Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

“Pastoral: To Die in the Country”: Shuji Terayama’s Autobiographical Fiction

Shuji Terayama’s massive creativity far outweighs his recognition, at least in America. Born in 1935, he seemed to have limitless artistic energy, producing avant-garde poetry, drama, prose, photography, and film until his death in 1983. Naturally I’ve been most interested in his film work, so I can’t speak much to his other creative outlets. Nor can I speak much to his film oeuvre, because his work is incredibly difficult to track down. But in this post, I’m going to talk about a film of his which I did manage to see, and that film is “Pastoral: To Die in the Country”.

“Pastoral: To Die in the Country” begins with the recitation of a poem over a black screen, before fading into one of the coolest opening shots I’ve ever seen. In a sepia tone shot of a cemetery, a child faces towards the camera and covers his eyes. Behind him, several children run away from him and hide behind gravestones. The scene appears to just be children playing hide and seek, which explains why the film is sometimes called “Pastoral Hide and Seek”. When the boy uncovers his eyes, figures emerge from the gravestones, no longer children, but formally-dressed adults, ominously walking towards the boy. Following this are shots of family photographs, ripped and crudely stitched together.

This poetic prelude uses visual language to establish the major ideas of the film, namely the interaction between past and present and the attempts to reconstruct one’s fractured memories. The movie itself is largely a surreal, phantasmagorical autobiography of Terayama’s childhood. But it’s also more than that, and I’m using the term autobiography loosely, just as the film does. Before I get into too much detail, I should point out that it’s hard to talk about what the film is about without giving up a narrative turn it takes about 40 minutes in, so if you don’t want the movie spoiled, stop reading now and just go watch it!

Initially, “Pastoral: To Die in the Country” tells the story of a 15 year-old boy coming into his own in his rural hometown. In terms of structure, it’s close to a typical bildungsroman, with the boy being exposed to sex and death, having problems with his mom, and maybe running away with his pretty older neighbor. While the progression of the events is nothing new, the way they are told is pretty extraordinary. The film is a visual feast in every aspect, with lush costuming and exaggerated make-up for the characters, strange mise en scène like giant hammers littering the environment, adventurous editing, lovely shot compositions, balletic camera movements, and bright colors and filters to enhance the scenery.

The cast of characters is just as colorful, especially the strange carnival employees. Particularly at the carnival, and in other places as well, there is a strong current of sexuality running throughout the film, with orgies and kinky sex cropping up fairly often, but it never feels perverse. The carnival seems to represent the world of adulthood to the boy; intimidating, full of frightening debauchery, but also tentatively appealing and not lacking in beauty. The circus scenes are shot with a prismatic lighting gel that creates a similar effect as on his short film “Butterfly Dress Pledge,” another avant-garde exercise in kink and perverse beauty. Clocks, flowers, and fire are also frequently rendered as symbols of time, natural beauty, and the transformative act of the creation of art. The beautiful images all serve as a kaleidoscopic, dreamlike backdrop to the development of the pale-faced lead boy.

Then, at around 40 minutes in, the movie pulls the proverbial rug out from under the viewer’s feet, revealing the events which just transpired be part of a film that a director is making about his childhood. The director character, named “Me” in the credits, is a surrogate for Terayama himself, and the boy in the film-within-a-film, named “Me, as a Boy”, is Terayama as a youth. So the reveal complicates what appeared to be a straightforward (if surreal) coming of age story, and begins to delve into more complex ideological territory, raising questions about art’s relationship to the past and the past’s relationship to ourselves. “Me”/Terayama’s conception of his past goes beyond nostalgia, and he is aware of the inherent creativity and subjectivity that is ingrained in remembering, and recreating memories. Eventually “Me” joins the world of the film he is creating, and the film twists inward on itself again, perhaps positing Terayama’s recreation of his past as an outlet for his present anxieties, and art as a transcendent force of nature.

If that makes the film sound dense, that’s because it is, but the density is matched by sheer entertainment value. The hallucinatory atmosphere of the film-within a film is sumptuous, and full of striking symbolism and beautiful color images. Meanwhile, the scenes of “Me” in the modern day are shot in a crisp black and white which offers a nice contrast to the acid-tinged imagery of the film-within-a-film. Overall, it is really one of the most interesting looking films I’ve seen in a while, and the visuals compliment the story well. The soundtrack is also fantastic, sounding like a weird choral 60s prog-rock freak-out.

I felt strong similarities between the film’s subject matter and Alejandro Jodoroswky’s recent film “The Dance of Reality,” from the surreal images to the interaction between the present and childhood self. And from what I’ve seen of Jodorowsky’s older films (many of which came out before “Pastoral”), they seem to have similar psychedelic visual styles, so they may have influenced each other. Or they may have never heard of each other, who knows. But I feel like Tim Burton has probably seen “Pastoral”, because “Big Fish” seems to have a lot in common in terms of plot, especially the circus stuff and the ending. Then again, maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Regardless of what it influenced or was influenced by, “Pastoral: To Die in the Country” stands on its own as an impressive and introspective artistic achievement. Terayama’s act of self-mythologizing is as intimate  and personal as it is universal, and I’d be interested in reading his poetry on which the film is based (although I’m not how I’ll fare trying to track it down). It’s really a shame that Shuji Terayama isn’t more well known, because his films deserve to be seen. Here’s hoping.

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