Northeastern Japan's Tohoku region had a protracted and deadly famine near the end of the 18th century. A volcanic explosion was the root cause, which was followed by several years of extraordinarily severe weather. As a result, about one million people perished from famine.
Such is the backdrop of Takeshi Fukunaga's dark period drama Mountain Woman, which uses the starvation as a backdrop to show one young woman's horrific struggle for survival. The film, which was expertly filmed by cinematographer Daniel Satinoff (who also worked on the HBO Max series Tokyo Vice), has some beautiful visual poetry moments but is also bogged down by a clumsy plot and a lot of pathos.
With his debut film, Out of My Hand, which was distributed by Ava DuVernay's ARRAY label and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, Fukunaga made a name for himself in the United States in 2015. In Mountain Woman, he demonstrates a comparable level of talent, particularly when he captures the subdued rhythms of a small community perpetually on the verge of disaster—a place where individuals are pushed to the breaking point by intolerable circumstances.
The plot, which Ikue Osada and I co-wrote, concentrates on Rin (Anna Yamada, who shines), the daughter of Ihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a farmer who has already lost a lot of his land due to crimes that were allegedly committed by his forefathers. Ihei and the other villagers descend to ever-lower levels of desperation because they have nothing to eat and no sunlight to aid in the growth of fresh crops. Their only source of hope is blind faith.
This belief manifests itself in a tradition that says the community can be saved by offering a young virgin as a sacrifice to the gods on nearby Mount Hayachine. Rin is eventually picked to be the offering, but not before she flees the community after her father is charged with grain theft.
In the woods, Rin encounters a scraggly hermit (Mirai Moriyama) who resembles The Lorax and survives by feasting on the raw animal meat. Before the villagers, including Rin's potential love interest Taizo (Ryutaro Ninomiya), catch up with her, he begins to educate Rin the forest's customs.
In a situation that, let's face it, is quite bleak, Fukunaga directs in a polished but melancholy fashion, underlining the hopelessness. In order to avoid having another mouth to feed, the father in his film snuffs out his newborn child just after birth, and things don't exactly get better from there. Even while the performances are strong, the staid tone might grow tiresome after a while, and Mountain Woman never picks up the pace or mood enough to escape its prison of conflict and persecution.
There is considerable climactic suspense in the plot during the last act when Rin is caught up and brought back to the village and the others must decide what to do with her. It's enough to say that by that point, their hunger has caused them to think primarily with their bellies rather than their minds. The moment where the locals queue up to get food donations from the local chieftain may be the most telling of them all. In this image, they are jubilant after receiving enough rice to partially fill a bento box.
In difficult times, extreme methods are necessary, and Fukunaga does a good job of capturing that mentality. In collaboration with the gifted Satinoff, he gives his film a textured appearance full of bright, subdued hues that highlight the strength and beauty of the surroundings. For these people, nature chooses everything, including whether or not they will live or pass away. When Rin finally decides what to do, her free will will have little significance by that point, and whatever started the famine will also determine whether Rin becomes its next victim.