Friday, July 26, 2019

Nate Hood's 400 words on A Step Forward (2019) Japan Cuts 2019

On the coasts of Shirahama, a small town in western Japan, there runs a gigantic cliff overlooking the ocean. Towering over 150 feet tall and stretching well over a mile, this shelf of rock and sand is a major tourist attraction for the sleepy beachside community. But it’s pictorial beauty masks a horrifying reality—every year untold numbers of people come to the cliffs to commit suicide. But in recent years, many potential victims have been saved by a curious white sign standing on the cliffside with a telephone number and a message in bright red: “Please call before making the final decision.” The phone number goes right to the desk of Yoichi Fujiyabu, pastor of the nearby Shirahama Baptist Christ Church. Within minutes he’s there at the cliffside to save the caller from themselves. If he succeeds in talking them down, he takes them to his church which doubles as a rehabilitation center for potential suicides, supported in part by their non-profit restaurant staffed by rescues rebuilding their lives. The work gives these desperate people purpose, community, and hope. Many times it’s enough. Sometimes it’s not—rescues will leave without warning and disappear. But despite the failures, Fujiyabu’s ministry continues. It’s estimated that he’s rescued over 900 people during his time as a pastor, and the years of toil and emotional duress have eaten away at him.

This is the man at the center of Atsushi Kasezawa’s documentary A Step Forward, not some smiling savior with superhuman stamina, but a living, breathing human doggedly driven by his faith to save his fellow man. After so many years he’s tired, he’s stressed, he’s become so disillusioned with his work that he even questions its worth with his wife. In a sense the film feels reminiscent of a Catholic hagiography of the medieval European mystics who struggled with doubt and disbelief. Kasezawa’s curiously detached direction underscores this, giving Fujiyabu’s Christian faith only cursory glances before zeroing in on his day-to-day personal struggles. But perhaps Kasezawa is too detached: the film feels overlong for 99 minutes, aided in no small part by inconsistent pacing which might veer off-topic for a five-minute montage of Fujiyabu silently walking through a neighborhood festival watching fireworks. Still, it’s emotional impact is undeniable and the film stands as one of the precious few impartial examinations of Japanese Christianity in recent Japanese cinema.

Rating: 6/10

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