Harakara / The Village (1976)

7 07 2013

I’m not one to make note of IMDB comments, but there’s not much written in English about Yoji Yamada. Additionally, I tend to be dismissive of director comparisons, but for whatever reason I was struck by a review of this film that compared Yamada to Altman. To me, they couldn’t be operating on more opposite positions. Altman, perhaps the ultimate cynic seems downright mean-spirited next to Yamada, who often borders on being “too gentle.” The comparison ends up making sense here as this does play out like a rural Japanese Nashville but more importantly, it made me think of the potential aesthetic overlap. From a visual perspective, both manage to work extremely well with multiple characters, a point emphasized in this film, which has such an extensive cast.


Hideko Kono, a representative of a theater trope based in Tokyo, visits the snowy and small village of Matsuo. She does so with the intention of putting on a production in the small community. During her visit, she meets the leader of the village’s youth association, Takashi. Although he’s in a position of authority, he lacks the confidence that such a position would normal imply. Hideko’s idea of a show is thus the subject of long debates within the youth group. Eventually, they decide upon going forward with the production, but this only begins the long struggle of a small town securing the finances to put on such a production.


This might sound a little dry on paper, but Yamada paints around the setup, giving us short glimpses into the lives of the people connected to the story. Takashi has long harbored a crush on Kayoko, who dreams of moving to Tokyo. Their romances never seems particularly forced, mostly because it doesn’t actually end up happening. The naturalism might just be because of the wonderful performance (Chieko Baisho, in particular, of course) but one might argue it also is because of the fact that the character’s side stories lack an arc. Their background is developed almost entirely by non-events.


To continue building the case for the film’s naturalism, I feel like there’s something to be said about Yamada on a formal level. I’ve never be able to discuss his style in a flattering light, as he doesn’t seem as interested in form as the ATG/Japanese New Wave crowd that emerged on the scene around the same time as his own career was beginning. Seeing a film like this, where Yamada has to balance so many people, his technical craft is easier to notice and appreciate. His frames  in the first half almost always seem crowded, perhaps an intentional move considering a majority of the film takes place in an isolated meeting room. Later, when the actual production is being put on, there’s an undeniable sense of space, which is crucial to the theatrical performers.


I’m never one to discuss aesthetics in details, but I did want to mention something about how Yamada frames conversations. There’s a freedom within his actors that seems quite refreshing. The compositions seem so delicate, but the actors are constantly walking right in front of the camera with no regard for its presence. It still works on a visual level because it’s balanced out by other actors in a “layer” (so to speak) behind the person standing right in front of the camera. There are multiple stories unfolding within each frame, which seems is a wonderful visual match with the film being about the multiple stories within a small, mostly ignored group of people. Yamada touches upon the idea that a shared story, be it a positive or negative one, can unite the downtrodden. It sounds hokey, but his touch makes it feel organic.




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