denominator of praise I could give for a project like this is that it provides English-speaking audiences with yet another way to know Miyazawa and his works. It does that, but not in the bloodless manner of a Classics Illustrated. At one point early in the film Budori hears Miyazawa's own poem "Strong In The Rain" in school, and here it works as more than just a cross-reference; Budori seems to take them as something to aspire to. And woven throughout, on every level — even the ones that don't work entirely — is what I guess could be called the Miyazawa outlook: It is foolish to try and impose our will on the world, but as long as we are as gods with our technology (as someone else once put it), we might as well get good at it. For everyone's sake, not just our own.