February 28, 2010
Cinequest 20
107 Minutes
Atsushi Funahashi

I don’t need plot or the camera to move or dialogue or sex or violence or fast pacing to keep me interested. But Holy Toledo was this thing slow. I was sitting with a full cup of coffee, it was my first film of the day, and I’ll be damned if I could stay awake.

In the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo are a whole bunch of Buddhist temples and old-timers. And a huge, five-story pagoda used to stand over all of it. The children played around it, and it made the neighborhood happy to have it. Everyone alive at the time agrees that it burned to the ground in 1957, though how it caught on fire has two story versions. Either a crazy homeless man did it, or two lovers killed themselves by lighting it on fire while they were inside. Either way, the burning of this structure has deeply wounded the neighborhood and a student film society sets about interviewing people about it. They are also after the holy grail of filmed footage of the fire itself.

Two characters discuss how important it is to make the elderly interview subjects comfortable before asking them painful questions about the burning. This is supposed to help us in the audience go along with film maker’s pacing, which involves slow, static shots of this temple and that. Of a blind woman scrubbing tombstones. Of various ceremonies for the dead. There is also footage of the young people from the film society (actors, I think), interviewing people with memories of the pagoda (real-life citizens, I think). These stories meander until we end up learning about why the neighborhood isn’t as good as it used to be when the pagoda stood sentry. Some of the interview subjects lament that no one worships dead relatives anymore. Another doesn’t like the crime that’s moved in. Others talk about the beauty of the structure itself and how the designer went against the convention of the time and hung off the edges of the immense structure without ropes.

It is filmed mostly in Black and White, though there are rare shots of color and a few in sepia. The mixture of real neighborhood residents, a real historic fire, and actors working around them is mostly successful. The shots are uniformly beautiful, even while watching someone sweep for five minutes. But oh my goodness is it slow. And dark. And quiet.

Slow, static shots…temple after temple…some young people are collecting film from old-timers…a five-story pagoda built in 1600s, then destroyed, then rebuilt in the 1800s, and burned in the 1950s…old-timers reminisce about what the huge structure meant to the town..


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Written by Michael W. Cummins