The Tale Of Iya (Iya monogatari: Oku no hito)
Japan (2013) Dir. Tetsuichiro Tsuta
Save the trees. Protect the environment. Or don’t. It’s up to you. Everybody is at least aware of the current global movements to be more eco-friendly and keep the planet alive a bit longer but not everybody is convinced to do their bit. Is it time to push the issue harder for those who don’t believe or simply let them be?
The valleys of Iya in the mountains of Shikoku are one the last vestiges of unaffected rural life in Japan, unspoiled by modernity in every way, where an old man (Min Tanaka) raises a foundling girl, Haruna (Rina Takeda), the lone survivor of a car crash. Devoted to her adopted grandfather, Haruna continues his bucolic way of life but quietly harbours the aspirations of one day enjoying a more exciting life in the city.
Meanwhile, Kudo (Shima Ohnishi), a 30-something from Tokyo tired of the pressures and demands of the capital, seeks a simpler, less hurried life in the mountains, hoping to find nirvana from living off the land and being at one with nature. At the same time Kudo arrives, a group of American eco-warriors living at a nearby commune are protesting the building of a tunnel in the side of the mountains.
Running a bum-numbing 169-minutes, The Tale Of Iya is a curious beast, having a lot to say but not necessarily needing three hours to say it, yet has a hypnotic quality that you’d feel churlish suggesting cuts to it. This is due to the gorgeously photographed tableaux of the Iya mountains and surrounding areas, and the lilting, if occasionally soporific depiction of the rustic lifestyle.
At its heart, it is a film about the very topical issue of conservation and environmental concerns but addresses them in an ambiguous manner to suggest director Tetsuichiro Tsuta might not have made his mind up as to where he stands and this film is his visual and balanced list of pros and cons.
Filmed in Tsuta’s native Tokushima Prefecture, Tale Of Iya boasts a memorable opening scene, if only for its absurd quietness. Dressed like a peasant from the Edo period, with a flat conical hat and straw covering his jacket, the old man descends the snowy hillside where a car has hit a tree. A motionless female body has been propelled through the windscreen; further ahead a tiny baby in a pink coat lay unhurt on the icy ground.
Certainly not the last moment of its kind, we jump forward fifteen years where teenage Haruna and her grandfather are the last of the mountain dwellers, the danger of living so high up has seen everyone else move to the lower ridges of the valleys. They include the old lady Haruna calls “Granny” (Tomie Nishi), and her life-sized stuffed figures of her deceased friends; Haruna’s best friend Kotomi (Sachi Ishimaru); and her brother Akira (Hitoshi Murakami).
Happy to be on the construction team building the tunnel, Akira sees it as his passport out of the mountains and to prosperity in the city, whilst other villagers hope the easier access to and from Iya will help tourism and improve relations with nearby villages. So it is ironic opposition to the tunnel comes from a group of outsiders, led by gangly do-gooder Michael (Christopher Pellegrini), blocking the path with banners and chanted slogans.
It’s a fascinating twist having the interlopers be the dissenting faction, as it could be read a number of ways. First, as a playful dig at America’s self-appointed role as the world police, sticking their nose in where it doesn’t belong, even though their sentiments in this case may be noble.
Second, it’s a possible comment on the reluctance of hidebound Japanese rural dwellers to join the modern world at the expense of their families’ futures. Thirdly, it might be the inverse of the last point, and in fact the villagers have adopted a progressive mindset and are less sentimental about their surroundings if it impedes prosperity. Maybe Tsuta is saying we should ask people what they want and not just assume we know better – we may be in for a surprise.
Lest we forget Kudo’s exponential growth as the newest farmer in the village, enduring a trial by fire he clearly didn’t expect. In fact, a fire would have been welcome during the harsh winters Kudo is barely able to survive, much like the sweltering summers, not to mention the lack of success in growing crops. It’s a subplot designed to encourage city dwellers never assume the simple life is that simple.
Just when you think you have a grip on the story, Tsuta whips the rug from under our feet with thirty minutes left and presents a similarly themed closing arc but from an alternate perspective. I’ll say no more about it, except that it makes one think “So, why bother?” as the message is, either way you can’t win no matter how well intentioned you may be.
Tsuta was just 29 when his made this film, yet it has the thoughtfulness and restraint of someone much older. The languid, almost glacial pace and plodding depiction of daily life has the feel of an old master doing what he wants because he can, not somebody with the youthful vigour of using cinema as a weapon, but the results speak for themselves.
One of the many interesting decisions taken by Tsuta is the casting Rina Takeda. With a black belt in karate leading to starting out in low budget martial arts films, Takeda would be the last choice to play an arthouse heroine, but whatever it was Tsuta saw in her, he brought it to the screen, and I’m happy to report it is a star making performance.
Mileage will vary with The Tale Of Iya, be it the run time, lumbering pace, or erratic flights of surreal reverie and stark political rumination, but you will feel something when it is over. Perhaps overly obtuse but necessarily so to make its point.