Shiver (2021) (Review)

Sound and vision, that’s all you need. This transcendent film from Toshiaki Toyoda (9 Souls) captures the Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble ‘Kodo’ and Koshiro Hino, filmed on the beautiful Sado Island. it is 89 minutes of percussion performance, with the island backdrop being integral to the overall effect. This overall effect is one of the most immersive and moving pieces of cinema; it is a transportive picture that flows through you, gaining an almost spiritual depth.

The first point of call is the musicianship on display. Our artists beat drums, clap, play woodblocks and find various other ways of making noise. It is not an attempt to turn the world into an instrument, it is a very carefully choreographed and curated piece in which the physical performance carries as much weight as the physical. How the performers move, the looks on their faces, what they are putting into their art: it is all entrancing and is why this works so well as a film. The looping rhythms are complex and mesmeric, keeping the audience enthralled. They allow the mind to explore, but never wander. There is room to think, feel and reflect but the propulsive rhythms are inescapable. Immersion is easily maintained.

How Toyoda captures it is so much of this: he knows when to leave the camera static, when to push in and when to cut. The film is home to some of the most beautiful edits, building to an utterly transcendent finale that is full of earned filmic flourishes. At every point, the camera feels like another instrument in the space. It is not that it moves to the beat, though edits are tied to music, it is that it is artistically deployed. Our lens in is not just a facilitator, it is integral to interpretation. It guides our focus points or allows us to be overwhelmed. At points, the framing it produces is sublime. Mid way through, two men bang on opposite sides of a large drum. It is inside for much of this performance, then we cut effortlessly to the same men banging a (smaller) drum in front of a waterfall. It gives a moment of earned release, and the music of the water starts to play into the music of the drum (this is a recurring motif). The camera takes a perfect position, sitting at a point so that water is shooting out from one side (behind one drummer) but has a clinging cascade of snow as directly behind the other drummer. It creates a visual juxtaposition that is only further highlighted by the physical performances of both drummers. The beats often match, or at least meet a unified time-signature, but the approach from either side is deeply divergent. A musical scene is alchemically turned into a more elemental conflict.

This is but one moment in such an evocative work. Yes, the performance is why we are here but the delivery is what makes this a masterpiece. Toyoda is part of the ensemble, he has it so that the environment is made into music (lapping or crashing waves being central) and then uses visual language to speak through cinema. The editing is precise, perfect even, but so is the pacing. The film has a build but not one of forced linearity. This is not a generic journey from quiet to loud, from minimal to maximal. Along the way, we have these micro arcs and episodic moments. Sequences are so distinct, yet fit perfectly together, feeling like a great album. There is one cohesive sound, and the wider work has a sense of narrative, but this does not come at the cost of any constituent part. Importantly, the work is never narrativised (in a forced way), but the visual and sonic semiotics are so potent as to evoke so much for the viewer. To return to the seemingly duelling drummers on either side of the instrument, the effect is one of a grand conflict, of some mighty trial. Nothing is said but everything is conveyed.

The same is true throughout. This is an astonishing work of rare power that reminds you, or further establishes, the power of cinema and of music. The talent from everybody is astonishing but the work takes on its own identity as a transcendent object. To watch Shiver is to disappear into its space and be beautifully overwhelmed. Anybody interested in what film can do will find something valuable here.


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