The Tale of Iya
opens with the image of an old man in traditional clothes making his way over rough terrain on a snowy mountain.
The viewer is coaxed into making the obvious assumption that this is sometime in the past, and the man is living a difficult life in one of Japan's remote mountainous regions, that is until the man comes across a road off which a car has veered, the body of the driver dead inside. A short distance away lies a baby, no doubt thrown from the car but seemingly unharmed. It's an excellent sequence and a great lead into the film which shows off what is undoubtedly the movies strength - it's beautiful imagery. Shot on 35mm film, it looks vastly superior to the majority of Japanese movies which unfortunately often have a washed out, TV quality about them.
The film's measured shots of Iya's stunning scenery, the mountain sides, farmland, forests and streams look exquisite. The sight of the old man making his way slowly and methodically through the mountains in a traditional conical hat with a bundle of sticks and straw upon his back could have come right out of the period work of Kurosawa or Mizoguchi, or Imamura's Ballad of Narayama. In these quieter moments it has a real cinematic quality which is quite captivating.
After finding the orphaned child the film cuts to the present, the baby is now a young girl named Haruna, living with the old man, referred to as 'Grampa', in his isolated home. Life is simple and Grampa, something of a loner, barely speaks but the girl is happy. She has a 'Grandma' living further down the mountain and a friend at school who is determined to leave the tiny community for Tokyo as soon as she is able. The beauty of the region and the peoples traditional way of life are at threat as a tunnel is being constructed through the mountainside to open up the region to tourism and industry. Opposing the construction is a group of eco-warriors made up of foreigners and dispossessed souls, 'Drop-outs', who have fled the punishing working life of Tokyo. Tensions arise as it is in fact the locals who are the constructions workers eager to build the road, and the outsiders, both of the region and the country, that want to protect the area from development.
This all works very well for the majority of the movie, there is a strong cast of contrasting characters with the happy and caring Haruna and her relationship with 'Grampa' forming the emotional core of the movie. Others, a Tokyo drop out determined to start a farm, a rough young construction worker with a soft spot for Haruna, free-spirited American Michael the leader of the conservationists, and a local government worker struggling to cope with the competing factions all offer a rich tapestry of views on a difficult problem. Respect for tradition versus the march to the future. The needs of locals versus the conservation of the environment.
This is all well and good for the first two hours of its nearly three hour total but when things take a turn for the surreal the film loses its grasp on the story leading to a confused and unsatisfying final third. After a beautifully shot sequence in which a group of straw dolls made by 'Grandma' come to life, the action moves to Tokyo and jumps forwards in Haruna's life. Fantasy elements are now introduced but they are muddled and take the film away from the more general view of the lifestyles and problems of the town and people of Iya to focus solely on Haruna and her struggle to find a place in the world.
There's a lot of good in this film but ultimately the confused ending doesn't justify the lengthy running time.
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