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Fragments of the Past in Pastoral: To Die in the Country

Pastoral 1

By Giuseppe Sedia. 

In a certain way, Shûji Terayama never reached a point in his career when he felt the need to retrace his childhood. More truly, his multidisciplinary body of work, taken as whole, can be considered as an uninterrupted meditation on his past. Nevertheless, the Japanese cineaste never adopted a extremist, Godard-esque autobiographical stance or used the cinema to make moral statements about the present à la Nanni Moretti. Pastoral: To Die In The Country (Den-en ni shisu, 1974) offers indisputable evidence to prove to this. After a recitation of two tanka penned by Terayama himself, the opening sequence begins as a heart-rending freeze frame depicting a group of children playing hide and seek in a rural graveyard. Once the seeker turns back to find the hiders, they suddenly transform into adults. One of the participants shouts “madadayo” (translation: not yet) in answer to the seeker’s question. The line delivered in Terayama’s film is poles apart from the propitiatory refrain-like madadayo in Akira Kurosawa’s movie of the same name.

Pastoral 2The film begins with a linear narration of the director’s own childhood spent in a spooky village in Aomori Prefecture overlooked by the Scary Mountain. The “terror peak,” hauntingly evocative as the mountain chosen by Shohei Imamura as the setting for the ubasute ritual staged in The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama bushiko, 1983), plays a pivotal role in the storytelling. It is indeed the place where the boy will manage to rebel against his possessive mother by establishing contact with his dead father through a medium. The ghostly countryside, instead, is populated with white-faced characters from Terayama’s infancy. The silent villagers are just half-forgotten figures from his past that cannot be re-enacted in the present. In the outskirts of the unchanging village a traveling circus troupe represents the only source of escapism from the repressively conservative life in the countryside.

Unlike Fellini, Terayama has never been a caricaturist behind the camera. His characters are relatively flat when compared to the full-relief figures inhabiting Rimini re-elaborated by the Italian cineaste in Amarcord (1973). Fellini managed to carry through a romanticization of his past whereas the Japanese artist shows the very impossibility of doing so without distorting it. Additionally, in Terayama’s vision, circus, filmed using a spectrum prism filter, is essentially a cruel milieu where mutual mistreatment reigns supreme. The characters living in Terayama’s big top, including a woman in an inflatable costume seduced and abandoned by her lover, do not have the fairy-tale look of their Fellinian counterparts. The troupe displays anarchism and sexual debauchery just like the children colony in Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Tomato Kecchappu Kotei, 1971).

Pastoral 3Despite being caught in the web of his relationship with his mother, the boy finds the courage to leave the village with an older girl. And as the film progresses, the time at which the story takes place becomes more and more ambiguous. From the moment the teenager is confronted with an older version of himself, the story suddenly begins to shifts back and forth before entering the pure land of meta-cinema. The process of self-analysis in which Japanese director confronts himself is opened by a post-screening discussion shrouded in cigarette smoke between an adult version of Terayama and a film critic that foils the role of his own self. “When you start to objectify yourself and your background you turn them into a cheap spectacle”, he confesses to the director’s complementary persona. Additionally, different versions of his own dreams and memories of childhood bring him to the conclusion that he must symbolically kill his omnipresent mother.

Interspersed with intimate fragments of his life memories, Pastoral: To Die In The Country is a visually eclectic cri de coeur in response to passing of time and its impact on memories. After all, Terayama never entered the third age. It would be therefore pointless to look in his oeuvre for the serene acceptance of ageing and placid nostalgia emanating from Kurosawa’s final effort, and more overall, from classic Japanese cinema.

Giuseppe Sedia is a French-born Italian journalist based in Poland. He is a contributing editor for The Krakow Post.

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