In his limited oeuvre, Ryohei Sasatani has always attempted to explore certain elements that run through different layers of Japanese history and the ability of human beings to live according to the rhythms of nature. His latest narrative, Sanka: Nomads of The Mountains, which explores the long-disappeared lifestyle of mountain nomads, is not different.
1965. Norio (Rairu Sugita), a junior high student returns to his remote and rural hometown to prepare for his coming high school entrance exam. One day, he sees a girl, Hana (Naru Komukai), stealing some of his mother’s sweet potatoes and oranges. He follows her and tries to confront her. Luckily for Norio, her father Shozo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) steps in and forces her to return them.
Subsequent encounters with Shozo, Hana, and grandmother Tea (-) quickly cause Norio to become drawn to the lifestyle of these Sanka, wandering nomads who organize their existence around the rhythms of nature. Sadly, the development of the area threatens their existence.
Sanka: Nomads of the Mountains is not a narrative that simply explores the tension between nature and culture – destruction vs progress, but a narrative that highlights how relational conflicts are function of societal tensions and the subjective conflict that these tensions create.
Sasatani highlights the conflictual interplay between subject and society via Norio, a junior high school who is bullied at school. Norio is marked by a lingering wish to escape the violent dynamic that keeps effacing his subjectivity. Yet, it is not the school environment as such that he wishes to escape but the four walls of rules and expectations (i.e. the Other) that enables his exploitation.
This Other, as becomes evident, is fully embodied by his father (Kisuke Iida). His wish to escape the violent claws of the Other is thus, in essence, a wish to escape the paternal order. Norio’s father, who functions as a perfect spokesman of this past-war Other (e.g. focus on achievement and academical competition, efface the war-time injury by focusing on progress), radically ignores his son’s subjective position/struggle. He orders his son to take him, who is well-respected in the community, as his ideal, structure his subject around ideology of progress, and become this perfect mirror-image.
It is because Norio’s father functions as the spokesman of the past-war Other that his conflict with his son elegantly echoes the larger conflict created by the social and subjective changes that are taking place due to economic growth. Such growth does not only rewrite social dynamics, but also demands the reworking of discourses on subjectivity (e.g. what one should aspire to be, how one should inscribe himself in this new social fabric, …etc.) and society (e.g. the societal demand to compete). These societal discourses, which spread in the minds of subjects as modernity conquers the land, causes subjects to harbour a certain disdain, fear, or even hate against those who refuse the promise of modernity and want to keep their radically different lifestyle on the edge of societal Other as well as against those who fail, for whatever reason, to function within the societal game. The transformation of the societal Other always attempts (but ultimately fails) to erase any kind of Otherness (Psycho-note 1). You either subject, escape, or perish.
Norio’s father, as devout follower of the Other-of-progress and protector of paternal familial values, has neither interest in Norio’s ‘rebellious’ subjectivity nor in giving the Sanka a right to exist within the progress he envisions for his community. He radically refuses the Otherness of his son – he has not right to speak – as well as the Otherness of these Sanka – they have no right to be heard. Yet, can Norio, in some way or another, force his father to hear and accept his subjective voice?
The composition of Sanka: Nomad Of The Mountains stands out due to its pleasant visual feel. This feel is not only function of Sasatani’s often quite elegant (static) shot-compositions, but also due to the subtle washed-out colours and natural lighting that breathes life into the imagery and the pleasant use of depth-of-field that heighten the tension of certain compositions (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2).
Moreover, the continued emphasis on nature – either via close-ups to underline the elegance of floral and faunal life or by long-shots to introduce the spectator to the beauty of natural landscapes, does not fail to visually please the spectator.
Sanka: Nomads of The Mountains is a visually enticing narrative that elegantly explores the unresolvable tension between the Other and the subject and highlights how societal change rewrites and, in many cases, annihilates certain societal practices and dynamics. Yet, despite delivering an important and relevant message – fight for your subjective voice, Sasatani is not quite able to make the emotions within his narrative reverberate powerfully with the spectator.
Psycho-note 1: The more the Other tries to squash the Otherness out of its fabric, the more Otherness it creates. For every Otherness it destroys, it plants the seed for another Otherness to blossom. In a certain sense, the Other is always fractured. There might be some dominant discourses in which many subjects inscribe themselves, but there are always be subjects that escape these ‘suffocating’ discourses.
Cine-note 1: A third element that plays an important role in creating the visual feel of the narrative is the minimal noise that marks the shots.
Cine-note 2: It has to be said that the pleasing feel of the visuals is sometimes disturbed by a shot that does not fit well. In most cases, such disturbance is function of a difference in the lightning-design.