Shortly after being relocated to other towns in the late 1980s to make way for Japan’s largest dam, about 10 aging former residents defiantly returned to the abandoned village of Tokuyama, in western Gifu Prefecture, determined to live there as long as possible. They sheltered in their old homes or makeshift huts; they tended their vegetable fields, peeling the bark from trees to make all-purpose kampo (medicine); and they caught fish with handmade bamboo traps set in a nearby creek.

Photographer Nobuo Onishi visited the group many times over a period of 15 years, and next week his documentary “Mizu ni Natta Mura (A Village That Changed Into Water)” will be screened in cinemas in Tokyo, Gifu and Nagano prefectures — ahead of the multipurpose Tokuyama dam beginning full operations next spring.

Life in Japan has been closely aligned with dams ever since the nation’s first — now known as the Sayama-ike reservoir in Osaka — was built in the seventh century. They serve as a life-saving resource for regions whose people perennially suffer from droughts, and are also a powerful buffer against floods in areas with too much rain. After World War II, dams became a symbol of Japan’s economic recovery and industrial prowess, providing water and electricity to the regions they served. In recent decades, however, they have come to represent wasteful expenditure on the part of the government, which critics say is incapable of scaling back or nixing outdated projects. The media have also spotlighted the impact on the lives of people forced from their homes.

Onishi’s film, however, is far from depressing. He captures the villagers laughing and talking as they freely share the benefits of their life experience with the young director. They are joyful and content, as one elderly woman remarked, while soaking in her old outdoor bath: “I feel guilty for all the happiness I have. I owe my happiness to the ancestors. I am so happy.”

Plans for Tokuyama dam were drawn up 50 years ago, before Onishi was born. Now 39, Onishi was raised in a small rural town not far from Tokuyama. “So when I was a child, I heard about the dam and was fascinated that it was going to be ‘Japan’s largest,’ ” Onishi says.

Environmental, social and financial problems related to dam construction are well known today, but as a child, Onishi had no sense of what adults around him thought about the dam. “Then I watched this movie ‘Furusato,’ directed by noted filmmaker Seijiro Koyama, and it blew my mind,” Onishi says. “The movie was set in Tokuyama. I was 14 and I watched the film with the entire junior school I was attending, in the school auditorium. It’s a fiction story about an elderly Tokuyama resident and his grandson, and how the old man refuses to leave his hometown despite the evacuation order. . . . It was such a powerful story, and I cried loudly in the auditorium. All the locations used in the film are under water now.”

Onishi first visited Tokuyama when, as a journalist in his 20s, he was asked by a cable TV channel to do a documentary on an elderly resident of the town named Tazuko Masuyama, who had become well-known for photographing scenes in the town. While Onishi was making the four-episode series, Masuyama introduced him to resident Jo Tokuda, who would later become the central figure in “Mizu ni Natta Mura.”

The film he eventually made, however, was far different from the one he first envisioned. “I went in there thinking I would create a film to criticize the dam. I just thought the people living there would give me tragic stories, then I found that they weren’t unhappy at all! They were laughing. So I felt like laughing myself, even though I knew the village would sink soon. When I first met these people, I generally could not tell what they were doing, so I kept asking, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ That’s how they started teaching me things like how to pick wasabi (horseradish) from the mountains. Then I started thinking, ‘I’m only 50 years younger than these people. How could we have changed so much?’ “

The filmmaker came to admire the townsfolk and the area’s history as national treasures.

“Ancient earthenware from the Jomon Period (12,000 to 2,400 years ago) has been found (there),” Onishi said. “Yet we decided to make the village disappear. We might think 50 years (notice of an approaching project) is a long time, but for the entire history of the village, it was not long at all.”

Throughout the film, villagers hardly ever gripe about the dam or even talk about it. Even in the most tragic moments of their lives — such as when Tokuda stands powerlessly watching as a power shovel tears through her century-old wooden house — she does not break down. With tears in her eyes, she quietly says that her late husband must have descended from heaven to be with her at this very moment and that she feels sorry for her ancestors.

Instead of loudly protesting the stupidity of government policy, the film — with breathtakingly beautiful images of the valley taken from the same spot before and after the construction of the dam — effectively reminds audiences how our modern lifestyles have contributed to the village’s demise.

Onishi says the film changed him — and his lifestyle. For one, he took up gardening — planting about 30 different kinds of vegetables and this year harvesting 60 kg of potatoes alone — and gained a new perspective on a way of life that modern city dwellers view as inconvenient. “I’ve realized that the idea of what is convenience varies from person to person. I realized how I had lost the sense of season in my life. The old people were always thankful — thankful for the water and the light and the ancestors. By showing how the village was drowned, I hope my film will make people feel more thankful for what they have.”

Surprisingly enough, Onishi does not condemn all dam projects in Japan, saying that after visiting communities across the country, he concludes that each case is different. “There was a community where people waited (years and years) to evacuate, without fixing their homes even though the roof had holes and the rain poured down through the holes. They patiently waited for compensation packages to come (so they could move), then they heard one day that the plan was canceled. After witnessing the enormous shock these people experienced, I cannot say these matters are so black and white.”

“Mizu ni Natta Mura” screens (in Japanese only) from Aug. 4 at Pole Pole Higashi-Nakano, Tokyo ([03] 3371-0088). From July 28-Aug. 3, the theater will feature many Japanese-language films related to dams — from action and horror flicks to educational films — and talks on the topic by various filmmakers. For more information, visit web.mac.com/polepoletimes. The film also shows from Sept. 8 at Ogaki Corona Cinema World, Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture ([0584] 73-0567; and from late October at Nagano Rokishi in Nagano City, Nagano Prefecture ([026] 232-3016).

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