Skip to Content

GFF 2014: ‘The Tale of Iya’ is a film of serene and organic beauty

GFF 2014: ‘The Tale of Iya’ is a film of serene and organic beauty

The Tale of Iya Rina Takeda

The Tale of Iya
Written by Tetsuichirô Tsuta, Masaya Kawamura and Masayuki Ueda
Directed by Tetsuichirô Tsuta
Japan, 2013

Shot with remarkable assurance on 35mm film, Tetsuichirô Tsuta’s second feature The Tale of Iya instantly has the feel of a classic. It opens with a scene of serene and organic beauty, starting with a flurry of snow falling from the half-lit sky. A man in traditional rural dress walks out of a humble wooden shrine and stumbles through the drifts, simultaneously battling with and assimilating the hostile conditions. He comes across a car accident; the driver is flung through the windscreen and both passengers are obviously dead. Moving on, he notices a flash of pink on the frozen river, a baby girl in a snowsuit crawling on the ice. He watches her for a moment, then walks over and picks her up, as the snow continues to fall around them.

In this setting, which is both wild and ancient, the accident is uncanny. It’s as if a car veered off the road in another world and landed right there, perhaps to deliver the girl in answer to the old man’s prayers. As it transpires, this is exactly what The Tale of Iya is about, the collision and subsequent relationship between two worlds. One is the isolated valley region of the film’s title and the other is everywhere else, Tokyo and modernity. What unfolds is a rare epic, 169 minutes in length, depicting the complexities and fault lines in this relationship. Tsuta’s film is deeply indebted to the past masters of Japanese cinema but has a contemporary voice entirely its own.

The Tale of Iya Nobumitsu Ohnishi

The baby on the ice grows up to be Haruna (Rina Takeda), a young woman who still lives with the old man (Min Tanaka) in his rustic mountainside cabin. He is the only member of the community who remains on the farmland; everyone else has retreated to lower ground and adapted to the expanding village’s more comfortable lifestyle. Haruna is devoted to her adopted grandfather, cooking him meals and helping him on the farm, demonstrating an innate understanding of the natural environment and his traditional way of life. However, she is also a normal teenager with desires and ambitions of her own. She devours scientific textbooks and gladly accepts the offer of a scooter to help her get around. She walks up and down the mountain to get to school every day and, like her friends, is forced to think carefully about her future.

Down in the valley, the precarious balance between progress and conservation is under threat. Tensions are rising between two opposing factions, a construction company that are digging a tunnel to improve road access to the village and a group of western eco-warriors who live in a nearby commune. Interestingly, it is outsiders rather than locals who protest the work that is taking place. Having renounced the economic advancement that the villagers yearn for, they are able to appreciate the extraordinary value of the land that is being carved apart. However, they lack the right and authority to speak for it.

The Tale of Iya Min Tanaka

They are briefly joined by Kudo (Nobumitsu Ohnishi), a newcomer from Tokyo searching for meaning in wilderness and seclusion, who later establishes his own farm after seeing Haruna and the old man at work. As the seasons go by, conditions become treacherous and life on the land gets increasingly desperate. Snow thickly coats the landscape and it becomes almost impossible to produce anything in the frozen ground. Despite the pretensions of the western commune, who leave Iya just before the winter, self-sufficiency is not simply an ideology or a philosophy. It is not enough to believe in the principle; you have to commit to it absolutely, take it into your bones. The old man is the embodiment of this idea. As he gets older and weaker, moss grows on his back and his body prepares to be taken back into the mountain. Haruna says he rarely speaks and is no different to the rocks and the trees.

Their elderly neighbour, who Haruna calls Granny (Tomie Nishi), also has a spiritual connection with the environment. She makes stuffed figures in the image of those who have passed away and they come to life as benevolent spirits, protecting the villagers from the natural world. These supernatural elements are vital to The Tale of Iya, allowing it to dazzle in bursts of startling invention. There is one sequence so ingeniously constructed and profoundly realised that it reverberates throughout the film like waves, taking us right back to the beginning and altering everything that has gone before. Composed of a series of images, instinctual, poetic and precise, it culminates in a moment of transcendence and epiphany.

The rest of the film can’t quite live up to the cinematic potency of scenes like this, grounded as it is in political realism and ethnographic detail. However, it mediates well between each character’s experience of the region, giving due attention to the morals, hazards and value of their different ways of life. Essentially, it’s a film about conservation, which highlights our moral imperative to preserve environments and traditional lifestyles, even when they no longer appear to serve a practical purpose to the outside world. But to complicate the picture, it also defends the right of rural communities to pursue new experiences, which, without progress, would remain beyond their scope. The symbol at the heart of this debate is the tunnel. Once it is completed, everyone uses it, including those who most fiercely opposed it. What is made cannot be unmade. The tunnel becomes another part of the delicate ecosystem, a construct with magic of its own. Like a portal in space, it opens the way for innumerable collisions with unknown worlds. It could make or destroy Iya.

Rob Dickie