What price modernity? Post-war migration saw a rapid turn towards urbanisation with the young forsaking their countryside hometowns to chase the salaryman dream in the cities. Though there has in recent years been a mild reversal to the prevailing trend as economic fluctuation and technological innovation have a generation of anxious youngsters looking for a simpler life, the effects of rural depopulation have only become starker in light of Japan’s ageing society leaving the elderly isolated in inaccessible communities with few family members or facilities to support them. This push and pull of the traditional and the modern is at the heart of Yoshinari Nishikori’s The Takatsu River (高津川, Takatsugawa), in many ways an elegy for a vanishing Japan but also an ode to the furusato spirit and to continuity in the face of change.
Set in a small town on the Takatsu River in Japan’s Shimane prefecture on the South West coast of Honshu, the central drama revolves around the middle-aged Manabu (Masahiro Komoto), a widower with a teenage son and a daughter recently returned from university in Osaka. His problem is that his son Tatsuya (Ishikawa Raizo) has been skipping out on rehearsals for the Kagura dance society, something which is obviously close to his father’s heart. About to graduate high school Tatsuya is perhaps at a crossroads, like many of his age trying to decide if his future lies in his hometown staying to take over the family farm, or in the cities as a regular salaryman.
“Everyone thinks of leaving once” Manabu philosophically laments to the lady at the post office though like most of the other parents he does not try to influence his son’s decision even if he’s additionally grumpy about his lack of commitment to Kagura dance. The dance troupe is not just a precious artefact of traditional culture or a means of entertainment but a social hub for the small community in which the generations mix freely and are equally represented. One older man affectionately known as “Pops” (Choei Takahashi) is over 80 years old but refuses to give up the art of Kagura dancing, not only because he loves to perform but because he enjoys being part of the society especially as he lost his eldest son to a flood in childhood and the other, Makoto (Hiromasa Taguchi), has become a lawyer in the city who rarely visits his hometown claiming that his wife has a dislike of “bugs”.
Acting as a surrogate son to the old man, Manabu’s other quest is to convince Makoto to visit a little more often, touting the idea of a reunion for some of their old elementary school friends a few of whom are, like Manabu, still living in the village. Unfortunately, however, Makoto’s time in the city has fully converted him into a heartless ultra-capitalist who struggles to understand a more traditional way of thinking. Meeting up to celebrate the successful graduation of another friend’s apprentice as a sushi chef, the guys lament the case of their friend Yoko (Naho Toda) who never married, apparently calling off an engagement to look after her elderly mother who has dementia while acutely feeling the responsibility of taking on her family’s 300-year-old traditional sweet shop. Confused, Makoto wonders why you wouldn’t just stick the parents in a home and get married, much to the consternation of his friends. Similarly, when Manabu asks him for some legal advice about how to stop a resort being built up river he reveals himself to be fully on the side of corporate power. After all, he points out, a resort will bring jobs and foot traffic to the area encouraging modernisation and better transport links which will also draw young people back towards the village. If you want to save the community, perhaps it’s the best and only way.
Yet as Manabu points out, the Takatsu is the last clean river in Japan. His daughter Nanami (Ito Ono) came back after uni because she missed the taste of sweet fish that you just can’t find anywhere else. If the river is polluted by construction, the fish will disappear and perhaps there’ll be nothing left to “save”. With the local school set to close now there are only a handful of pupils, Manabu and his friends are minded to pick their battles and protect what it is that’s most important, eventually reacquainting Makoto with his furusato spirit by confronting him with the traumatic past which had kept him away. Bar repeated references to the double-edged sword of the Takatsu in the potential for lethal flooding, Nishikori’s gentle drama perhaps provides an overly utopian view of country living which sidesteps the hardships that can often accompany it, but also celebrates community spirit and an atmosphere of mutual support, qualities which have convinced city-raised farmhand Kana (Yurie Midori) that the rural life is the one for her. A gentle elegy for a disappearing way of life, The Takatsu River is ultimately hopeful that something at least will survive as long as the clear stream flows on.
Original trailer (English subtitles)