Ama-San review – a deep dive into Japan’s fisherwomen culture

Cláudia Varejão’s camera embark’s on an enigmatic and occasionally baffling study of a hypnotic world

The ama are Japan’s fisherwomen, free divers who retrieve abalone, sea snails and other ocean products (they’re best known for their pearl fishing) out of the shallows without using oxygen tanks. Portuguese documentarian Cláudia Varejão immerses herself in the daily rhythms and rituals of one group, filming them at home and at work as they go about raising kids, singing karaoke and swimming to the bottom of the sea.

Made in the low-key, vérité style associated with directors such as Fred Wiseman (Titicut Follies, National Gallery), Varejao favours an austere approach that relies on long, unblinking takes, uses no music that doesn’t occur within the action itself and no subtitles that clarify who’s who. Indeed, there are no explanations at all, leaving the viewer to work out why, for instance, the women wear both modern diving suits and traditional linen headscarves over their waterproof balaclavas. Much screen time is devoted to watching the subjects wrapping, folding and tucking these bits of white cloth, a kind of origami that’s seemingly both symbolic and practical, like the tying up of the laces on a ballet slipper. Out of the water, they favour dress that similarly mixes modern and traditional, with regular trousers and blouses below the neck and white bonnets with deep brims on their heads, like in the The Handmaid’s Tale.

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