At least half a dozen people walked out of the screening of 7 Days that I attended at the Tokyo International Film Festival, five of them within the first thirty minutes. To be fair, you’ll probably know within ten minutes whether this is a film you want to watch in its entirety. Black and white, without a single line of dialogue, and consisting of a collection of repetitive, everyday images of farm life in rural Japan, 7 Days is closer to a museum piece than a narrative film, and I doubt it’ll be seen much outside the festival circuit.
It tested my resolve, to be sure. I won’t claim that those who were bored simply didn’t get it, or that it moved me immensely. But it has stayed with me, and if you can get past the initial premise, you might actually find yourself a little touched by it as well.
7 Days is the second feature from Foolish Piggies Films, founded by director Hirobumi Watanabe and his brother, Yuji Watanabe. Their first film, 2013’s And the Mud Ship Sails Away, was a comedy made on a shoestring budget featuring mostly non-actors in supporting roles. That film took place in the farming region of Tochigi, only a few hours from Tokyo but feeling a million miles away. The Watanabe brothers both grew up in Tochigi and have cast friends and family, including their 96-year-old grandmother, in supporting roles in both of their films.
For 7 Days, the Watanabes return to Tochigi and shift their focus to the repetitive rhythms of life on a dairy farm. The film takes place over one week, with “Monday,” “Tuesday,” etc. appearing as text on the screen as the week progresses. “Monday” consists of a series of long, mostly stationary camera shots—the farmer (played by director Hirobumi Watanabe) brushing his teeth, eating breakfast with his aged grandmother (again, the Watanabes’ own grandmother), taking out the trash, walking the long walk to the milking barn, milking the cows, eating lunch with his grandmother, washing the dishes, and shoveling manure. “Tuesday” is almost exactly the same. By “Wednesday” you begin to notice slight variations—the weather changes, they eat different foods. “Sunday” is a little more leisurely (the farmer plays baseball in the morning), but every day feels and looks very similar.
About two-thirds in I started to think of 7 Days as a haikai collection, where a theme is expanded upon through descriptions of simple sounds, images, and feelings—sometimes vulgar ones, like Basho’s famous account of a horse urinating by his pillow. In 7 Days, seemingly uninteresting (and sometimes vulgar) images and sounds are elevated through their arrangement and repetition. The images and the sounds develop a rhythm, and you begin to notice a merging of sound and tiny visual movements—the way the grandmother’s constant chewing matches the rhythm of the piano, or how the back-and-forth motion of a shovel complements a singer’s voice.
Images in the film are mixed with a varied score by Yuji Watanabe that includes a didgeridoo, a Jew’s harp, German opera, classical piano, an especially haunting Japanese folk song, and often just the ambient noise of the farmer walking through gravel or the wind rustling the trees. The ambient noise in particular has a soothing quality, and I found myself dozing off once or twice, but somehow that seemed like a normal part of the 7 Days experience.
Images that seemed mundane at first take on a striking beauty with the third or fourth viewing. Every morning the farmer walks a long, empty path with an unobstructed view broken only by the silhouette of a single, distant tree that made me think of Waiting for Godot. Wind ripples through bright white fields of wheat, and after two days of rain the sight of sunbeams peeping through clouds is stunning.
On “Tuesday,” the first time we see the same set of morning-to-evening images and sounds repeated—brushing teeth, garbage, breakfast, milking, lunch, shoveling—there’s a sense of boredom and frustration. For most of us, anyway, the idea of a life where every day is exactly the same is not a vision of happiness. But by the time that same collection of images and sounds appears at the very end of the film, something has changed. They’ve become comforting visual and auditory signposts in a small, intimate journey, a meditation on the rhythms of life and nature encapsulated in the events of a single week. It’s not a revolutionary journey, and not one that every viewer will be interested in seeing through to the end, but it’s an intriguing journey all the same.