Japanese cinema has certainly been no stranger to the discussion of environmental issues, from Studio Ghibli’s concerns about modern society’s encroachment into the natural world to the ultra-modern concerns about pollution and the dangers of nuclear disasters. However, they’ve rarely been addressed to poetically as in The Tale of Iya, which is an extraordinarily rich examination of man and the landscape. Tinged with magical realism and surreal juxtapositions, The Tale of Iya is an oddly wonderful experience in the broadest sense of the word.
The film begins with a vast expanse of deep snow, in which a lone figure dressed in a traditional blue mountain dress with a conical straw hat is making an everyday journey to a local shrine. This could be a scene from any Jidaigeki or even a woodblock print were it not for the crashed car the old man finds a little further into his journey. A woman has been thrown through the windscreen and is lying motionless the bonnet. The old man gives the incongruous scene a quizzical look, but moves on along his planned path. Then, however, even more strangely he finds a little pink bundle by the side of a frozen river. This time he does stop and scoop the infant up. A jump cut sees us flash forward to around fifteen years later as a teenage girl dressed in pink gets up to make breakfast for her ‘grandfather’ - the old man of the mountains. On her way to the local school she passes an old lady who’s taken to making sack mannequins which seem to do their part to make up the population of this rapidly declining mountain village.
The newly born sack people aren’t the only newcomers though - in an attempt at modernisation, the town planning committee have elected to build a tunnel which will connect them to the main road and make transportation easier. However, this has met with strong opposition from ‘environmental groups’ represented by an American eco-warrior. Amongst these strangers is another from Tokyo who seems to have come for an unknown reason but eventually decides to stay and attempt to farm the land. Iya is certainly very beautiful, but country life is also hard and entirely dependent on the weather. The young people long to leave for the comparative excitement of the city. City people, though, long for the simplicity of a long forgotten country life.
The film begins in a more or less naturalistic style filled with the most beautiful cinematography of snow covered vistas and foggy mountains. However, a strong seam of surreality constantly builds throughout the film until it reaches the final third and almost becomes a sort of science-fiction film about a magical environmental product that can clean polluted rivers down to near perfect clarity. Folklore beliefs and practices run side by side with a more poetic slice of magical realism that is jarring at first (and actually a tiny bit frightening) but the film’s surreal and dreamlike imagery is likely to be the thing that lingers longest.
The Tale of Iya also manages to offer a broadly nuanced and balanced view of the nature of country life and concerns about the environment. This is a remote town with a dwindling population - the new tunnel will ease communication, ultimately make lives safer and perhaps stop so many young people leaving the area altogether. The local people are therefore very much in favour of the new tunnel and many of them actually work for the construction company who are building it. The only opposition to the bridge is from a group of foreigners who are living in a commune but come down from the mountain every day to shout ‘save Iya’ and various ‘shame on you’ type comments (in English) at the construction team. The irony being that their ‘commune’, run in a typical communal farming style with hundreds of ‘save Iya’ billboards, might actually be the biggest eye-sore in the area.
That’s not to say the film isn’t in favour of conservation or that it feels all construction is beneficial (quite the reverse) but it is eager to present a fair comment on both sides of the problem. Similarly, it isn’t afraid to point out that this ancient way of life is extremely difficult. Kudo, who’s arrived from Tokyo and looks so jumpy all the time one wonders if he left in a hurry, is eager to learn about traditional farming. He looks so pleased with himself when he’s finally mastered how to water crops in the traditional way, not to mention that torturous looking two buckets on a stick water carrying device. It’s not long before he’s taken up the self-sufficient life but the problem with that is you have to do everything yourself - no electric, no running water (other than that that runs in a stream), no sanitation and in short no safety net. Muddling through and celebrating small victories is fine in the blistering heat of summer but as the first snow falls and you don’t have enough winter stores, death from cold or starvation (or both) is a very real possibility. City people romanticise country life thinking it’s ‘easier’ or admiring its ‘simplicity’ but whatever it gives it also takes.
At 169 minutes, there’s no point in denying The Tale of Iya is an extremely long film that moves a stately pace. Undeniably some viewers will be put off by its epic running time and frequent flights of fancy but those who stay the distance will be richly rewarded. Magical, beautiful and finally profoundly moving, The Tale of Iya is an incredibly heady brew that stays in the mind long after it finishes. Truly ‘wonderful’ in every sense of the word, this film deserves to be much more widely seen.
A Tale of Iya was screened at London's ICA 7th March 2014 as part of the Pan Asia Film Festival.