“You can’t step into the same river twice,” is a quote attributed to the Early Greek philosopher Heraclitus, as an illustration of stability’s absence in a world of flux. Yet in Junta Yamaguchi’s latest, River, the staff and residents of a sleepy inn off-season in Kibune, Kyoto will find themselves reliving a brief period of time on a recurring loop, Groundhog Day-style.
Two staff members will even literally step into the river by the inn – one of them indeed two times – despite the wintry conditions. Yet given that the loop lasts exactly 120 seconds, Yamaguchi, too, is stepping into the same river (“Every two minutes,” as one character comments, “ring any bells?”), reprising the high concept of his mind-bending debut Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes (2020), while finding a whole new narrative (non-)trajectory for this second feature’s division into recursive two-minute segments.
The riverside Fujiya Inn, and the nearby Kifune Shrine, are an idyllic retreat – a place of peace and reflection, offering a brief respite from the everyday hustle and bustle of life. There waitress Mikoto (Riko Fujitani) would not mind time to stop so that her relationship with restless chef Taku (Yuki Torigoe) can go on forever. Likewise, the writer Obata (Yoshimasa Kondo) and his publisher Sugiyama (Haruki Nakagawa) would rather that the deadline for the next instalment of Obata’s serial novel never come – and others too would happily extend their sojourn.
Yet when suddenly they all find themselves caught in an ever-cycling moment, long enough to give them the illusion of progress while short enough to guarantee their every effort to do something is greatly curtailed, with only their consciousnesses not looping so that they all remember their multiple experiences, then the constantly refilling bowls of rice begin to pall, the relaxing bath becomes a trap, and existential panic sets in – even if apparently none of their actions, even the most desperate and extreme, have any consequence in a world where everything keeps resetting.
As the dramatis personae here – all very broadly drawn, almost caricatures – race to figure out what is going on, the exposition is not only excessive, but uneconomically repetitive, with seemingly each and every character at several points either saying or being told (or both) that they are in a time loop. Where Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes would keep upping the narrative ante, expanding and confounding itself every time the viewer began to get a purchase on its workings, River just replays the same concept as nauseam, relying on the different recombinations of its ensemble cast to keep things varied.
Yet amidst all the frantic running about, which appears designed to maintain a veneer of momentum in a plot where time passes without the possibility of any real progress, there is wryly humanistic humour, and some palpable observations on the difference between chronologies as they are perceived and as they are realised, with Yamaguchi inviting us – again and again – to experience for ourselves, along with his characters, just how much dialogue and business can be crammed, against the clock, into each of his emphatically finite narrative episodes.
After several red herrings, the eventual explanation of what is happening may be kooky – and not a little hokey – but that is in keeping with the tone of this small-town sci-fi farce. Everyone in this sweet little village is similarly sweet-natured and just wants to find an agreeable way to get on with their lives.
Playing out its snow-globe fantasy in real time – yet in discontinuous handheld episodes that always have the same starting point – River ever returns to its fluid source, even if the weather seems different from one scene to the next (a phenomenon described, if not quite explained, as a shift in the ‘world line’).
There may be scientific and spiritual frames on offer here, but ultimately these give way to the philosophical. For in a plot which, like the Early Greek philosophers, places stasis and kinesis in a paradoxical dialectic, the more things stay the same, the more they change, and these folk, frozen in time, are pursuing a future ever beyond their grasp – as in fact the future always is for everyone.
After all, as Socrates is reported to have said in response to an interlocutor who quoted Heraclitus’ famous aphorism on flux at him: “Well, you can’t even step into the same river once.”
River has its North American at Fantasia 2023