Release Date: April 22nd, 2022
Duration: 77 mins.
Director: Ryohei Sasatani
Writer: Ryohei Sasatani (Screenplay),
Starring: Rairu Sugita, Naru Komukai, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Kisuke Iida, Shungiku Uchida, Yoko Ran,
Films featuring the clash that occurs when the forces of modernisation meet tradition and the natural world are myriad. From the magical movies of Miyazaki and Takahata with Princess Mononoke (1997) and Pom Poko (1994) to indie films like Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s The Tale of Iya (2013) and Akio Jissoji’s Poem (1972), it is a perennial theme.
Documentarian Ryohei Sasatani enters the fray with Sanka: Nomads of the Mountains, his debut narrative feature film based on his script which won the Scenario Grand Prix at Isama Studio Cinema Festival in Gunma Prefecture. His structurally solid and visually enthralling story channels this conflict through the dramatic self-actualisation of the film’s young protagonist who is caught between the drive for the future and the last gasp of a fading past.
Set in the summer of 1965, we see the return of Norio (Rairu Sugita) from Tokyo to his father’s family estate in Gunma as he prepares for his high school entrance exams. Alongside a few items of physical baggage like textbooks, we notice that Norio lugs the emotional weight of adolescent alienation as shown via his distant attitude to others, the bruise on his face from schoolyard bullies, and his inability to focus on his studies. His teenage angst brews away in the confines of the traditional house he has decamped to and the hothouse atmosphere becomes even more stifling in the presence of his overbearing father (Kisuke Iida), a war veteran and amateur industrialist bent on revitalising the nearby town.
Norio’s rebellious energy is given direction when he meets three Sanka, mountain folk whose lives have been spent wandering to where it’s cool in summer and warm in winter. His encounter begins with a sprightly teenager named Hana (Naru Komukai) whose theft of a pail of potatoes leads him to her father Shozo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), a bear of a man whose paternal instincts run softer than those of Norio’s own father, and grandmother Tae (Yoko Ran), a firecracker of a character who alternately teases and intrigues Norio with Sanka traditions and legends that stretch back to the Edo period.
Looking and behaving like characters Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (1983), the lives of the Sanka are a stark contrast to the staid village/city folk Norio comes from. Time spent with them leads Norio to learn how to forage from the land, hunt, craft tools, and fish in traditional ways while the world around him changes as Japan enters its economic boom period. However, their presence on the family estate puts them at odds with Norio’s father who wishes to build upon the mountains and is willing to drive the interlopers off.
In Sasatani’s smooth and cleanly structure script, he creates a solid context and through line that guides the story, from the richly imagined setting to the Sanka who offer clear contrapuntal character and lifestyle parallels that form the basis of Norio’s development wherein his appreciation of his environment leads him into conflict with family duties and his father. Tying things more securely is his connection with a mother whose fate lies with the land he treads. Thus, both Norio and the mountain become centre of a battle between nature and the drive for modernisation.
Norio’s experiences are infused with ideas of pacifism, ecological and social responsibility and history. These issues prove to be emotionally resonant due to their universal nature and it helps that there are uniformly good performances from the cast to sell them. Rairu Sugita believably embodies a boy who is searching for himself while also being the nexus for the film’s themes. Kisuke Iida and Kiyohiko Shibukawa work well with him as they offer different versions of masculine ideals that link into the way they treat the land as well as others. Then there is Naru Komukai who portrays a girl full of liveliness and defiance that viewers can believe would spark change in a teenage boy.
Sasatani’s writing offers a sense of poignancy and dignity to the Sanka by allowing the characters the dialogue and actions to display their traditions and experiences. He doesn’t skip the hardship that comes with living off the land and being discriminated against due to being outside of society. Additionally, enough nuance is given to Norio’s father and his commitments to his community to prevent him being a two-dimensional character, more a man with the foresight to tap into the brewing economic boom who ultimately understands that economic changes will be forced upon everyone as an inevitability of the post-war time period.
Crucial to everything is the scenery of Gunma Prefecture. Reflecting the low-budget of the film, there are a few interior scenes with period appropriate props but the majority of the film is in the lush mountain setting. Shot in rain and shine and taking advantage of natural light at various times of the day, Sasatani’s captures all sorts of variations in nature so that it becomes a character itself, what with challenging terrain, beautiful areas for poetic visuals and even creatures for the characters handle. These are unspoiled places, the sort of which might drive a person to reflect on life and lament the changes forced upon the world by humanity, something which the film wishes to evoke alongside the sense of a fading lifestyle that the Sanka represent. Sasatani succeeds in doing this in his solid yet profound story that comes complete with pleasurable visuals and moving performances.
You can read my interview with writer/director Ryohei Sasatani here.