- Original title
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 120 minutes
- 28 February 2002
by Jasper Sharp
Situated between the mountains of Kumano and the deep blue sea, the population of the rural seaside fishing town of Nigishima falls neatly into one of three categories: mountain people, sea people and outsiders. Tatsuo is one of the first of these, a rough and boorish lumberjack who not only depends on the wooded forests above the town for his economic survival, but also takes an almost primal delight in hunting, setting snares for wild animals and standing naked in the rain communing with the ancient goddess of the mountain.
Plans for the development of a new marine park, whilst broadening the economic base of a community that has hitherto been dependant on logging and fishing for its survival threaten to disturb the region's natural equilibrium. This new outside economic incursion is strongly welcomed by the town's fishermen, not to mention such operators as sleazy land broker Mr. Yamakawa, who sees a unique business opportunity in the new tourism trade that the development will bring to area (a neighbouring town, Yamakawa notes, has even been graced with a nuclear power station.)
Tatsuo's refusal to sign away his house to the developers, effectively blocking the project, strains his relationship with the local community, and when an oil slick leaves a wake of dead fish floating belly up in their nursery pool, the fingers of accusation point to him for sabotaging the project. After he believes he has been spoken to directly by the Shinto gods of the forest, Tatsuo violently interrupts the town's traditional annual purification rites, the hi-matsuri (the fire festival of the film's title) before returning to his home to slay his family before turning the shotgun on himself.
One of the more salient films from the by and large otherwise barren cinematic landscape of the 1980s, Fire Festival is generally considered to be the crowning achievement of the era's foremost independent director Mitsuo Yanagimachi, who set up the his own production company, Gunro Films in 1974 in order to make his legendarily titled 16mm documentary on Tokyo's underground biker gangs, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. After two forays into independent feature making, A 19 Year Old's Map (Jukyusai no Chisu, 1979) and Farewell to the Land (Saraba Itoshiki Daichi, 1982), Yanagimachi found financing for his next film from the Seibu chain of department stores, then looking to expand its interests into the realm of the arts. Fire Festival thus became the first of the director's films to be released in the US, premiering at the 23rd New York Film Festival and also picking up a Silver Leopard Award at Locarno in Switzerland.
Set amongst the scenic natural beauty of the Kumano area just south of Osaka, considered to be a traditional stronghold for Japan's indigenous Shinto religion, and inspired by a real-life case in which a local man murdered his family before killing himself, Yanagimachi's film takes us away from the concrete and neon of Tokyo's bustling urban jungle and the more typical genre-based period reconstructions that form such a large part of the country's cinematic output to pour light on Japan's more rural traditions, so seldom portrayed on film.
A vivid, earthy and mystical celebration of nature's primal forces set against a backdrop of smalltown gossip and longstanding feuds, Yanagimachi's thematic concern seems to be no more or no less environmental than it is sociological (compare with Naomi Kawase's Moe no Suzaku, for example), adopting an objective, non-judgemental approach to the material that will undoubtedly prove problematic to viewers used to a more partisan approach.
Much of this apparent ambivalence lies in its complex yet unsympathetic central character. A coarse bully who cheats on his wife (played by Junko Miyashita, the Nikkatsu starlet of such 1970s Roman Porno classics as Watcher in the Attic and A Woman Called Abe Sada) and two young children when his old girlfriend Kimiko returns to the area, Tatsuo's love of the outdoors seemingly has little to do with environmental protection. In an early scene we see him training his hunting dogs to attack a wild boar kept in a pen in his garden, cruelly revelling in the bloodshed. His arrogant adoption of the role of elect spokesman to the ancient Shinto deities is similarly compromised as he swims in sacred waters and hunts for the protected monkeys that inhabit the forest. When his naïve protégé Ryota mistakenly uses a piece of wood from a sacred tree to catch a pigeon in the snare, Tatsuo orders him to drop his pants and expose himself to the mountain goddess for this mistake, bullishly claiming he himself has made love to the goddess. A pigheaded reactionary, he is unable to articulate exactly why he is against the development other than a Luddite's unwillingness to change.
With the subsequent killing spree invoked by Tatsuo's tree-hugging communion with the gods in the final reel, stunningly invoked against a windswept backdrop of rustling trees and driving rain, Yanagimachi seems to be suggesting that man is more shaped by his environment than vice versa. Intrusions of modernity, most obviously manifested in the recurrent motif of a truck that drives around the area pathetically blaring out tinny radio jingles over a tannoy system are pointedly overwhelmed by the sweeping majestic natural settings with their unrelenting aural soundscape of wind howling through towering forest canopies, vast billowing expanses of foliage, and the slow susurrous of the sea.
Fire Festival is slow, at times a little too much so, meditative and thought-provoking, providing little in the way of explanation or resolution to the events that unfold on its broad canvas, instead placing that responsibility firmly within the hands of the viewer. It's a challenging approach but a potentially rewarding one. Either way, Fire Festival is a remarkable achievement.