The joy of life: ‘Mori, The Artist’s Habitat’
If you are like me, who just survived the overwhelming midterm season, a comforting and aesthetically pleasing movie would be a great leisure activity to soothe your nerves. Directed by Shuichi Okita, “Mori, The Artist’s Habitat” is a delightful and offbeat biopic that peers into a typical day of Kumagai Morikazu (1880-1997), aka Mori, a celebrated yet reclusive Japanese painter. The slow-paced and lighthearted movie examines a 30-year period in Mori’s late life, during which he never ventured outside his home in Ikebukuro and spent every day observing nature and insects in his tiny botanical garden. His ability to embrace peace and calm in a constrained space may offer us new insights into how we can obtain self-contentment in forced isolation during the pandemic.
Without dramatic conflicts and plot twists, the film features the mundane life of the artist with his wife Hideko and their full-time housekeeper. Unlike what one would have expected, the film does not focus on Mori’s engagement in painting, but rather the daily routine of the elderly, stumbling painter, who enthusiastically explores his overgrown garden — his real studio. Mori spends hours observing insects, the textures of stones and the shifting light in the shrubs, or meditating by the small crystalline pond he constructed. Mori would exclaim at his discovery that ants started their movement with their second feet. These trivial details might seem tedious, but not in the eyes of a keen and curious artist. Rid of any preconceived idea about the world, Mori was able to see it afresh.
Despite mainly focusing on the tranquility of Mori’s solitary “exploration,” the film is not without its humorous moments. Mori’s paintings are characterized by simple outlines and flat color planes that embody a childlike clumsiness and naivete. His animated style led to an embarrassing moment when Emperor Showa, after close observation of Mori’s masterpiece in the art gallery, inquired about the age of the child who painted it. Mori’s popularity also brought him hilarious troubles. For example, he would forever find that his hand-written nameplates for his inn were stolen by others who treated his calligraphy as valuable works of art. Mori was indifferent about profits and reputation as he turned down the highest honor in Japanese art, which he deemed as something that would attract more guests to beleaguer him with requests. Hideko and the housemaid were accustomed to the eccentric personality of the painter and helped Mori attend to the restless visitors while they were dealing with daily chores.
Tension arose when property developers started to construct a condominium next to Mori’s house, which would block the sunlight of Mori’s paradise and put the life of the plants and insects at risk. Rather than confronting the construction team, Mori considered the interests of both parties and settled the issue by asking for a pile of mud filling his pond, the only area that would not be overshadowed by the building. Instead of opposing each other, the two parties forged connections and peacefully came together in a jolly dinner at the end. In the place of dramatic story arcs, the film uses serene moments that allow viewers to take a calm breath in the fast-paced world.
Mori’s untroubled soul and carefree spirit allow him to find the greatest joy among the little things, showing that a meaningful and content life is much simpler than many might think. Driven by our goals, sometimes we may fall into the trap of a hamster-wheel mentality, tirelessly chasing the outcomes while missing the real joys of life.