Natsuka Kusano’s Domains, currently streaming on MUBI, is a film unlike any I’ve seen before. Some might even argue that it is not a film at all. Aside from the first 15 odd minutes, the 150-minute-long film is made up almost entirely of table readings and rehearsals of the three main actors. Right at the outset, we are introduced to almost the full story in the form of a confession of a terrible crime read back to the protagonist Aki Takemoto (Asami Shibuya) by an official (Kenta Ryu, the only other actor in the film, aside from the aforementioned trio). Though this portion is filmed like a scene in a normal movie, it’s interesting to note that this scene too is essentially made up of a reading.
Aki has confessed to murdering the three-year-old daughter of her longtime friend Nodoka (Tomo Kasajima), who asked her to babysit Honoka on a day when there was a typhoon in the area. Her motive is unclear. But in her confession, Aki mentions a letter she has left for Nodoka, which only the two of them will understand. After reading her statement and getting her signature, the official asks her what she meant in the letter by “the kingdom made with chairs and sheets on the day of the typhoon.” Aki says she cannot explain. When asked what happened on the day of the typhoon, she only says it was “just a very fulfilling day for them” and goes on to sing a song.
Once the table readings begin, we find out that there was another day with a typhoon, 22 years
ago, when Aki and Nodoka built a bedsheet castle and used that song as a password to their kingdom or domain. Later rehearsals reveal that this day is believed by Aki to be a significant one in her and Nodoka’s friendship. Through these readings and rehearsals, which expand upon the sequence of events described in Aki’s statement at the start, we slowly piece together the story. How Aki meets Nodoka, her husband Naoto and daughter Honoka at their house. How Aki finds that what initially seemed like a comfortable home is, in fact, a stifling one for Nodoka because of Naoto’s need to maintain it and their family in a certain way. How Aki calls Naoto out for this and how he, in turn, banishes her from their home.
The scenes are not read in chronological order and there is a lot of repetition as the actors rehearse the scenes over and over (seemingly on different days). But there are also subtle changes in these repeated revisits. Sometimes in the lines themselves, which change slightly in each reading/rehearsal. Scenes are cut off partway in initial readings, but we are shown more and more of these later. There are no props used at first for the table readings, but slowly they are added in. A mug here, a bag there. The biggest change, of course, is in the performances. We see the actors slowly morph into the characters and it is a fascinating insight into the process of acting.
The way the scenes are revisited also mirrors the way memories work. Fluid, ever-changing, details coming and going. So the whole movie can be seen as Aki perhaps remembering and trying to come to terms with what happened. This would explain the addition, as the film goes on, of location shots minus the actors. It is also hinted at by two oft-repeated scenes that have characters trying to reconstruct past events.
The first of these is of Aki and Nodoka talking about their castle building — Aki helps her friend remember how they became really close after that day though Nodoka had other friends who were closer before. The other features Aki, Nodoka, and Naoto having a conversation at the dinner table and the two women together recall a childhood visit to the school Naoto now works at. This second scene also talks about the two women having their own way of communicating without words. Naoto calls it a “coded circuit” and says they are actually conveying more without words. The same can be said about the film too. It somehow conveys more though it eschews a lot of what makes up a traditional film.
Another instance of this departure from the norm is the cinematography. The camera often holds still on one actor’s face, even when they are not the one speaking. In a subsequent rendition of the scene, we get only the face of the one speaking. Or sometimes, it’s someone who is not even in the scene. When the camera pans, it is not smooth like it would be in a finished movie. Often, it lands off to the side of an actor, on their back, in their hair, sometimes it goes out of focus, captures a reflection of itself in a mirror. All of it reminding us that what we are watching is all made up, not real.
And yet, paradoxically, Domains remains consistently immersive. Even without the usual trappings of cinema, I found myself fully invested in these characters, in what was going on in their minds.
Rather than world-building of the physical sort, Domains constructs a psychological world that is hard to resist. a long time to come.