Cycling in the mountains near Tokyo, I often have two thoughts: First, I feel sorry for big-city denizens missing all the natural beauty so near. Second, I wonder how the locals can wrest a living from their tiny fields and orchards, perched precariously on the slopes.
Both thoughts are eloquently amplified and beautifully illustrated in Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s “Iya Monogatari: Oku no Hito (The Tale of Iya),” winner of a Special Mention in the Asian Future section at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. Set in Shikoku’s Iya Valley, famed for its grandeur and remoteness, and shot in the now-rare medium of 35 mm film, it focuses on a people whose way of life is disappearing, even as refugees from the city arrive to preserve it.
This has long been a theme of Japanese films, documentaries included, but those expecting the usual sort of social realism had best be warned: TIFF’s labeling of the 29-year-old Tsuta’s second film as “fantasy/ science fiction” is close enough, though “science” does not come into the equation at all.
Instead, Tsuta’s sensibility is closer to that of Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his classic “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” in which the fantastic and the supernatural not only impinge on the everyday, but poetically coexist with it — and finally supersede it.
This is not an easy trick to bring off, and Tsuta, working from his own script, is at times obscure in his intention and execution, if never incoherent or clumsy. Frame by frame, “The Tale of Iya” is among the most gorgeously photographed of recent Japanese films, with breathtaking views of the mountains in fog, in the snow and in their verdant summertime glory. Kudos go to cinematographer Yutaka Aoki, who also worked with Tsuta on his 2009 “Yume no Shima (Island of Dreams).” While at times not knowing where I was — or why — I was never visually less than entranced. Magic indeed.
The mind bending begins with the first scene, in which an old man (Min Tanaka) costumed like a peasant in a period drama emerges from the woods to discover a wrecked car, a dead woman driver on the hood and, lying on the snow not far away, a baby girl, miraculously alive. Next we see the girl, now a high school student called Haruna (Rina Takeda), living with her rescuer, a silent man she calls “Grandpa,” in a dimly lit thatched-roof cottage deep in the mountains.
The focus shifts to Kudo (Shima Ohnishi), a moody 30-something escapee from the city trying to make a new life in Iya. His first stop is a commune run by a friendly, idealistic foreigner (Christopher Pellegrini), but he ends up trying to farm a patch of fallow land near Grandpa’s house, with Haruna’s support. A testy young construction worker (Hitoshi Murakami) he befriends is openly scornful of his decision to stick it out, come what will. “You think life in the country is easy compared to the city,” he sneers.
Of course it isn’t. Kudo’s vegetable patch is relentlessly invaded by deer, despite the (graphically depicted) efforts by hunters to thin their numbers. The quixotic campaign by the commune members to halt the construction of a tunnel, which they see as a threat to their unspoiled paradise, is strongly opposed by the locals, eager for the economic gains they hope it will bring. Then Grandpa, always a loner, disappears into the woods as a blizzard rages. A frantic Haruna goes in search of him.
Here a transition I won’t detail sends the film into another, dreamlike dimension. One comparison is the end of the cosmic journey for the surviving astronaut in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” who finds himself in an eerily elegant apartment provided for him by his unseen alien hosts. That is, Haruna’s point of view abruptly shifts — and we are no longer certain that it is the same as ours. Is she in a dream? Bewitched, as local legend would have it, by foxes? Transported into the world beyond? Or trapped in an alternative reality in which scarecrows made by a now-deceased Grandpa come to eerie life?
Similar to Kubrick, Tsuta may have wanted to leave the meaning of his various metaphors open to interpretation, which may leave some viewers feeling lost and abandoned by the end of their 169-minute journey.
For this viewer, however, Tsuta’s puzzling and haunting film soars beyond everyday logic into a world of natural wonder, ruled by gods at once strange and familiar, alien to the waking consciousness, but alive in dreams.
Fun fact: Director Tetsuichiro Tsuta was born and raised in Ikeda, a town in rural Tokushima Prefecture that was merged, with five other towns and villages, into Miyoshi City in 2006. The Iya Valley is within its boundaries.