Rei: grace is extended to every character in this beautiful meditation on loneliness

The winner of the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), from debut director Tanaka Toshihiko, is a thoughtful melodrama on the spaces between people.

6 February 2024

By John Bleasdale

Rei (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam

Actor turned director Tanaka Toshihiko’s debut feature is a meditation on loneliness and to what extent a person needs another person to “complete them” – to use a rather icky phrase. To underline this point, the title Rei refers to a genderless given name, a Japanese kanji character that only gains meaning when joined with other kanji.  

In the same way, Matsushita Hikari, played with strained buoyancy by Suzuki Takara, is a company employee who is drifting through life in Tokyo a little too freely, too rapidly. Her hobby – theater going – feels like killing time and her best friendship with Asami is fringed with condescension: “Who thought you’d be the one who’d be single!” Asami tells her. With an urge perhaps to fix herself in space and time, she hires a photographer, whose work she has seen and admired in the programme for a theatre company, to take some photographs of her. She literally needs to be seen. The photographer, it turns out, is Mato (played by the director), a deaf man who lives in isolation in the snowy reaches of the mountainous region of Hokkaido.  

Although long at over three hours, Toshihiko never allows the story to lag and uses his time well, giving an empathetic breadth which extends to each character. There are no minor parts here. We see that Asami’s life is not so perfect, and we also see something of the pressures placed on her faithless husband.  

Likewise, Mato’s story gradually unfolds throughout the film, as we learn of a brother, and a spiteful mother. Toshihiko takes ‘show, not tell’ to extremes at times, as any character mentioned gets their own scene – there’s something to be said for this all-embracing approach. There’s also a wealth of topics touched upon, including the work environment, family pressure, disability, sexuality, caring for a disabled child, etc. One step too far is the friendship Hikari has with the lead actor of a troupe which she has been following, sending the film into some meta-territory which ultimately feels like putting a hat on a hat. 

Ikeda Akio’s cinematography creates some intensely beautiful images, taking its cue from Mato’s profession and making the most of the difference between the urban busyness of Tokyo and the snowy blankness of Hokkaido, where two falling trees lean together like a kanji character, telling us something that doesn’t need to be spelled out.  

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