Ambiguous Places (うろんなところ, Akira Ikeda, 2017)

Ambiguous places posterThe world is quite a strange place at the best of times, but for a small collection of people living in between some Ambiguous Places (うろんなところ, Uronna Tokoro) everything seems pretty much normal. Akira Ikeda whose Anatomy of a Paperclip won a Tiger Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam, returns with another surreal tale inspired by the land of dreams. 

Konoko (lit. “this girl”) washes up on a beach trapped in a net and tries to sing but the other people on the beach tell her to stop, because she’s rubbish. Konoko’s other problem is that she’s got a bug stuck in her hair and will need to find a barber to take it out. Travelling with a man whom a strange lady looking for “nuts” on a beach assures her is her dad, Konoko wanders off to look for a hairdresser only to sell her “dad” to a couple of near silent dango makers and then discover that the only barber’s in town is actually a soba shop (which serves udon) and she needs to go the pharmacy only the pharmacist is out at the moment because he had to get some gloves made in celebration of his wife’s pregnancy…

Ambiguous Places is actually a cyclical collection of three stories running more or less concurrently in which the same collection of strange people reappear in different stages of their own adventures. Konoko’s “Meeting Nyoraga” segues into the pharmacist’s odyssey of glove making and forced marriage “Celebrate with Gloves”, and that in turn leads into “Get My Hair Washed” which pops out of the pharmacist’s dream about a girl with foamy hair and features a quest to rid one’s home of scary blue ghosts only to end with everyone sitting down and having dinner together instead.

To begin with everything seems very strange but like the best of dreams it eventually starts to make sense and though there is more than a little violence and hostility, broadly everyone seems to accept things just the way they are. Still, from our point of view this is all terribly surreal. At one point the pharmacist, who has just spent ages having gloves knitted around his hands in a bizarre ritual encounters the man who will later own the dango shop just as he’s carting his wife around covered by a sheet and sitting in a wheel barrow filled with vegetables. The man explains that this is his people’s way of celebrating. The pharmacist looks him dead in the eye and remarks “strange custom”. Well, quite. Mozart’s The Magic Flute also plays a large role in the proceedings in somewhat mangled German with bits of Japanese creeping in until a young lady is forced to have a go after criticising Konoko’s singing and finds she is able to sing the Queen of the Night aria complete with coloratura almost faultlessly.

The atmosphere is indeed dreamlike as the various tales weave in and out of each other with a kind of surreal logic that has its own internal consistency even if it’s quite hard to pin down. Absurd in the extreme, Ikeda opts for deadpan delivery that adds to the bizarre humour and ethereal quality of the strange “ambiguous places” which seem to exist in this odd little seaside town. Yet also like dreams the deeper meaning (if there is any) is hard to discern. Nevertheless, even if it is all random and essentially meaningless, Ambiguous Places is unexpectedly warm and filled with enough zany humour to keep things ticking along even when wondering if one needs to be afraid of the postman or if Nyoraga is really as dangerous as they say…


Streamed via Festival Scope as part of their International Film Festival Rotterdam tie-up.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Tale of Iya (祖谷物語 -おくのひと-, Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2013)

1Japanese cinema has certainly been no stranger to the discussion of environmental issues from Studio Ghibli’s concerns about the modern society’s encroachment into the natural world to the ultra modern concerns about pollution and the dangers of nuclear disasters. However, they’ve rarely been addressed to poetically as in The Tale of Iya which is an extraordinarily rich examination of man and the landscape. Tinged with magical realism and surreal juxtapositions, The Tale of Iya is an oddly wonderful experience in the broadest sense of the word.

Film begins with a vast expanse of deep snow in which a lone figure dressed in traditional blue mountain dress with a conical straw hat is making an everyday journey to a local shrine. This could be a scene from any Jidaigeki or even a woodblock print were it not for the crashed car the old man finds a little further into his journey. A woman has been thrown through the windscreen and is lying motionless the bonnet. The old man gives the incongruous scene a quizzical look, but moves on along his planned path. Then, however, even more strangely he finds a little pink bundle by the side of a frozen river. This time he does stop and scoop the infant up. A jump cut sees us flash forward to around fifteen years later as teenage girl dressed in pink gets up to make breakfast for her ‘grandfather’  – the old man of the mountains. On her way to the local school she passes an old lady who’s taken to making sack mannequins which seem to do their part to make up the population of this rapidly declining mountain village.

The newly born sack people aren’t the only newcomers though – in an attempt at modernisation, the town planning committee have elected to build a tunnel which will connect them to the main road and make transportation easier. However, this has met with strong opposition from ‘environmental groups’ represented by an American eco-warrior. Amongst these strangers is another from Tokyo who seems to have come for an unknown reason but eventually decides to stay and attempt to farm the land. Iya is certainly very beautiful, but country life is also hard and entirely dependent on the weather. The young people long to leave for the comparative excitement of the city. City people though long for the simplicity of a long forgotten country life.

The film begins in a more or less naturalistic style filled with the most beautiful cinematography of snow covered vistas and foggy mountains. However, a strong seam of surreality constantly builds throughout the film until it reaches the final third and almost becomes a sort of science-fiction film about a magical environmental product that can clean polluted rivers down to near perfect clarity. Folklore beliefs and practices run side by side with a more poetic slice of magical realism that is jarring at first (and actually a tiny bit frightening) but the film’s surreal and dreamlike imagery is likely to be the thing that lingers longest.

A Tale of Iya also manages to offer a broadly nuanced and balanced view of the nature of country life and concerns about the environment. This is a remote town with a dwindling population – the new tunnel will ease communication, ultimately make lives safer and perhaps stop so many young people leaving the area altogether. The local people are therefore very much in favour of the new tunnel and many of them actually work for the construction company who are building it. The only opposition to the bridge is from a group of foreigners who are living in a commune but come down from the mountain every day to shout ‘save Iya’ and various ‘shame on you’ type comments (in English) at the construction team. The irony being that their ‘commune’ run in a typical communal farming style with hundreds of ‘save Iya’ billboards might actually be the biggest eye-sore in the area.

That’s not to say the film isn’t in favour of conservation or that it feels all construction is beneficial (quite the reverse) but it is eager to present a fair comment on both sides of the problem. Similarly, it isn’t afraid to point out that this ancient way of life is extremely difficult. Kudo, who’s arrived from Tokyo and looks so jumpy all the time one wonders if he left in a hurry, is eager to learn about traditional farming. He looks so pleased with himself when he’s finally mastered how to water crops in the traditional way, not to mention that torturous looking two buckets on a stick water carrying device. It’s not long before he’s taken up the self sufficient life but the problem with that is you have to do everything yourself – no electric, no running water (other than that which runs in a stream), no sanitation and in short no safety net. Muddling through and celebrating small victories is fine in the blistering heat of summer but as the first snow falls and you don’t have enough winter stores, death from cold or starvation (or both) is a very real possibility. City people romanticise country life thinking it’s ‘easier’ or admiring its ‘simplicity’ but whatever it gives it also takes.

At 169 minutes, there’s no point in denying A Tale of Iya is an extremely long film that moves a stately pace. Undeniably some viewers will be put off by its epic running time and frequent flights of fancy but those who stay the distance will be richly rewarded. Magical, beautiful and finally profoundly moving, A Tale of Iya is an incredibly heady brew that stays in the mind long after it finishes. Truly ‘wonderful’ in every sense of the word, A Tale of Iya deserves to be much more widely seen.


First published by UK Anime Network.