“The Tale of Iya” – 2014 Japan Cuts Film Review

Ever since the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the “back to nature” philosophical movement has postulated that, within the man-made construct of society, forces of our creation have corrupted us. This casting out of the garden would give birth to the “back-to-the-land” movement that attempted to undo modernity itself. Expounding the virtues of the so-called “wild man” who lived off the land, this idealistic “back to basics” philosophy has led to many people abandoning the conveniences of modern life for a plow and mule.

In his sophomore feature “The Tale of Iya” (祖谷物語 -おくのひと-, 2013), director Tetsuchiro Tsuta attempts to honestly capture, primarily through the juxtaposition of the natural world and man’s place within it, the many ways people and places can change in irrevocable ways just through the passing of time. Even though “The Tale of Iya” tells a relatively straight forward story devoid of commercial characteristics like a protagonist to root for, Western-style conflict or even a recognizable emotional core, throughout its 169 minutes one cannot ignore the constant sense of foreboding present in every scene. In fact, though the shots that Tsuta and his cinematographer Yutaka Aoki capture of the mountain, rivers and snowy fields of Iya are undeniably beautiful, the absence of people in many of them gives one the impression that the viewer is watching a post-apocalyptic story about the remnants of humanity trying to survive.

Shot on 35mm film on location, Tsuta casts Rina Takeda, of “High Kick Girl!” (2009) fame as Haruna, a self-reliant teenage girl who lives on one of Iya’s mountains with her grandfather, played by Min Tanaka. The dynamic between the two actors is definitely familial though the bond the characters share with one another vacillates between father-daughter and husband-wife relationships. They depend on one another to survive, but there is a palpable sense of animosity between the two, the kind found between couples or friends that have known one another for many years. Both characters are conflicted about their future on the mountain. Haruna’s grandfather realizes that he’s not long for this earth, spending large chunks of his time praying silently at a shrine deep in the woods or aimlessly wandering the hidden pathways and corridors of the mountain like a ghost. Haruna continues her daily rituals, either unaware or unwilling to face the truth about her situation.

A third person, an urbanite who has failed at the rat race, enters the picture. Played by Shima Ohnishi, the character of Kudo is the epitome of a wise fool – and a broken man looking for a purpose. At first, he attempts to join a commune of foreigners led by the charismatic Michael (Christopher Pellegrini) but he feels just as disconnected from them as he does when he spends time with the townspeople. Only when he is around Haruna does Kudo seem to gain some of his strength. The chemistry between the two is evident from the moment Kudo stumbles upon Haruna’s home. Yet exactly what this relationship entails is never spelled out directly; like many events in “The Tale of Iya,” the viewer is left to ponder about what they have seen.

In Tsuta’s film, it is easy to see echoes of Kaneto Shindo’s “The Naked Island” (1960), a cinema-verite style picture about a family struggling to survive on a tiny island in the Inland Sea. As in Shindo’s film, “The Tale of Iya” utilizes a lot of screen time depicting the banal chores of daily life, specifically the job of carting water from its source back to home. There is no objectification of these tasks; we do not applaud Haruna, her grandfather or Kudo for taking them on. Tsuta and Shindo make it clear that this traditional way of life is done not for religious reasons or loyalty to tradition, but for economy and practicality.

It’s telling that Shindo’s and Tsuta’s pictures incorporate the setting into their respective film titles. The mountains of Iya and the barren rocks of the island in Shindo’s film are not just scenic backdrops but actual characters themselves. In “The Tale of Iya,” the woods and mountains seem to be home to spirits and forces that have been alive far longer than Haruna or her grandfather can even fathom. Aoki’s camera captures that natural world in such an unadorned way that those uninitiated to the tropes of contemplative cinema might find it boring. I fear that even for diehard cinephiles like myself, “The Tale of Iya” has so much to say – and simultaneously, so much that was missed – yet I cannot do so without reducing the film into its component parts. The best thing I can recommend about “The Tale of Iya” is to watch it, even if you abhor long and slow films, and give it a chance. It makes a stronger statement about modernity, the environment and nature than a thousand PSA documentaries.

“The Tale of Iya” is the closing film of Japan Cuts 2014: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema.