At the Movies

Mountain Woman: Peering Beyond the Frontier through Folklore

Cinema History

Fukunaga Takeshi has released his third feature film, following the success of Out of My Hand and Ainu Mosir. Inspired by the folktale collection Tōno monogatari, the film tells a story set in a Tōhoku village in the mid-Edo period. We spoke to the director about Japan’s insular “village mentality,” highlighted in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the spiritual world transcending understanding that is depicted in the film.

Fukunaga Takeshi

Born in Date, Hokkaidō, in 1982. Moved to the United States in 2007, where he majored in film at City University of New York Brooklyn College. His first feature film, Out of My Hand, premiered in 2015. The film was shown in the Panorama section at the Berlinale and other international film festivals. It won the Best US Fiction Award at the LA Film Festival and the Emerging Filmmaker Award at the San Diego Asian American Film Festival. In 2020, he released his second feature, Ainu Mosir, which had its world premiere in the International Narrative Competition of the Tribeca Film Festival (New York), receiving a special jury mention. His third feature film, Yamaonna (Mountain Woman), premiered in 2023.

From Liberia, New York, and an Ainu Village to the World of Tōno Monogatari

Director Fukunaga Takeshi’s premier feature film Out of My Hand (2015) told the story of a man who leaves his family in a rubber-producing village in Liberia, western Africa, to start a new life in New York City. His second feature, Ainu Mosir (2020), was a heart-wrenching tale of a 14-year old Ainu boy, set in Fukunaga’s birthplace, Hokkaidō.

The 2023 Yamaonna (Mountain Woman) is his third feature film. It draws inspiration from Tōno monogatari, Yanagita Kunio’s collection of folk stories handed down in the Tōno region of modern-day Iwate Prefecture, in an imaginative depiction of village life in premodern times.

Yamada Anna plays Rin, whose reverence for local mountain Hayachinesan as the goddess of thieves enables her to endure her harsh existence. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)
Yamada Anna plays Rin, whose reverence for local mountain Hayachinesan as the goddess of thieves enables her to endure her harsh existence. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)

According to Fukunaga, “Rather than depicting a specific locality, the film conveys the entirety. It contains various folkloric elements, such as the mountain man, wolves, and the idea of being ‘spirited away.’ But I wasn’t drawn to one particular idea. Rather, I was interested in the culture, customs, and beliefs of those times. People living in coexistence with nature while also fearing it. It reveals the essence of human nature through the lives of resolute villagers.”

 (© Igarashi Kazuharu)
(© Igarashi Kazuharu)

Fukunaga returned to Japan after directing Ainu Mosir. He had lived in the United States for 16 years, since the age of 21. Focusing on Tōno monogatari could be viewed as a “homecoming” for the director.

“Actually, I don’t consider my film-making to be defined by Japan or my being Japanese. But having spent so long overseas, my lack of knowledge of my own country made me anxious. My research and shooting for the production of Ainu Mosir gave me an opportunity to ‘rediscover’ Hokkaidō, and indeed Japan, after my long absence. It feels important to me to know Japan, both as an individual and as an artist. At the same time, I haven’t decided to necessarily spend the rest of my life here. But from a global perspective, when I consider my options, I realize my being Japanese has its merits. I have a Japanese sensibility, way of thinking, and values, but also possess an outsider’s perspective to an extent. I feel that what I’m capable of comes into focus in the contrast between these aspects.”

Matagi, traditional hunters, are symbolic of Tōhoku’s traditional mountain culture. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)
Matagi, traditional hunters, are symbolic of Tōhoku’s traditional mountain culture. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)

A Tale of Existence on the Fringes of Society

Mountain Woman is set in the late eighteenth century. Europe was experiencing the Age of Enlightenment​, with the expansion of liberty, equality, and human rights along with the emergence of the bourgeoisie. In contrast, Japan was midway through its dark feudal era, which saw an impoverished peasantry struggle with frequent natural disasters under the oppressive rule of the shogunate.

The tiny village in the film has contended with two years of crop damage due to excessive cold. The villagers grapple with food shortages due to poor harvests and are forced to kill some newborn babies. Rin, aged 17, is tasked with disposing of the corpses of babies in the river. Her family has its fields confiscated and her father, Ihei, makes his living as gravedigger, and is therefore considered defiled. This is a punishment though the generations for a fire caused by his great-grandfather.

Nagase Masatoshi plays Ihei, whose family is punished for the sins of his ancestor. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)
Nagase Masatoshi plays Ihei, whose family is punished for the sins of his ancestor. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)

Because the family lacks its own fields, they receive just a meager portion of rice from the village. Rin must survive on thin rice gruel to be able to feed her younger brother, who is blind. On the verge of starvation, an angry Ihei upsets the villagers, who drive his family into further despair.

“I’m fascinated with stories of people living on the edges of society. For that reason, I’m not interested in history written by the powerful, but rather in the folktales and traditions recounted by the common people. Even if it is a historical piece, I wanted it to have significance today, and so I incorporated modern social issues that arose through the COVID-19 pandemic, discrimination against women, and so on.”

Rin tries to cheer her brother Shōkichi with a rare white bellflower. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)
Rin tries to cheer her brother Shōkichi with a rare white bellflower. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)

Shooting While Embracing the Unexpected

Shooting for the film began in September 2021. In the lead up, Fukunaga focused his attention on location-hunting. He had decided to create an open set for the village in Shōnai, Yamagata, and searched for places to shoot other scenes within the prefecture.

“A somewhat fearsome natural setting was an essential element to the story, so the locations were critical. I found settings in Yamagata that were more compelling than I expected. Of course, it also required a talented cinematographer.”

 (© Yamaonna Film Committee)
(© Yamaonna Film Committee)

He employed an American as cinematographer, as he did for the latter half of his first feature and for Ainu Mosir. Daniel Satinoff had previously spent time in Japan to shoot the Hollywood-produced Tokyo Vice series. Impressionistic shooting of the lush greenery, skies filled with dense, billowing clouds, and the contrast between light and the dark home interior enabled them to shoot Tōhoku village life evocative of the Edo period without resorting to stereotypes.

“There are two things I seek in a cinematographer. The first is someone with a perspective different from mine. The second is somebody who understands the simple way in which I shoot. The Japanese way of filming doesn’t proceed in the same way as in America, and I don’t have much affinity for it. That’s why I wanted at least one other person with me who had a sense of what I was used to.”

Miura Tōko, right, also appeared in Ainu Mosir. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)
Miura Tōko, right, also appeared in Ainu Mosir. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)

Unlike his previous two feature films, the cast for Mountain Woman were mostly experienced actors.

“Working closely with professional actors was a new experience for me and I learned a lot from it. The actors, the cinematographer, and the other staff offered new ideas. The various scenes are the result of our synergy. Even if I was able to realize scenes exactly as I imagined them, they lacked something. When unexpected things happened, I was pleasantly surprised, and I think this provided elements that make the film more interesting.”

Staring at the Frontier

Mountain Woman was a drastic change in both time and setting from his previous works, and Fukunaga clearly sought to explore new styles, but there are themes shared with his other films. The depiction of exclusionism​ of a small community and the story of a young protagonist seeking to find a “new world” is a common thread I his oeuvre.

“I wasn’t consciously aiming for that, but it was what resulted from my writing. By depicting people and occurrences in one location, then setting out for a totally different world, far-removed from the first, I hope to capture a fragment of reality that emerges between the two.”

Rin encounters the legendary mountain man. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)
Rin encounters the legendary mountain man. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)

Does he first think up a topic for a film and incorporate that into the story, or try to make a film because he has a topic to begin with?

“The topic comes first. Of course I enjoy film-making itself, but wanting to make a film doesn’t provide motivation. I can’t produce a work unless I strive for something transcending myself. For me, it’s important to try to view the work as objectively as possible and ask whether the world needs to see it. It needs to be something that I’m interested in and that I feel should be shown to the world. I’m able to proceed when these two factors align. I guess that’s why there are commonalities in my work.”

(© Yamaonna Film Committee)
(© Yamaonna Film Committee)

Of his three features, the world of Mountain Woman most strongly incorporates a consciousness of human society and systems in contrast with nature.

“I have a sense of something hidden in nature that transcends human existence but that is also somehow linked to society. I find myself attracted not to things like religion, with a specific form or name, but to things that can’t be explained in words or seen with the eyes—beyond the values of our world or structures of society.”

The film features a shamaness​ who communes with the gods. Although the people are governed by a village leader, they also rely on the revelations of the old woman regarding matters beyond human comprehension.

“It was the case in Ainu villages and in Okinawa, but in the past, powerful shamans existed throughout Tōhoku, performing an important role in their communities. With the advent of our modern capitalist society, people have developed a lifestyle divorced from such things. But in fact this was not so long ago. Until quite recently, worlds like that depicted in Mountain Woman were believed to exist and to be connected to the real world.”

The shamaness prays for sunshine. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)
The shamaness prays for sunshine. (© Yamaonna Film Committee)

While its gaze is thus fixed far away, the film also urges reconsideration of the here and now. This would appear to be Fukunaga’s intention in tackling the new genre of a historical piece.

“In the past, the existence of something beyond human understanding or capacity helped to curb human greed and arrogance. Without that, society has come to prioritize people who have money, position, or reputation. That’s why I believe we need to again be made aware of things that are beyond human control.”

(© Igarashi Kazuharu)
(© Igarashi Kazuharu)

(© Yamaonna Film Committee)
(© Yamaonna Film Committee)

Yamaonna (Mountain Woman), 2023


(Originally written in Japanese based on an interview by Matsumoto Takuya, Banner photo © Igarashi Kazuharu.)

nature Tōhoku cinema Ainu folklore Tōno monogatari