2022 Fantasia Fest: ‘Shari’ mythologizes the nature vlog
When we talk about nature today, it’s often loaded with visions of some bygone, unspoiled era where plants and animals lived in interwoven harmony. What follows is the palpitating guilt of human nature and how humanity has extracted so much from the natural world that we are now hurtling towards cataclysm. To an extent, both of these perspectives are extremes that make an individual’s relationship with modern nature fuzzy, indistinct, and stiflingly apocalyptic. It is in this mythical abyss where filmmaker Nao Yoshigai constructs the scaffolding of her film Shari, in what amounts to be a fantasy documentary shot in the small frigid Japanese town of the same name.
In Shari, a mystery unfolds. Yoshigai tells us the story of the town through real accounts of its sparse residents. At the same time, we are brought into Yoshigai’s personal observations of Shari that coincide with a red matted creature emerging from the frozen forest. As more of the town divulge their lifestyles and negotiations with Shari’s uncompromising landscape, Yoshigai and the red creature start to become one and the same. This creature is a fantasy, but who is it and why does Yoshigai choose to tell the story in this way? It’s a nature vlog and surreal fable all in one.
Yoshigai experiments with a texture that cuts us off from the world. The sound of Shari is a crackle. Ice breaks off of its other half, flames whip themselves from tiny pyres in the oven, and freshly baked bread snap into hard crumbs, revealing its soft, pillowy underbelly. Opposing these are creaking, otherworldly moans–perhaps the sounds of beasts or the maw of earth’s primal form. The cold breathing through Shari’s pores is inescapable, particularly in the opening shot of a mountain where Yoshigai describes the clouds and the wind “competing” with one another. Throughout the film, eternally falling snow catches in and out of focus on the camera. So we are left none the wiser as Yoshigai lowers us like bait into a cocoon of icicles, resigned to keep warm and listen to an internal world hum along even when a monster lurks just beyond.
What we listen to are the stories of Ms. Kowada, a nomadic shepherd running the playfully named Baa Baa Bakery. We listen to the retired Mr. Miura, ever-watchful of the climbers hiking up the mountain and surrounded by the countless artifacts, videos, books, and plants that give him comfort. We listen to the concerns of the Ito family’s fishermen that have seen how pollution and melting drift ice devastate their livelihood. They all teach Yoshigai about the muted, yet warm community that calls Shari their home.
After each of these recollections, we return to the creature that Yoshigai dubs “The Red Thing” with a greater sense of loneliness. The Red Thing’s saturated, misshapen, yarn-like thickness clumps in arduous trudges through the snow, not unlike a slow-moving drop of blood. It’s difficult not to feel both sympathy and fear for them as they close the distance in their perpetual frosty march. Where are they going? What do they want? Of which community does “The Red Thing” belong to? In an odd, cheeky scene, we see The Red Thing going to a visitor’s center, looking at taxidermied animals and reading books, likely asking themself the same question.
“Nature is our endowment fund, our principal fund,” says a worker at the visitor’s center. “We don’t touch the principal fund, we should live off the interest.” The residents agree that nature must be preserved, yet that ideal bristles with reality. The worker remarks, “we can’t draw a clear line for co-existence [with nature.]” Yoshigai narrates that this unclear line separates man and beast, water and air, awake and asleep. The Red Thing was born there.
The conflict between man and beast ensues. Following a seemingly disconnected scene of young children sumo wrestling, The Red Thing appears, announces they will eat the children, and begins a chase. Pieces of The Red Thing’s skin fall off as the beast grapples the children in a chaotic, bloody brawl. In the aftermath, The Red Thing climbs toward the rock-riddled coastline and sheds their skin. It is a human being. It is the filmmaker we’ve been listening to the entire time, Nao Yoshigai.
Among the many questions asked, we add one more: What do we make of all of this? The clear commentary in Shari is that balancing humanity and the natural world is complicated, but even though Yoshigai is willing to explore how to make nature documentaries more exciting through her red cryptid, I am left feeling a bit out of sorts on some unique answer. The performance, framing, and mythologizing are so interesting, but the core of Shari is ultimately redundant.
As the film concludes, there’s an unending series of platitudes and abnormal weather descriptions that don’t cohere too tightly. I don’t expect Yoshigai (or any single person for that matter) to solve our climate struggle, however I’m not sure if hacking the documentary medium has cultivated anything more substantive than “taking care of nature is good, actually.”
Shari does succeed in style. Yoshigai is able to balance experimental, vlog, nature doc, and monster fantasy all in a scant sixty minutes. There’s an unyielding sensibility that I hope inspires many Shari-esque world explorations to come. For now, Shari will have to be a cutely weird, mostly unsolved mystery that a better world can eagerly spring from.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
This film was reviewed via a digital screener as part of the virtual 2022 Fantasia Film Festival by Justin Ricafort.
Film links: Fantasia Fest Link