‘The Works and Days’ Review: The Time of Our Lives

In “The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin),” a woman moves through life on her family’s farm in a Japanese mountain village. As her husband falls ill, she spends more and more time on the chores, though visits from friends and relatives bring comfort and joy. Shot over 14 months, the film is a life event in and of itself, spanning eight hours.

You may flash back to a line from “Inside Llewyn Davis,” delivered by Bud (F. Murray Abraham) after hearing Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) song: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” But watching “The Works and Days,” I began to feel that it could perfectly suit someone breaking a pandemic moviegoing drought: Its homey environs and lushly photographed natural world induce a heightening of the senses and an attention to lovely subtleties of light, color and fellow feeling.

How the movie passes the time is how you or I would probably pass the time, or much of it — through the routines and conversations that bind together our moments and ourselves. The film opens with a hilarious drinking session, followed by a drive home that drops us into the domestic sphere at the film’s heart. Tayoko (Tayoko Shiojiri) — whose real diary entries are periodically read in voice-over — is seen minding the household, chatting with neighbors who bring food (a touching community bond), sharing stories with her granddaughter and visiting a shrine. Junji (Kaoru Iwahana), her husband, whom she dotes on, likes to shoot the breeze and watch matches of the board game Go on television.

A thread of nostalgia and even regret curls its way through the conversations. The filmmakers, C.W. Winter and Anders Edstrom (who is Tayoko’s son-in-law), linger on objects so that they feel vividly present but also like memories, reminiscent of shots from a lost-and-found camera roll. This isn’t durational cinema that’s dead-set on making you feel the heft of labor (though it can). The directors’ camera eye fosters more of a muscle memory for these places through sonic overtures and finely wrought images of lattices (brambles or wires), opaque screens and windows, and careworn pots. “The Works and Days” also plumbs the depths of night and twilight like few films do, harnessing a theater’s darkness.

The movie reflects upon how people organize experience through our memories and our actions, but the filmmakers also have a self-awareness about their steadfast methods. One of the movie’s five sections opens with the following observation: “By the fifth month, one has had his fill of seeing willows.” Their penchant for decentered shots can feel a tad obdurate. But as someone in the film says, what one wishes of the people you love is that you could spend even more time with them — and the same could be said of the loveliest images in this film.

The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)
Not rated. Running time: 8 hours. In theaters.

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