In Japan, there is a special way to mourn an abortion. Mizuko (Water Child) is a short animated documentary film inspired by these Buddhist traditions.
For a film that tackles such a sensitive subject, and through so many different styles, Mizuko feels very calming, a soothing ripple washing over us even as it encourages us to look steadily at our lost pregnancies.
It’s both fascinating and often hypnotically compelling. Not quite an explanation or an answer, Mizuko may be a response I didn’t know I needed.
Filmmaker Kira Dane, who is Japanese-American, wrote Mizuko after her own abortion. The Muziko Kuyo ritual it highlights provides a way to accept and acknowledge all lost pregnancies, but particularly abortions: that they existed, and their part in getting us to where we are now.
Her film mixes watercolour nostalgia for a childhood holiday in Japan with deadpan wit at the mundanity of her experience at a New York abortion clinic, though the most arresting scenes are those of the little Mizuko Jizo statues, created to remember the lost water children.
Parents often knit coats and hats to keep them warm while Jizo, Bodhisattva and protector, gathers them up and carries them back to the waters of the Afterlife. Looking at this cohort of chubby-faced stone children raises questions about pregnancy, how hard it is to let them go.
Japanese Buddhism sees life and death as a gradual process; life is water being poured into a vessel then pouring out at the end. The process of developing life only finishes at age 7; by 60 “you’ve already started the slow process of pouring back out”.
“Memories dissolve and leave hollow cavities of their shapes” Dane intones while a round-faced little statue is fitted with its red woollens. It’s a line that truly hits home in a narration which mostly works as it moves around Dane’s own recollections and feelings, though occasionally feels a little woolly.
The ebb and flow, the pull of the sea, threads through Mizuko even as Dane and co-director Katelyn Rebelo weave in pretty watercolour animations, mundane transit images and medical diagrams as she examines her feelings about her abortion while coming from two very different cultures.
I’ve had several miscarriages, and sometimes I come across those early scan photographs. Among the swirling black, grey and white, there it is: an unmistakable flash, a tiny electric heartbeat. They’re place marks in my life that, because of when they occurred, led to the two children I have now.
Abortion and miscarriage may not be the taboos they once were, but still aren’t talked about enough considering how common they are. Too often they’re only mentioned factually in terms of the law, or their frequency. A lack of the “right” English words doesn’t help, as Dane points out at the start of her film.
Talk about feelings is often reduced to one emotion, such as sadness or relief. It feels more bracing than it should to take our water children and make them a solid part of our complicated, everyday stories.
Watch the Mizuko trailer:
Mizuko won the Special Jury Recognition for Short Documentary Competition at SXSW Film Festival 2020 and Special Jury Mention for Short Documentary Competition at IDFA 2019. It will be screening online as part of Palm Springs International ShortFest, and June’s Champs Elysées Film Festival.
Co-director and writer Kira Dane is a half-Japanese filmmaker from New York who is currently based in Nara, Japan. Having been shaped by two extremely different cultures, Kira is most interested in telling stories that dig for nuance in the overlooked corners of topics. In 2019 she was named a fellow of the Sundance Ignite Program and is an active member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. Dane co-directed the short animated documentary Mizuko, which was supported by Tribeca Institute’s If/Then Short Documentary Program and also supported with a Sundance Ignite Fellow’s grant from Sundance Institute.
Co-director Katelyn Rebelo is a filmmaker based in Brooklyn. Katelyn holds a BFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts with a major in Film & Television and minor in Social & Cultural Analysis. Her work sits at the intersection of documentary & experimental film, often exploring stories that reimagine concepts of femininity, politics, and personal freedom. She co-directed, animated, and shot Mizuko and is currently the Spring 2020 Womxn Filmmaker Fellow at Jacob Burns Film Center.