#13 in my ranking of Masaki Kobayashi’s films.
Originally made for Japanese television, The Fossil feels like Kobayashi leaving behind his anger at systems and confronting mortality, as does his main character. In a surprisingly close telling of a very similar tale to Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Kobayashi confronts a life of workaholism that suddenly and definitively will come to an end. Combined with a travelogue that dominates the first two-thirds of the film, there’s real emotion in a few days of introspection over a life seemingly mislead before the film becomes something a bit more mundane for its final hour.
Tajihei Kazuki (Shin Saburi) is a Japanese executive and engineer who is going on a vacation to Europe with his trusty right-hand man Funazu (Hisashi Igawa). The narrator describes it as purely a vacation, but there are plans to meet with European subsidiaries of his company in several cities, including Paris where they will be based. It’s Kazuki’s first real vacation in decades, several years after the death of his wife, and he’s told by his younger daughter as he leaves that she’s pregnant and expecting her first child and his second grandchild. This gives him his first bit of introspection as he ignores the sights of Paris while Funazu drinks it all in from their cab window as they drive towards their hotel.
Kazuki begins to feel tired everywhere they go, though. After a few days in Spain, it becomes too much and he ends up in bed for a few days back in his hotel in Paris. When he recovers well enough to have a dinner with the Paris branch of his company, he ends the night with a mysterious pain in his belly that, when he explains it to Funazu, Funazu insists that he go see a local doctor about it. He gets his tests and, the next night, he sends Funazu out to a dinner instead of himself where he gets the call from the hospital. Maintaining the Japanese practice of not telling terminal patients their situation (despite this being in France with a French-Japanese doctor), the doctor tells Kazuki, presuming him to the Funazu, that Kazuki has intestinal cancer and that it is inoperable. He has less than a year to live.
He sends Funazu alone on their planned tour of Rome, staying behind and stewing in his own thoughts of mortality. A young Japanese worker, Kishi (Kei Yamamoto) at the Paris office reaches out to him about going with him to Bourgogne to look at the Romanesque churches, an invitation that Kazuki accepts. They collect Kishi’s wife and another Japanese woman, Madame Marcelin (Keiko Kishi), a woman he had seen around Paris and had become the literal personification of Death to him, following him and speaking with him in his mind.
It’s about at this point, about the halfway point, I knew that I was watching something special. The use of Madame Marcelin as Death, Kazuki getting lost in the architecture of the ancient, stone buildings, him finding some kind of meaning in something greater and outside of himself, all while he negotiates with Death and Madame Marcelin herself all combines together to create an involving and subtle emotional journey for Kazuki. He’s facing his mortality in a way that makes him see beyond the material.
And then he returns to Japan, and it becomes more, well, typical. He has to negotiate his time between that which he wants to do like visiting a friend who has also discovered that he’s dying of cancer, a massive failure at work that could wipe out the whole company, and his desire to spend time with his family. This balance feels simply more typical than the epiphany that Kazuki was feeling in a foreign church. It’s not bad, but it’s much more in line with a lower form of this kind of story than what had come before it. The choices are more literal and laid out. It works, but not much more than that.
After a visit to his step-mother and brother, who is a doctor and with whom Kazuki shares nothing of his condition, where he apologizes for being mean to her in his youth and running away in high school, he decides to go to a region of Japan that Madam Marcelin had said she wanted to see if she ever came back to Japan. The experience seeing the cherry blossoms in bloom sends him into a fainting spell, and after he awakes he finds himself in the hands of an oncologist. A surgery gets scheduled after much back and forth about how Kazuki acts like he knows everything, and we get the purely typical ending we would expect from an easier film.
However, the final three minutes provide a nice coda that gives a very interesting stopping point, opening up the ending a bit so that it’s not quite so clean cut.
The first two-thirds is great, the final third is serviceable. I’m pretty sure what I would have done differently (no oncologist, either keep him in France or have him try to find meaning through the quiet places of Japan, and just accepting that he’s wasted his life in the pursuit of work), but what we do get ends up nice and surprisingly unchallenging. It’s a callback to Kobayashi’s earlier work before The Thick-Walled Room received its release. It has the added twist of being about an old man looking back on a life full of regret and finding things to treasure in his memories. The fossil of the title refers to memories, and it may be the first time in Kobayashi’s entire body of work that nostalgia is treated with anything other than contempt. Kazuki wants his memories, especially those of France and Madame Marcelin preserved like a fossil for him to revisit.
So, sure, it doesn’t live up to the promise it sets out for itself, but it ends up a nice film, a departure in style and ideas from Kobayashi’s work of the previous two decades.