Surreal Spectacle – Terayama Shûji’s Pastoral: To Die In The Country

In his surreal, autobiographical drama, Pastoral: To Die In The Country (Den-en ni shisu, 1974), Terayama Shûji sacrifices conventions in narrative framing to create an aesthetic befitting of the film’s elucidated themes; he amalgamates the nature of thoughts, dreams, and memories to illustrate how a person’s existential self is constructed of the unconscious interaction of all three natures. The film stars Suga Kantarô as Terayama as a boy and Takano Hiroyuki as Terayama as an adult. The film was entered into the 1975 Cannes Film Festival; Terayama was nominated for the Golden Palm award; and Harada Yoshio, who plays Arashi (a friend of the adult version of the protagonist), won the Blue Ribbon award for ‘best supporting actor’. Though critically acclaimed upon release, lack of distribution has made Pastoral a relatively obscure piece of Japanese avant-garde cinema.

The film begins as a relatively conventional narrative about Terayama’s childhood – his domineering mother, his disturbed connection with his dead father, and his boyhood crush on a married woman whom he dreams of running away with. However, in the second act, Terayama pulls us out of the narrative and into a post-structural setting of reflectivity; we see present-day Terayama as himself, a director making a film about his own childhood, struggling to honestly express his past through the limited medium of film. By appealing to truth rather than conformity of filmic conventions, Terayama forfeits narrative structure by surrealistically putting the adult version of himself into the film about his childhood. In this way, Terayama uses the film as a personal meditation of his own existence. Through the interaction between his adult and adolescent self, and the illumination of incongruities between them, Terayama illustrates how a person’s existential self is truly constructed of the unconscious interaction of thoughts, memories, and dreams. By amalgamating his thoughts, memories, and dreams into a spectacle, Terayama literally elucidates this unconscious interaction. This allows Terayama to genuinely attempt to “express the past”, “remove it from the core or [his] being”, and free himself from memories and illusions of the past which he “carries around like a millstone”.

Terayama utilizes lighting and colour filters to create a viscerally engaging, theme befitting aesthetic. While the emphatic colours and sharp tones appear chaotic and arbitrary, they are not used in vain; they enhance the mood of the scenes so as to reveal thematic consistencies. Within the film, Terayama utilizes four distinct modes of lighting and colour filtration; each mode imbues particular scenes with the particular mood he wishes to render. The first mode consists of low-key lighting and dark colour filters, such as navy blue or dark purple; this produces wild shadows, gloomy tones, and a dreary atmosphere, and is generally used for scenes of the ‘scary mountain’. This mode illustrates Terayama’s youthful sadness and disturbed connection with his dead father. The second mode consists of high-key lighting and a spectrum prism filter (encompassing all the colours of the rainbow); this produces vibrant tones and a joyful atmosphere, and is generally used for scenes of the circus. This mode illustrates Terayama’s childhood wonders, joys, and dreams. The third mode consists of natural lighting and calm, earthly colour filters, such as sky blue, and grass green; this produces neutral tones and a peaceful atmosphere, and is generally used for scenes of the countryside. This mode illustrates the restful tranquility Terayama feels of the countryside – a tranquility he likens to death. Finally, the fourth mode consists of high-key lighting in black and white; this produces high composition between black and white images, bright and dim tones, and a pensive atmosphere, and is generally used for present day scenes of Terayama. This mode illustrates Terayama’s nerve-racking existential struggle.

Moreover, elements of mise-en-scene and sound complement these modes of lighting and colour filtration to create an artistic aesthetic common of the surreal and avant-garde. Colours and shapes of props, such as clothing, tools, and even the characters themselves, complement the moods rendered by the four aforementioned modes of lighting and colour filtration. For example, the vivid colours of the circus complement the spectrum prism filter used to light the circus scenes. What’s more, sound effects, such as a ‘humming’ noise, and music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, immediately translate mood into the audience’s experience; the sounds, therefore, serve as background mood directors for the audiences’ experience of the visuals. The combination of all of these elements – lighting, colour filtration, mise-en-scene, and sound – creates an engaging aesthetic, giving Pastoral: To Die In The Country the capacity for producing aesthetic experience – a direct, perhaps transcendental experience of the formal properties of an artwork.

Since Terayama Shûji’s Pastoral: To Die In The Country is a complex, tenuously structured film with a non-linear narrative, it is not for the faint of heart. For this reason, I cannot recommend the film to just anyone. So, I’ll leave my recommendation with the following: if you are interested in poetry, philosophy, and art, and are willing to experience something different, give Pastoral: To Die In The Country a shot – I doubt you’ll be disappointed!

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About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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