[EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play’s Robert Nishimura spotlights the provocative career of the late Japanese avant-garde director Shuji Terayama. He has created this essay with the accompanying trailer for Pastoral, To Die In The Country in an effort to convince Criterion to restore and release this important work as part of its collection.]
Every great filmmaker reaches a point in their career when they need to reflect upon their life and childhood, tracing the path that lead them to where they are today. Most often these nostalgic quandaries find their way into new fictionalized scenarios, drawing on personal experience to entertain themselves as well as audiences. Sometimes a director takes a more direct approach, probing their past in the form of autobiographical diaries. Our experiences as children inevitably make us who we are today, and tapping into those memories can provide some tasty material for any filmmaker who questions why they make the kind of films they make. (Look to Federico Fellini’s entire career for further evidence of that point.) Not all memories are immediately accessible to recall, especially those associated with extreme emotional connections.
Those particular memories are stored in the deep recesses of our subconscious and often emerge in our dreams; even then, they’re not exactly clearly defined. So, then, what happens when a director decides to make a film about their childhood, but also must confront issues of psychological trauma that have been buried within their subconscious? The result is Shûji Terayama’s Pastoral, To Die in the Country, a film so unique and spellbinding that it transcends all classification.
Shûji Terayama is probably the most radically subversive yet well-respected director in Japanese film history. He was the filmmaker’s filmmaker, a media darling and a true Renaissance man. For many directors from the 1970s onward, Terayama was pure inspiration. In my previous Three Reasons installment for The Noisy Requiem, Matsui Yoshihiko told me that seeing Pastoral was an eye-opening experience, one that immediately inspired him to become a filmmaker himself. In Japan, Terayama was a well-known poet, artist, writer, street performer and leading figure in Japan’s growing avant-garde theater movement in Tokyo. He had a profound effect on the art community in Tokyo, but remained elusive to mainstream attention outside of Japan. One of his first films, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, a wildly experimental short in which children overthrow the adult world, shocked critics upon its release and managed to get banned outright in several countries. Despite being completely avant-garde and metaphoric, what offended the censors were the film’s scenes of simulated sex involving children. By today’s standards, these same scenes would hardly lift an eyebrow. Even a casual Freudian reading of the film reveals what would be his strongest contextual trademark: serious mommy issues.
For anyone who would like to know more about Terayama’s life, Pastoral is as good a place as any to start. For the most part it is an autobiographical film, teaching us all about Terayama’s upbringing in a small countryside village in Aomori Prefecture. After losing his father during WWII, Shûji was raised by his very domineering mother as well as the determinedly traditional and superstitious townspeople. We see Shûji compete with these traditional values, struggling to find stimuli and sexual satisfaction in a small town that is very much stuck in time. All Shûji wants to do is break away from his mother and the other backward hillbillies, get laid by the milf next door and catch the first train out of town. Such a synopsis might very well have been from the movie you watched last night at the multiplex (like Judd Apatow’s Midnight Train to Bonerland, coming to a cinema near you…probably), but Pastoral is in no way a traditional narrative. Just as our own memory becomes fragmented and nonlinear, Terayama utilizes the same disjointed dream logic that corrupts all our memories. Characters float in and out inexplicably, settings change without warning, the cinematography and editing are highly expressionistic, and just when you start getting comfortable with this style of storytelling the film abruptly stops. Halfway through Pastoral, we learn that not only are we watching a film, but that Terayama hasn’t finished making it yet. The director (played by Kantarô Suga) isn’t satisfied with how things are going and must go back in time, enter his own film and change the outcome.
The film begins (as does the Three Reasons video) with his earliest childhood memory: playing kakurenbo (the Japanese equivalent to hide and seek) in a cemetery. As little Shûji lifts his head to find his playmates, all the people associated with his youth come creeping into view from behind the tombstones. At this point we see that all the characters in the film are wearing whiteface, a characteristic usually reserved for ghosts. But these are not ghosts come to haunt him, they are the specters of his past that have become faded over time, himself included. These characters are stuck in time as well as place. Terayama uses images of clocks throughout the film to exemplify this point, especially in his own childhood home, where his mother’s refusal to fix their broken clock indicates her unwillingness to change, forcing young Shûji to be stuck along with her. The film maintains dull monochromatic tones whenever Terayama is at home or in the village. The villagers are represented by a coven of black-hooded, eyepatch-wearing old women who keep the town in a stranglehold of superstition. Just outside the town is a traveling circus troupe, constantly preparing for a show that never occurs. Whenever we visit this particular location, a kaleidoscopic spectrum of color fills the screen and covers the circus characters. For Terayama, these characters represent modernity with their wild sexual escapades and complete freedom from time and tradition. Once Shûji is exposed to these people his desire to run away is firmly cemented. The only thing holding him back is his mother.
Terayama once wrote that life was like an enormous outgoing book. So if we needed to change something about ourselves, we need only go back and rewrite what happened. Pastoral represents his desire to do just that. This is why the Terayama character must go back and confront his younger self. In order to complete his film Terayama must convince his younger self of what needs to be done: kill their mother. In scenes where Terayama is in contact with the younger Shûji, his subconscious is allowed to run wild. Free associations and dream-derived figures parade past the two Terayamas in one particularly beautiful sequence. Fans of Luis Buñuel‘s surrealistic films or Guy Maddin‘s recent introspective films will find a kindred spirit in Terayama. But in many ways Terayama is Maddin’s stylistic opposite, and Buñuel couldn’t hold a two-sided candle to the effortless phantasmagorical freedom of Pastoral.
Albeit titled “For Criterion Consideration,” I largely use that phrase as a euphemism. This film needs to be seen; I just point to Criterion because they are respected for bringing important films to a wider audience (in the best editions, etc., etc.). Needless to say, Pastoral, To Die in the Country is an important film by an important filmmaker. The unfortunate fact that none of Terayama’s films are distributed anywhere outside of Japan forces determined cinephiles to use questionably legal means to find them. Japan’s FilmForum does have the English-friendly four volume compilation of Terayama’s short films, which includes the oh-my-god-think-of-the-children Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Die-hard fans of Japanese cinema or the avant-garde will know Terayama, but it is time that the West pay their proper respects to a great filmmaker by allowing his films to be widely seen. I cannot think of a better salute to Shûji Terayama than a Criterion release in the U.S. or a Masters of Cinema release in the U.K.
Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. Born and raised in Panamá, he then moved to the US, working at the University of Pittsburgh and co-directing Life During Wartime, a short-lived video collective for local television. After fleeing to Japan, he co-founded the Capi Gallery in Western Honshu before becoming a permanent resident.