Stirred from slumber by his father’s pre-dawn departure for work, the six-year-old protagonist of Damien Manivel and Kohei Igarashi’s The Night I Swam makes a game effort to go back to bed, but it’s to no avail: His mind is too awake. And while it may not seem obvious at first, this otherwise ordinary little boy (Takara Kogawa) is everything you could hope for in a movie hero. To the wordless daylong odyssey that awaits him, his response is perfect receptiveness.
In rich silence, the boy helps himself to a snack and dabbles in presumably regular aesthetic pursuits—drawing, photography—before trying to budge his sleeping mom. Then, after a doze-off at the breakfast table, comes the hushed ardor of suiting up for a snowy day, followed by a half-distracted decision to skip school—one in a series of purposeful whims which also includes seeing if he can find his way to dad’s workplace, the town fish market. And all around him is the snow, alternately a plaything and an obstacle, a beckoning blank page and a bracing void.
En route, the boy is left unattended, except of course by the filmmakers. Without insisting, they invite you to cherish him, silently implying an assurance of his safety in exchange for your willingness to do so. This feels like a rare maneuver in world cinema now, though it sits very nicely within the continuum of exquisitely fable-like films about little kids, from Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon to Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? and beyond. There is suspense here, yes: while waiting to cross a slushy, busy street (finally one driver stops and waves the boy on), seeking blizzard-refuge in a parking lot (finally one minivan happens to be unlocked), or summoning unintended consequences (the minivan’s owner gets in and drives away without noticing the boy in his back seat); what there isn’t is the cheap and familiar dramatic trick of simulated child endangerment. Its touch a lot lighter than the neo-realist dirge you might have been bracing for, The Night I Swam unfolds, and then folds back up, with uncommon directness, dignity, and subtle charm.
What a wonder that the filmmakers’ articulation of little-kid problems is so simple and exact. The one lost glove. The bothersome snow in the boot. The wave of exhaustion made worse by a heavy backpack. These casually microscopic observations accumulate affectingly. In one moment the boy tests the controls of an arcade video game, unplayable without a coin to operate it, then dazedly resigns to basking in its self-promotional loop of music and light. As a movie moment, there’s nothing to it, and yet in this movie it’s everything. That’s how The Night I Swam works, by thriving on subtle awe at how a young person’s inner life can seem transparent and inscrutable almost simultaneously. This trancelike state, full of drowsy wonder and spry enterprise: When we talk of the purity of childhood, this is what we mean. This compositional and narrative clarity, needing nothing else: When we talk of pure cinema, this is what we mean.
It wouldn’t be wrong to suppose a proper reckoning with this boy’s stature in his world should require a big screen, but that misses an essential implication here, that smallness needn’t at all be a drawback; even and especially with its absence of dialogue and leanness of plot and its conspicuously squared-off aspect ratio, this is also very much a film to watch on a tablet in bed with the lights off and the blanket pulled over your head. The Night I Swam ends satisfyingly, in the same wintry wee-hours quietude in which it began. And with the same music, a delicately steady piano arrangement of the first of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. That would be Spring, of course, and so it should be; in a potential-affirming work of such poise as this, Winter would be overdoing it.