Junta Yamaguchi’s River (2023) has an inherently simple conceit. Somewhere in Japan, an inn and its immediate vicinity become the site of a time loop. This lends too much humor and frustration. Our first encounter with this situation happens through one of the attendants, Mikoto (Riko Fujitani), who realizes she has already had the conversation she is about to have with someone. She calls it something beyond deja vu, akin to a prognosis, until she questions that too.
She realizes she can predict the beats of the ensuing conversation, that the guy will be talking about his daughter’s romantic interest, an upcoming summit, and a suspicious thing found in a toilet. Mikoto’s initial shocked discovery is staged brilliantly, the camera whizzing in and out of rooms, through the corridor as more people at the inn come out, exchanging similar flabbergasting experiences.
Yamaguchi, who has also edited the very crisp film, handles this sequence seamlessly, subsequently stitching the collisions among the sets of characters with glee and mischief. You can almost tell how much fun he has been having from how he tosses his characters against each other, scooping them out and planting them back in their initial positions. At the inn, Fujiya, in Kibune, time rewinds every two minutes.
The film’s opening half-hour is its strongest, as Yamaguchi mines abundant humor, chaos, and hilarity from the peculiar circumstance. Another attendant, Chino, panics as her sake refuses to heat up. The kitchen staff complains that the plates go back unwashed. There is a novelist, Obata, staying as a guest, who finds the situation relieving since he has been struggling with his book.
With the deadline now perennially averted, he is delighted and relaxed, which is no good news for his publisher, Sugiyama, who is also staying in the inn. The publisher is stuck in the bath, semi-naked. Once he hears of the novelist adopting such an attitude, he scrambles through the corridor to talk sense to him, only before the warp throws him back to the bath.
The scene quickly turns violent, and tempers go high. Accidents are set into motion as well as two old friends begin sparring. The restlessness of the situation is spiked with a dose of resentment. But we keep returning to Mikoto stationed by the riverside, the film’s emotional fulcrum. To say more about this position would be to spoil one of the film’s twists.
Yamaguchi inserts the anxiety into the anticipation of being in love, the desire to impede any possible limitation, and focalizes the very power of this desire to spring the film’s conceit. He keeps the tone consistently light and amiable, even if there are threats of precarity, so things never turn very urgent and risky.
The film’s problems rear their head when Yamaguchi takes the undertow of the conceit and presses it way too forcefully for dramatic effect. Since the film’s length is spare, the characterization suffers a beating, especially when also having to bear the increasing corollaries of the conceit. There is also a late-point time machine to spruce up a resolution that comes off as deeply contrived and utterly lacking depth, adding nothing to the film beyond its trademark playfulness.
River works best when the director trusts the chaos inherent in the situation to erupt in bursts of confusion and cluelessness. When he tries to regurgitate the thematic interests through almost every other character, the film conspicuously stumbles, appearing immediately superficial and unconvincing. I wish Yamaguchi had greater faith in the natural instincts of the story and allowed cheekier confrontations among his characters.