Drama, Films, Japan, Recommended posts, Reviews

The Tale Of Iya

Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s achingly beautiful tribute to a lost Japan…

The Tale Of Iya begins with the image of an elderly farmer, traditionally dressed, in a snow covered forest as he carves up his quarry. Rather deliberately, we could be more than a century ago, perhaps in Edo period Japan, until the images of a tragic car accident brings us crashing into modern times. Just another fatality on the Iya Mountain Valley’s perilously winding roads, only an orphaned baby girl survives.

Years later, that girl, Haruna (Rina Takeda, Dead Sushi, High Kick Girl!, The Kunoichi: Ninja Girl) is in her late teens, having been brought up by the farmer she now calls Grandpa (Min Tanaka, Rurouni Kenshin: The Great Kyoto Fire Arc, The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Black Dawn). The last to work the land in such an old fashioned way, the locals refer to Haruna as the “Princess Mononoke” of Iya.

As well-intentioned campaigners from outside Japan try to halt tunnel construction that threatens the environment, and the villagers begin to move away, a young man from Tokyo, Mr. Kudo (Shima Ohnishi, The Ravine of Goodbye, The Red Army) comes to the area ready to leave his city life behind, and becomes infatuated with the lifestyle of Haruna and her Grandpa, and decides to farm the land himself.

Born in a small mountain town himself, writer/director Tetsuichiro Tsuta visually pulls back from the characters, setting them entirely within the location in the mountains. Stunningly shot by cinematographer Yutaka Aoki, the landscape speaks for itself; fast moving clouds shroud the hills in shadows, and then release them with a poetic beauty. He doesn’t even let the soundtrack get in the way, using Keita Kawabata’s score minimally – particularly in the first half where it is rarely heard. It’s all shot on 35mm film in such a loving way it almost single-handedly makes the case for ditching digital. Like Kudo, we too fall under the hypnotic spell of the mountains, but, as we have seen all too well from the opening scene, life here is dangerous and hard.

With a pace and style evocative of the golden age of Japanese cinema, directors like Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu –and perhaps more so the voiceless toil of the land in Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island – Tetsuichiro Tsuta builds a picture of the characters slowly, scene by achingly beautifully shot scene; giving us an even handed picture of those that live there. From the workers on the tunnel who come form generations, the few villagers who can remember the old ways, to the campaigners are seen very much as outsiders. Ceremonies that emphasise traditional dress and manner are contrasted against the demise of a community, but it’s more than that. It’s the demise of a noble way of living with the land that no longer exists.

Critics and even the films own publicity have played up its dreamlike quality, referring to the film as a ‘visual poem’. In that sense the description fits, it does not follow a strict narrative. The power of this landscape is impossible to ignore, but arguably the director steps too far into whimsy. He might want to show us the ghosts of what was once a thriving community, living off the land in a noble synergy with nature, but way in which he does it is more than a little disarming. A last act sees us rejoin Haruna in Tokyo, years later, working as a lab scientist. However poetic the vision, this leads to fancy that feels more a part of science fiction; an unnecessary quirkiness in the face of the already potent juxtaposition of city life.

Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s compelling vision of a lost way of life in Japan and the Iya valley is all the more stunning on the big screen, where it should be enjoyed.

The UK premiere of The Tale Of Iya screens as part of the Pan-Asia Film Festival 2014 on 7 March at the ICA London. Tickets can be booked on the ICA website.

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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