Roll (Japan, 2020) [SF IndieFest 2021]

It is hard to believe that Roll is a debut feature by a young filmmaker. Daichi Murase has written and directed the film with such care that it actually exhibits a maturity that is lacking in recent independently produced works. This is not to say that it’s smoothly done, but however rough it is around the edges, you know a gem when you see one.

We follow Yoshihiro (Shingo Nakayama) who works at a recycling facility where his daily task is to pick up appliances and electronics that residents no longer need. The facility is an ideal workplace for him since he is a timid and reserved individual who is obsessed by opening up electronics and experimenting with them. He is introduced to the viewer as one of the residents of a dormitory whose other residents are complete contrasts of him.

The opening scene gives a hint of the thematic concerns of the film: between order and disorder, utility and uselessness, ignorance and discovery. However, these binaries do not statically reside to one side. On one of their trips to pick up unwanted objects, Yoshihiro’s curiosity over a noise leads him a room locked from the outside. As he enters, he meets Nazuna (Ami Sugihara), who appears to him wearing personal protective gear. Nazuna shows and later lends Yoshihiro a super-8 camera, an object that is alien to the two.

The film plays slowly but this is for the benefit of the character. Roll can be best defined as a character study since it carefully adjusts its approach as the narrative unfolds. It’s not exclusively deadpan, but its deadpan approach reflects a particular state of things in the narrative. Although a lot of changes in the film’s approach to form do not play out subtly, this does not distract from the interesting turns of events in the narrative.

What makes Roll interesting is that it does not let itself be caught within celluloid nostalgia. The lack of an actual “expert” character in the narrative enables it to maintain a kind of distance to the medium. As  a representative of a generation who does not know film, Yoshihiro is still caught in the moment. And this is probably the best thing about Roll – it’s not about film or filmmaking, in a way that the film is self-consciously trying to repress it. When the dormmate who helped him learn about the camera begins expressing his obsession with the camera and filmmaking, Yoshihiro ignores, and later on even forcibly dismisses it. Considering how young Murase is, it is a very mature move to not make any impressionable comment on the craft, to not place it in the pulpit, and to not make the film about one’s self.

And perhaps, this move towards maturity is what Roll is really about. The knowledge Yoshihiro acquired upon learning about the camera opens his resolve to know more about Nazuna than the device itself. Yoshihiro knows all the red flags of his encounter with Nazuna and tries to do something about her captivity. Yoshihiro discovers a new use for his obsession with machines for the benefit of other people. Nakayama’s acting is of note. While Yoshihiro as a character might seem one-dimensional at first, the development towards his resolve exhibited the range of acting reminiscent of performances of Shota Sometani from the early 2010s, without Sometani’s comical glare. But it might also be the case that the set up is just ripe for this kind of performance. Indeed, Murase has deliberately placed Yoshihiro the otaku in an environment with a lot of threat in his comfort that there’s no other way for him but out.

Roll, in a way, is basic. But this sense of basic expectations to a film, like a commitment to narrative and character development to balance it out with interesting choices of cinematic elements, is precisely what makes the film memorable. Roll exudes youth and life in each scene while approaching it with maturity by maintaining the distance between cinema and life. It’s not only quite a rare attitude to have but one which would benefit more films and audiences in the future.

Roll was streamed as part of SF IndieFest from February 4-21 2020.

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