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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2003

Setting out on that final journey


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Hideo Onchi
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Japan is not the worst place to be old. In the last years of her life, my wife's mother required care that, in many countries (including my own), would have been ruinously expensive. But because of National Health Insurance we were able to pay for her needs without bankrupting ourselves. Also, no one in the family talked of putting her in a nursing home. Despite the long erosion of Confucian values, most Japanese will ship ojiisan or obasan off to strangers only as a last resort.

News photo
Etsuko Ishihara (left) in "Warabinoko"

So why do tales of abandoning the old in the mountains -- to starve and become food for crows -- exert such a hold on the Japanese imagination? Keisuke Kinoshita and Shohei Imamura both filmed the most popular of these tales, "Narayama Bushiko." Though based on the same novel by Shichiro Fukazawa, their films were radically different, with Kinoshita's 1958 version being filmed on a sound stage in a Kabuki-esque style and Imamura's 1983 version, the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, taking a more realistic approach. But both lead actresses -- Kinuyo Tanaka in Kinoshita's film and Sumiko Sakamoto in Imamura's -- extracted front teeth to more authentically play a granny who stoically goes to her doom.

Nearly two decades later Hideko Yoshida played a similar role in Kaneto Shindo's 1999 "Ikitai," which retells the legend of Obasuteyama in Nagano Prefecture. In Shindo's version, however, Yoshida's granny supervises preparations for her own disposal with ferocious, if comic, energy, derived from an unshakable faith in the local gods. (Perhaps as a reflection of changing times, Yoshida did not undergo dental surgery in preparation for the role.)

Now Hideo Onchi, who started directing films in 1961, has made "Warabinoko (Warabinoko -- To the Bracken Fields)," another film with a dump-the-old-folks theme. Based on a novel by Kiyoko Murata, "Warabinoko" differs from similar films in its story -- it tells of eight old folks marked for oblivion instead of just one -- and its approach, which may be folklorish in tone, but is rooted in the realities of its period and of human nature.

Shot in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture, where Onchi grew up, "Warabinoko" is nonetheless set in no particular place. Also, the dialect the characters speak is Murata's invention. It has a lofty, poetic tone -- and is not always easy for even native Japanese speakers to follow. The language of the characters' emotions, as well as the film's depiction of their predicament, is clear enough, however. Ochi's direction, while celebrating the four seasons and lamenting the pathos of it all in time-honored period drama style, is mostly uncluttered and unhyped. He even adds touches of earthy humor and sensuality to what many another director would have filmed as a lugubrious essay on the human condition, Japanese division. "Warabinoko" is still an essay, all right, but one more personal -- and universal -- than I expected on going in.

The setting is a mountain village where poverty is a constant and starvation is one bad harvest away. To ease pressure on food supplies, villagers who turn 60 are sent to a village in the middle of nowhere called "Warabino" -- though it might as well be called "Death's Antechamber." Only those who survive the fall can return -- and few do.

This year eight villagers face the fateful 60th birthday, including Ren (Etsuko Ishihara), the mother of the village headsman. She is close to Nui (Mina Shimizu), her young daughter-in-law -- an outsider does not know about Warabino, which is a village secret. When Nui finds out, she is deeply shocked, but there is nothing she can do. Ren and the seven others trudge off to Warabino -- three thatch-covered huts in the deep mountains -- apparently resigned to their fate.

Or are they? One of the village rules is that Warabino residents cannot grow their own food; instead they must return to the village to silently receive it. (Like ghosts gone to another world, they are not allowed to speak to the "living" villagers.) But they soon realize they will all slowly starve if they follow the rule. Lead by Umakichi (Renji Ishibashi), the most vigorous and outspoken man in the group, they begin to hunt and trap, though in doing so they are violating the Buddhist precept against taking life.

As the days turn shorter, life becomes harsher -- and the weak slip toward dementia and death. The first to go is a woman who loses the use of her legs and has to crawl to the village. Another rule is that Warabino residents cannot help the weaklings among them, lest they all share their fate. This is one rule they follow. Then the survivors hear that famine is gripping the village. There is no longer food to spare for Warabino. They will have to face winter alone and will almost certainly die.

Meanwhile, Ren and Nui are thinking about each other constantly -- the film expresses their thoughts as narrated letters that are never sent. Then, in the midst of her loneliness and despair, Nui learns that she is pregnant. Soon after, in a dream, Ren speaks with the spirit of Nui's unborn child, who tells her that she will be reborn in Nui's womb.

There is more to this story than a slow, cruel slide to oblivion, however. In their early days, the Warabino women gossip and joke, including jibes about the sexual prowess of the men. Both men and women quarrel, complain and, inevitably, pair off. They remain defiantly human, even to their last moments.

There are also strong performances from Etsuko Ichihara as Ren and Mina Shimizu as Nui. Shimizu's expression of anguish is pure and direct, cutting through all the pretty scenery and cultural baggage to the heart of the film's unanswerable questions. Why this? Why us? Why now? Questions that are still asked today, even when the old die in warm beds, instead of thatch huts in the middle of a Yamagata winter.

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