Reviewed by Chris MaGee
A group of lumberjacks cut trees up in the mountains. It’s the present day, but they don’t use chainsaws; the crack of their axes echo in the woods until the trees begin to creak and grown then crash down into the brush. Eventually we hear the lumberjacks speaking to each other in Kansai-ben, the local dialect of the Kansai region, so we can roughly fix our location in Japan. As time passes one man singles himself out from the group; Tatsuo (Kinya Kitaoji). He’s got more machismo and bluster than the rest and keeps talking as if he’s on a first name basis with the mountain goddess. He slathers himself with cologne a woman who’s not his wife and definitely not the mountain goddess has given him. As the rest of the lumberjacks take a break and survey the coastline below Tatsuo spies a boat bobbing towards the village, behind its wheel slouches an old man, at its prow sits a woman in kimono, a parasol shading her from the sun. He crawls out to the edge of a rocky cliff and makes a game of throwing rocks at the boat as it passes. “Must be monkeys,” says the old man, but the woman laughs. She says she knows the monkey that’s bombarding them.
And that’s how Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s 1985 film “Himatsuri (Fire Festival)” begins; up in the mountains, hugging the shoreline and far from the neon and urban sprawl that defines the Japanese landscape today. There’s also very little exposition. Lulled into the rhythms of rural Japan the viewer is meted out information strictly on a need to know basis. It’s a pragmatic way of pacing and very much in keeping with the life of the characters on screen; while there may be things happening in the grand scheme they take second place to what tasks are at hand: pulling in and mending fishing nets, transporting lumber down from the mountains, and in the case of Tatsuo, training a pack of hunting dogs. Only as time goes on does Yanagimachi begin to make clear the grand scheme that’s affecting the life of Tatsuo and the rest of these villagers at the foot of the mountains. Developers have been poking around and so has an opportunistic land broker named Yamakawa. There’s a plan to develop a huge marine park in the town, a great move for the developers and Yamakawa, but not that great for the townspeople who would much prefer to continue making their living through fishing than through tourism. Can the townsfolk stop the inevitable march of progress? At first it seems that no one really tries to until someone sets off a series of oil spills that leave the fish stocks floating belly up in the bay. It doesn’t take long to figure out who’s behind them: Tatsuo.
There’s something almost supernatural about “Himatsuri”. No one levitates or reads anyone’s mind. The film isn’t “paranormal”, but the natural world, the ocean, trees, mountains, and streams that surround this coastal village seem ripe with hidden meaning, with their own agenda and their own terrible power. Yanagimachi sets up the lumberjack Tatsuo as the human voice for this natural world, but don’t think for one second that this film is about a peaceful eco-messiah fighting the good fight against the evil developers. Tatsuo is far from likable; he screws around on his wife with a childhood girlfriend, belittles his fellow lumberjacks, sics his hunting dogs on a penned in wild boar, and once he’s had his fill of that bloodshed he goes off to hunt the monkeys that are sacred to the local mountains. He embodies the capriciousness, volatility and cruelty of nature far better than a tree hugging hippy ever could. As the local fire festival approaches and it seems that the developers will finally get their marine park Tatsuo has the epiphany that will stop the development, but may poison the heart of the town forever.