Japan is said to be a land of constant change, where city centers are perpetual construction sites and a house is ready for the wrecking ball after three decades. Venice has pretty much the same look in 2007 as it did in 1807. The Tokyo of 1958 has vanished so utterly, however, that Takashi Yamazaki had to re-create it on computer for his 2005 hit “Always — Sunset on Third Street.”
But as Nobuo Onishi’s documentary “Mizu ni Natta Mura (The Village that Became Water)” reminds us, one thing in Japan rarely changes: the determination of bureaucrats to carry through their construction plans, no matter how outdated or idiotic. Operate a nuclear reactor on an earthquake fault line? Why not! Build a new airport runway, even though the airport itself is a financial Titanic, headed for the bottom in a sea of red ink? Go for it!
The project that prompted his film, a dam in Tokuyama, Gifu Prefecture, was first proposed in 1957, at the beginning of Japan’s postwar economic boom, when concrete was considered a symbol of progress and the negative environmental impacts of dam construction were not well understood — least of all by the bureaucrats who greenlighted the Tokuyama dam.
Much had changed by the time the village to be inundated by the dam was ordered evacuated in 1985, including the rise of a local opposition movement. But the bureaucratic wheels kept grinding, and in 2008 the Tokuyama dam will finally go into full operation, more than half a century after it was first proposed.
Onishi, a professional photographer and documentary filmmaker, began interviewing the former inhabitants of the doomed village in the early 1990s for a cable TV documentary. Thinking he would hear tragic stories of displacement and loss, what he found instead were elderly villagers who were remarkably energetic, cheerful and determined to keep living just as they always had, returning to their old homes in the spring and staying until the winter snows.
While there, they farmed fields and scoured the surrounding mountains for mushrooms, horse chestnuts, wasabi (Japanese horseradish), nashi (Japanese pears) and other wild edibles. They also fished in the local streams and made medicines from local plants.
Their water came, untreated, from a nearby marsh. Their baths were heated by burning firewood. At night they had no source of light but lanterns. Stores, clinics, gas stations and other outposts of modern civilization were nowhere in sight.
What Onishi makes apparent in encounter after encounter (not “interview”) with his subjects is that, far from being simply stubborn or backward, they revel in a lifestyle that comes as naturally to them as breathing.
Onishi, though a Gifu native himself, is constantly expressing wonder and delight (always off-camera) at the way the villagers raise, prepare and consume their own food. When one of his stars, the octogenarian Jo Tokuda, polishes off five ohagi (rice balls) at one sitting, he gushes like a reporter on a gurume (food) show. Tokuda just laughs. “When you eat in the mountains, anything tastes good,” she answers.
But unlike the makers of the typical TV food/travel/human interest program, who reel from wonder to local wonder in a few frantic days of shooting, Onishi spent 15 years recording the villagers and their lives. His interest in Tokuyama goes back to 1983 when, as a young teenager, he saw Seijiro Koyama’s “Furusato (Countryside),” a drama about the villagers to be displaced by the Tokuyama dam. Deeply moved, he became determined to film the impact of the dam on the villagers himself. That commitment and passion permeate “Mizu ni Natta Mura.’
What the film does not have is obvious outrage. There are no Michael Moore moments when Onishi confronts bureaucrats or dam builders. Instead, he films a power shovel clawing down Tokuda’s 100-year-old house in 1995, as she stoically looks on, with delicacy and restraint. He may go in a for a closeup as she chokes back tears, but he refrains from the typical TV gambit of pumping her with tearjerking questions. By this time we know her and her situation so well that the moment speaks for itself, eloquently. The tears are our own.
This depoliticized, personal approach reflects the attitude of the villagers themselves: After decades of living with the threat of the dam, they have become resigned to it and determined to enjoy their remaining time in the best place they know.
That said, they are not saints, but elderly folk who, away from the village, must adapt to an unfamiliar routine of shopping for food they never grew or picked. A shot of a village woman, once proudly independent, wandering distractedly about a supermarket is more poignant than the destruction of her house. The latter can be built again, but when the villagers go — and Onishi records one of their funerals — an entire way of life goes with them.
Is it worth reviving? Onishi and other young back-to-nature types are trying — and I wish them well — but if I, like Tokuda, had to spend the better part of a day hiking the mountains to harvest the wasabi I put on my sushi, I might eat healthier and live longer, but when would I have time to watch the excellent “Mizu ni Natta Mura”? (I can hear Tokuda laughing at this city boy’s excuse. I don’t mind — as long as I get an invitation to dinner.)