The Tale of Iya
祖谷物語 おくのひと 「Iya Monogatari – Oku no Hito」
Running Time: 169 mins.
Release Date: February 15th, 2014
Director: Tetsuchiro Tsuta
Writer: Tetsuchiro Tsuta, Masayuki Ueda (Screenplay),
Starring: Rina Takeda (Haruna), Min Tanaka (Grandpa), Shima Ohnishi (Kudo), Sachi Ishimaru (Kotomi), Hitoshi Murakami (Akira), Reika Miwa, Takahiro Ono, Naomi Kawase, Christopher Pellegrii, Keiko Taoka, Shigeru Kimura
The landscape of Japan is caught in all of its resplendent beauty during the four seasons in The Tale of Iya, a drama shot in a remote valley in Shikoku about life in the countryside. While a sense of nostalgia is movingly evoked over the course of the narrative it also remains clear-eyed about how tough such an environment can be and where its future may lie.
Our first view of this environment comes in a fairy tale-like opening in the middle of a blizzard one winter. A man (Min Tanaka) in traditional clothes that look like something out of a jidaigeki is hunting in the snowy forests around the valley of Tokushima Prefecture’s Iya valley. He adheres to the old ways and avoids the modern world but that intrudes into his life when he stumbles upon a crashed car and discovers a dead woman on the bonnet and, in what could only be described as a miracle, a baby girl lying unharmed on the frozen sparkling surface of a lake. The man takes her in and gives her the name Haruna. For the next 15 years, they live in harmony with nature in the mountains in a cottage without electricity or running water, surrounded by vegetable plots and verdant forests.
The next time we encounter them, it is summer and the baby has grown into a caring teenage girl (Rina Takeda) who looks after the taciturn old man she refers to as Grandpa as she helps with farming and goes into town for supplies. She also attends school and visits friends but she is purer than others because she has learned the ways of the land from Grandpa. Change is bound to come as she starts to spread her wings and take advantage of modernity and, whether she likes it or not, nature cannot be stopped as Grandpa ages and the environment continues to be tough. Inevitably, her small world will change and she must adapt for her future.
To our eyes, their traditional existence is idyllic but ignorance is bliss as we see when they encounter a stranger from Tokyo whose name is Kudo (Shima Ohnishi). Perhaps a stand-in for the audience and our naïve and conceited views of how easy life is in the picturesque countryside, his parallel storyline offers a more clear-eyed view of life in the country. He is drawn to Iya because he wants to refresh his tired soul and he is inspired by Haruna and Grandpa to start farming but what he discovers is that working the land is no fairy tale and a brutal winter really tests his perseverance and his ability to adapt.
Three years of shooting has resulted in a film that lasts 169 minutes and moves at a stately pace as it is defined by close observation of the characters interacting with the natural world and locals in the summer sun, autumn rains, and during a snowbound winter. Shot on 35mm film, Tetsuchiro Tsuta’s work features a full range of colours and sights and sounds of the location of Tokushima to root us in the reality of a community in an isolated area. It looks like they tried to get natural light to play as big a part as possible leading to lots of striking images that highlights the different textures of the area so that while the story is is slow, it is always visually arresting.
At times it is like a fascinating documentary as there are so many long dialogue-free passages shot in factories and on farms and mountainsides with loggers and hunters. These moments could be an ethnography with the actors fully integrated into these scenes by participating in events. The farming and hunting sequences don’t shy away from showing the toil and brutality involved as deer and adverse weather ravage crops and we see what look to be real animals killed by hunters trying to protect farms.
The dramatic elements come with the depiction of contradictory forces of life in the countryside to show how a pure country existence is almost impossible as the pull of modernity shapes the environment and its people. It is most obvious in a subplot involving the conflict between a local construction company and a group of conservationists opposed to the completion of a tunnel through a mountain. This clash reveals a cruel reality faced by rural communities as we see that such infrastructure projects and their resulting tourism are the biggest source of income for such areas and this change is necessary.
This economic pressure feeds into a bigger theme of trying to keep alive a dying town and its traditions. Iya valley needs the tunnel because it lacks jobs and amenities, something which has resulted in depopulation. This impacts Haruna as, all around her, schools are closing, young people are constantly talking of Tokyo and the elderly that have been left behind by their children start to decay and die like the various abandoned family homes that form part of the backdrop of the valley. With each loss, the sense of fraying ties is keenly felt and while Haruna wants to stay put, we see that her youth might be better spent elsewhere and not increasingly isolated in the valley where people she is close to disappear or die from old age.
In order to tie together these different themes, the film re-adopts its fairy tale atmosphere for the final quarter which transports us out of the valley and into a dreamlike atmosphere. I won’t spoil but it is smoothly handled as the film always has a magical realist bent to it. Since the film features moments of the supernatural drawn from nature, these transitions don’t feel contrived and they also play into the idea that areas such as Iya have these wonderous qualities, as emphasised by the beautiful visuals and time spent with elderly characters.
Most importantly, the story offers a clean ending with hope from the culmination of Haruna and Kudo’s character arcs as it shows that if people are willing to commit fully to a traditional lifestyle and to submit themselves to the ways of nature, there is the possibility that such dying communities will be revitalised. It is a moving moment tinged with sadness over what is lost but also the possibility of growth again, which makes it satisfying viewing.