Even by the incredibly high standards set by the leading lights of the Japanese New Wave, the intensely anarchic language of Shuji Terayama’s cinema is some of the most radical and boldly subversive that one is likely to encounter and also, not coincidentally, some of the best. If Kubrick crafted an apotheosis of cinema as a classical symphony of visuals with 2001, Terayama’s art possibly represents an avant-garde counterpoint, a succession of images that are bizarre, even grotesque yet so rich in poetic thrust and symbolic meaning that they overthrow, once and for all, the tyranny of the verbal over the visual (as Scorsese once so memorably lamented about narrative cinema).
On one level, Pastoral: To Die in the Country (also known as Pastoral Hide and Seek) is autobiographical, a wildly phantasmagorical look at Terayama’s own childhood in a small village, populated by a motley crew of strange, whimsical characters, ranging from a circus woman in an inflatable suit, with a fetish for having her suit inflated by men, a mysterious woman on the eerie yet almost sensual Scary Mountain to a bunch of gossip-mongers in black cloaks and with eye-patches. Most of all, there is his complex, vaguely Oedipal relationship with a domineering and possessive mother that on first glance seems straight out of Hitchcock but is about as disparate as can be. The dream-like impressions of the village are captured in bold colors and with a deep sense of beauty and mystery. The images seem transmitted straight from a different planet, and appropriately seem completely removed from any sense of time yet in a queer way, they resonate with a bucolic quality that is quintessentially Japanese. And even amidst this cold, distant imagery, the young protagonist’s rising sexual curiosity and adolescent infatuation with a middle-aged married woman offer a sliver of realism that cannot help but strike a perfect chord.
Told in the form of a film within a film, with the director of the film (within the film) substituting for Terayama himself, Pastoral takes a surprising turn midway, with the protagonist (director) owning up to his dishonest subjectivity in narrating the events of his life. The resulting desperation to rectify this duplicity leads to the first casualty, the collapse of the idyllic facade of the countryside to unravel a sobering reality that has so far only been hinted at by the unmistakably sinister undercurrent running through the strikingly gorgeous images. The nostalgia-tinted glasses are well and truly smashed as a harsher version of the village and the protagonist’s childhood comes to the fore, including the tragedy of a single mother with her illegitimate infant and the reality of the married woman’s life, including her true feelings about the young boy. Terayama travels back in time and questions his own younger self, confronts his own demons in the hope of trying to put them to rest, through reconciliation or perhaps even further reconstruction. A human mind pondering and questioning it’s own conscious and unconscious self, Fellini’s 8 1/2 apart, scarcely has this most fundamental of conditions been captured with more imagination in cinematic form.
More pertinently perhaps, Terayama offers a stunning hypothesis on the nature of memory and truth, on the inevitability of subjectivity and embellishments in recounting personal history, thus offering a different riff on the key thematic element of Rashomon: the multiple faces of reality, this time seen from the point of view of a single person, a narrator whose reliability we eventually begin to doubt in spite, or perhaps because of those events being far too close to his own life. The director himself acknowledges that, toying with our minds with the ultimate refrain “It’s only a film.” To be sure it is even more, a film within a film, an odyssey of an artist coming to terms with the inherent fraudulence of capturing his own life as art, yet always conscious of his complicity in doing so.
In spite of the autobiographical nature of the film, Pastoral is as much about personal emotions as it is about universal ideas, as entrenched in reality as it is floating in cosmos. A major theme is the contrast between the insular and conservative lifestyle of rural Japan, still caught in a time warp, and the rapid modernization of city life, of an entire nation in transition, all seen through the dreamy eyes of the young protagonist, and epitomized by his desire to break out of the shadow of the Scary Mountain and to escape in a train (a symbol of modernity). At the same time, the traveling circus troupe presents the other picture, their wanton sexual excess representing the decadence of urban culture, as tempting and seductive as it is repulsive.
Above all, Pastoral is a meditation on the nature of time, of the relentlessness of it’s forward march and the futility of trying to hold onto it forever (“You can’t make time stand still”, the elder protagonist is seen telling his own younger self). We often see a stream of people walking through the village, migrating from one place to another, from the past to the future, while the village stays oblivious to these waves of time. And no filmmaker in my knowledge has created more compelling images involving clocks, a common visual and thematic motif in his work. The boy’s mother in particular displays a superstitious obsession with her continually chiming clock, trying to cling on to a time that has long since passed, and in an era which is no longer her’s. But time moves on, and sooner or later, so do men and oddly enough, for a film which makes it’s best points visually, it evokes this sentiment best through it’s creator’s (verbal) poetry.
“My clock is up for sale, but no one is willing to buy it.”