Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Walking Backwards Towards Oblivion
Kontora was a part of Fantaspoa 2021.
The Japanese drama Kontora is written and directed by Anshul Chauhan. Chauhan only has one other directorial credit to his name, but he is also an animator with video games such as Kingdom Hearts III and the Final Fantasy VII Remake and films such as Kingslaive: Final Fantasy XV and Gantz: O.
Kontora begins with Sora Yamada; a high school student on the verge of turning 18 and graduating high school. She discovers her grandfather has passed after returning home from school one day. Before his death, he dug out an old box containing memorabilia from his past: a pair of goggles, a watch, a pair of gloves, and a diary containing some impressive sketches. Sora hides the box and its contents from her father, but begins digging in the forest searching for the “metal arm” her grandfather supposedly buried there.
At the same time, a mysterious man has appeared in town walking backwards and doesn’t say a word. Believed to be mute or handicapped in some way, Sora seems drawn to him even though they’ve never met. His introduction seems to slowly forge the remains of the relationship she once had with her father.
Anshul Chauhan’s perplexing drama is entirely in black and white and is nearly two and a half hours long. Figuring out who the backwards walking man is and what the metal arm could be isn’t all that difficult, but how the film gets there is where the mastery lies. Kontora is in no hurry to reveal its secrets or fully disclose its tale. Much of the film’s sequences are Sora riding her bicycle or the man walking backwards in slow motion combined with a gorgeous soundtrack littered with infectious whistling and an auditory assault of strings and woodwind instruments.
Sora expresses her interest in moving to Tokyo after she graduates because she doesn’t want to get stuck in “a f*cking ghost town.” But Kontora allows the beauty of this ghost town to shine in every sequence. The town is small and more rural than urban with hills and trees as far as the eye can see. Traffic is almost nonexistent and nearly everyone seems to ride their bicycle to get around.
The charm of Kontora lies within what the diary represents, what Sora’s grandfather was a part of before he died, and who the backwards walking man could possibly be. The film seems to toy with crushing lifelong dreams. Sora dreams of going to Tokyo while her friend Haru has returned after a failed trip overseas to be a dancer. It’s unclear whether Haru and her father Yoshiji are friends or cousins of Sora and her father, but they are close.
Yoshiji is a successful businessman as he runs several factories and has enough money to be comfortable. He’s a vulture and wants to buy the house Sora and her father live in since he thinks it’s now too big for them. The Yoshiji character represents greed. He has plenty to provide for his family and the workers he manages, but he always wants more. He has all the food he could possibly eat on the table, but he still craves dessert. His belly is full, but he still reaches for second and third helpings.
Discovering what Sora’s grandfather buried in the forest becomes an obsession for her. She skips school to dig blindly in the forest. Her father is seemingly moving on with his life as he continues to work without being effected emotionally by his father’s death. How Sora and her father treat the backwards walking man drastically contrasts with one another. Sora wants to help the man because of his eccentricities while her father sees him as unusually strange and wants to get rid of him as soon as possible. Their behavior towards him meets in the middle as the film progresses.
Kontora is a unique film that plays out beautifully. It does feel a little long in places and could benefit from some editing to be a more digestible length, but it would risk losing the meaning of Sora’s overall journey. Kontora is a film about forgotten souls and repaired relationships with loved ones. Our pasts don’t necessarily define who we are, but they are capable of being the most memorable aspect of our lives. The performances are strong and the story is told in a way that is unusual and intriguing. Kontora is this meaningful scrapbook of a film that reminds us that family remains important despite whatever aspirations we may have for our own lives.
© 2021 Chris Sawin