Feature Four Frames

A haunting wintry coldness: Kichitaro Negishi’s What the Snow Brings

A taxi driving towards the camera through mist and snow on a wide road – this lengthy first shot sets the tone for Kichitaro Negishi’s What the Snow Brings (Yuki ni negau koto, 2005). A cut reveals a young man in the back seat of the car. Wearing a trench coat, suit and tie, clearly not the right outfit for the low temperature, he looks somewhat out of place in the wintry landscape. The young man is Manabu Yazaki (Yusuke Iseya), the younger brother of stable owner Takeo (Koichi Sato). The action takes place on Hokkaido in the context of the Banei Tokachi horse races, a form of horse racing that originated on that northern island of the Japanese archipelago in the early 20th century. Huge draught horses pull sleighs weighing 500 kilograms up and over ramps and through a sand track. Today, the races are held in the town of Obihiro, the film’s main setting.

Pursued by his business partner and their creditors, Manabu is returning to Hokkaido for the first time after leaving for Tokyo thirteen years ago to study there at university. The opening shots reveal his frustration, expressed by the character’s worried facial expression and the violent gesture with which he throws his mobile phone out the window. The reasons for his despair are explained later when Manabu confesses to Takeo that his Tokyo-based company has gone bankrupt and that his marriage has foundered. His homecoming is an attempt to flee his financial problems and his guilty feeling towards his partner and those who invested in his company.

After losing his remaining money by betting on a horse that stops dead in the middle of the race, the young man arrives at his brother’s stables, where he is clearly not welcome. Takeo is a monosyllabic and authoritarian character, more fond of horses than of people, and he despises his younger brother, considering him a traitor who had asked their mother for money but, ashamed of his modest upbringing, has said at his wedding that she was no longer alive.

Manabu can hardly hide the estrangement that now separates him from life on Hokkaido. One of Takeo’s employees rebukes him for his arrogant behaviour, thinking that Manabu looks down on him and his colleagues. Manabu has not only disowned his mother but has also suppressed his childhood memories. Tetsuo (Hiroshi Yamamoto), a slow-witted young man who works for Takeo and was one of Manabu’s classmates at elementary school, delights in reminding him of their time at school together, but Manabu is unable or unwilling to remember those days. However, he cannot escape his past or the island that he now hates.

Manabu is a misfit in the tough environment of the stables and is rather reluctant to adapt to the rules. In contrast to his hard-working brother, the film introduces him as a carefree young man who runs away from problems instead of facing them. His former business partner, who tracks him down on Hokkaido in order to wind up their company, accuses him of irresponsibility, and Takeo despises his brother for his former lifestyle, calling him a spoiled brat. 

Koichi Sato’s Takeo is grumpy but also hot-tempered and even inclined to violence. He beats one of his employees severely for neglecting his duties, and. he also hits his brother, giving him a hard kick. Manabu too shows strong emotions, shouting at his brother and giving vent to his stress and anger by punching a bale of straw. However, he seems disoriented and vulnerable, his vulnerability underlined by Yusuke Iseya’s youthful appearance and sensitive acting that keeps a balance between moments of juvenile nonchalance and frustration, uneasiness, and his discovery of friendship and solidarity.

What the Snow Brings documents that change in Manabu’s personality and the development of the initially difficult relationship with his brother. Although at first keeping their mother’s whereabouts a secret, Takeo later relents, allowing his brother to visit the old lady (Mitsuko Kusabue) in the nursing home where she lives. Not having been told about her dementia, Manabu is shocked when he visits his mother and she does not recognize him.

The change in Manabu can be seen as a salutary experience for him. Horses, or more precisely one horse, contribute considerably to this change in attitude. Takeo has given his impecunious brother an opportunity to work as a stable hand. Manabu overcomes his problems through physically demanding work and the discipline that his brother requires of him, and Manabu establishes a strong relationship with the horse Unryu.

