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The Weald (Somaudo Monogatari, 杣人物語)

Director – Naomi Kawase – 1997 – Japan – 73m

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Serial elderly residents of Japan’s Yoshino Mountains go about their daily business and talk about life’s joys and hardships – online in the UK as part of Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF) from Monday, January 17th to Sunday, February 6th, 2022.

Prior to making such features as The Mourning Forest (2007), Sweet Bean (2015) and Japan’s 2021 International Oscar entry True Mothers (2020), independent Japanese film maker Kawase cut her teeth on intensely personal, low budget documentaries, first shorts then both shorts and features.

For this her third feature length documentary, Kawase took her camera up the Yoshino Mountains at the Southern end of Japan’s two island mainland to shoot the lives of elderly locals recording them and presenting her footage as a series of straightforward portraits. There’s no attempt to impose any narrative or outside agenda; rather, her camera gives space to these people to talk, reminisce and, ultimately, simply to be.

A woman who has spent her entire life farming a small plot of land keeps herself to herself, claims she isn’t lonely and that she likes being at home. “How much longer can I do this,” she asks the camera as she walks up a woodland slope. “Not much longer, I fear. Come back when I’m 18.”

“Being happy or unhappy comes from within,” says another man.

We watch a folk ritual as two couples dance around a hanging ribbon in an interior.

A man skilled with a chainsaw has taken a section of tree from the local temple grounds in order to carve it into pounding bowl to be returned to the premises. He has clear ideas about what he wants people to say about him at this funeral – “He was a good man” rather than “I’m glad that bugger’s dead.” His faithful dog watches as he works the wood outside in the open air, ignoring a warning about not to sit to close and moving quickly out of the way when he realises his location is about to get showered with sawdust.

In perhaps the film’s strongest scene, he talks movingly about the death of his 16-year-old son from a motorcycle accident, commenting that he and his wife tried to console themselves by accepting that it was his fate, but they still can’t bring themselves to watch the video of their daughter’s wedding because their late son appears in it.

Elsewhere, a couple talk about their ailments and how they’ve become more reliant on each other in old age. “Don’t waste expensive film on me!”, says another person. A pessimist describes life as miserable before Kawase dissolves from his elderly self to a photograph of a young man. The film closes on a group of five man singing a song about logging.

It’s a matter-of-fact piece, with an emphasis on the slow pace of rural life and forest paths that anticipate the oneness with nature aesthetic of the director’s later The Mourning Forest.

The Weald plays online in the UK as part of Made in Japan, YAMAGATA 1989-2021 The online program of Japanese documentaries from the 30-year history of Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF) runs on DaFilms.com from Monday, January 17th to Sunday, February 6th, 2022.

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