60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: Japanese documentary "Shari" is an empathetic, dreamlike look at a changing planet


A still image from Nao Yoshigai's film Shari featuring a person standing in a forest in winter wearing a large, strange, bulky, red, full-body suit

The subject of Japanese director Nao Yoshigai's Shari creeps up on you as unexpectedly as the hulking, crimson, woolly creature that shambles through the film in a series of dreamlike interludes. The film focuses on the Japanese town of Shari in 2020, and at first seems to be a series of well-observed vignettes chronicling the lives of its residents. But as we meet the townspeople—a baker, a fisherman, an eccentric art collector—they all return to a common topic: the tension between human life and the natural world. Shari's residents discuss feeling drawn in by their town's natural beauty, but they also describe a delicate push-pull between conservation, tourism, and industry. One resident offers the metaphor that Shari's natural resources are a principal upon which people should collect interest, rather than squandering the initial investment.

Shari's residents are also all preoccupied in different ways by the same anxiety: the town has experienced its lightest snowfall in 40 years. There are fewer fish in the ocean, plant growth is stunted, bears are skipping hibernation because they can still find food, and the townspeople have an overall sense of unease.

Things are not as they should be. 

Yoshigai seems to feel that anxiety herself in a deep way, as described in gentle, almost whispered voiceovers. Visiting a pair of deer hunters in Shari, she recalls the intense pleasure, but also the sleepless anxiety, she experienced the first time she ate deer meat. Yoshigai describes herself as a "beast," existing somewhere in the intersection between humanity and the rest of the natural world. 

From that idea, she seems to have conjured the aforementioned creature, described in the film as the "Red Thing." Yoshigai, who is also a dancer and choreographer, portrays the Red Thing herself, her face largely obscured by a bulky costume. As the mute creature, Yoshigai meanders morosely through streets at night, ravenously consumes bread left behind in a forest, and frolics with—or menaces?—a group of schoolchildren. The Red Thing is a creature of both melancholy and playfulness, tormented by ecological upheaval and grappling awkwardly with it.

Yoshigai alternates between two distinct, equally striking visual languages in Shari. She takes a grounded approach to her portraits of Shari residents, mostly focusing astutely on intriguing elements of their homes and work, occasionally allowing the subjects to gaze directly into the camera at length. Contrastingly, scenes featuring the Red Thing often feature sumptuous, symmetrically composed wide shots and explosive color, as the creature's bright "fur" clashes with the gorgeous blues, whites, and greens of Shari's winter landscape. The more workmanlike documentary segments intertwine beautifully with the hallucinatory Red Thing sequences, reinforcing each other's narratives of a changing environment. 

Shari's subject matter is alarming, particularly because it's not unique to the titular town. One could make a companion film about the local effects of climate change in any city on Earth. But Yoshigai's approach is not political and not particularly judgmental. She approaches her human subjects with empathy and warmth, rather than blame. And there's gentle humor to the film, too, as when the Red Thing meanders through a museum, curiously examining natural history exhibits (or even in the credits, which acknowledge several "Participants of 'Let's make the Red Thing!' knitting workshop").

Yoshigai doesn't propose a particular solution to climate change, and in fact, she frames that problem more as a symptom of a greater disharmony between people and their environment. And despite all the low-key anxiety troubling her and the people of Shari, she suggests—and seems to make peace with—the idea that nature will win out and reset the balance in the long run. The idea that nature might forcibly undo our damage before we can undo it ourselves might seem fatalistic and distressing. But in Yoshigai's hands, a world where the Red Thing can finally rest feels like a happy ending.

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

"Shari" will screen in competition at the Ann Arbor Film Festival on March 26 at 1 pm at the Michigan Theater, or online starting March 22 at 6 pm. Tickets are available here. Visit aafilmfest.org for the full schedule (March 22-27).