This relationship started very badly because Unryu was the horse that he bet on when he returned to Hokkaido. If the horse now fails to win an important race, it will be taken to the knacker’s yard. From the very beginning, Unryu seems to trust Manabu, whose main task becomes taking care of the animal, a responsibility he takes more and more seriously. His smiling face when he works with Unryu and the efforts he makes to transform it into a champion are also a hint to the positive development in his character. Perhaps he sees himself in the horse as both are losers and both have to struggle in their lives. Manabu’s efforts are not in vain and Unryu triumphs in the season’s last and most important race while Manabu goes back to Tokyo to face his responsibilities towards the people affected by the collapse of his company.

Put like this, the story sounds terribly sentimental, but Negishi succeeds in avoiding any triviality and romanticism. The landscape is far from being an idyllic setting but there are some beautiful shots of wintry Hokkaido including close-ups of bizarre icicles hanging from the roofs. However, even when covered by a blanket of snow, the landscape is not filmed in a way that suggests mere beauty or innocence but reflects the harsh living conditions of the people who have left their imprint on it by constructing buildings and roads (and by merely being present).

The whiteness of snow is continually challenged by shades of grey and brown. The muddy road near the Yazaki stables, the equipment used there and the shabby buildings themselves – all this points to a human presence and hard work. The predominant dark colours – images of the stables filled with all sorts of objects and tools and the cramped room in which the Yazaki brothers live suggest constraint rather than freedom.

The weather conditions contribute to an overwhelming feeling of fragility that even threatens the continued existence of the Yazaki stables. Not only is Unryu no longer successful in races, another of the horses falls ill and dies, and its owner stops supporting Takeo’s business. His financial worries make Takeo even more taciturn but he does not give up, is determined – even stubborn – and repeatedly demonstrates his great ability as a trainer. 

What the Snow Brings is a film about a very particular social microcosm in the hostile environment in this northern part of Japan. The shots and sequences of the daily training and of the horse races that punctuate the film have a documentary-like quality. Images of the men and the horses, their breath visible as steam in the cold air of the early morning, contribute an element of beauty while never losing sight of the harsh reality facing men and animals. 

The difficulties of this kind of life are also recalled by the fate of a famous jockey who, when deeply in debt, may perhaps have killed himself. Torn between the awareness of her father’s weak character and her devotion to him, his daughter Makie (Kazue Fukiishi) prefers to believe that he disappeared. Makie is a jockey herself, the only woman working with the horses at Takeo’s stables. She dreams of winning, and Takeo allows her to ride Unryu in the last race of the season so that she has an opportunity to prove herself and demonstrate her respect for her father. Haruko (Kyoko Koizumi), the woman who runs Takeo’s household during the winter months when races are held, has a second job in a bar, and her statement that this is the only kind of job for a woman in rural Hokkaido hints at more general social conditions.

The stable hand Tetsuo is simply happy in his work, and Takeo takes special care of the young man. Another of the employees dreams of a career in Tokyo’s entertainment district but seems to be aware that this is no more than a pipe dream. However, a series of brief sequences showing Takeo and his employees taking their daily meal together creates some joyful moments and imbues the film with some human warmth. 

Manabu is undoubtedly the main protagonist, but each character enriches the narrative with his/her own story, details that Manabu learns about together with the viewer in the course of the film. At the end, Manabu sings with great gusto a song that he had been unable to recall at the beginning, and before leaving Hokkaido, he puts a huge snowball on the roof of Unryu’s stable in accordance with Tetsuo’s belief that this is a signal asking for God’s help. Dressed again in his business attire, Manabu has regained an almost childlike innocence, and his act of superstition is also a reference to the film’s Japanese title, which could more accurately be translated as “what I ask the snow to grant me”.

What the Snow Brings approaches human feelings in a matter-of-fact way, avoiding pathos even in the highly emotional scene in which Manabu meets his mother. Small gestures of sorrow and the silences in this scene reveal the helplessness of the protagonist when confronted with his mother’s condition.

Negishi’s film is a tale about everyday life, a simple, ordinary and somewhat frugal life in an unusual setting. The horse races are brutal, but Takeo and his men take good care of their charges, demonstrating that there is a strong bond between the men and the animals. What the Snow Brings explores deep human feelings that are sustained by the naturalism of the acting in a film haunted by the wintry coldness that even the viewers themselves are able to feel. 

By Andrea Grunert

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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