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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Nippon Reviews: Matsuri No Uma (The Horses of Fukushima)

The Horses of Fukushima (Matsuri No Uma): Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Yoju Matsubayashi.  Running Time: 74 minutes. 

Rating: 2.5/4

            After the Fukushima disaster, locals were soon ordered by the government to evacuate the region entirely, up to a radius of 20 kilometers.  Any and all pets and livestock were to be killed, to prevent them from escaping the zone and spreading contamination.  This was especially important for livestock, to make sure that no “tainted meat” would appear on the market.  In only one instance was there an exception- a herd of specially-trained horses, intended for a special annual cultural ceremony, were allowed to be taken out of the evacuation zone several weeks after the incident and, despite the danger, were taken to a government-run shelter to recover.  These horses and the struggles faced by their owner are the focus of The Horses of Fukushima

            The director of this movie, Yoju Matsubayashi, said that he initially heard of the horses while filming his first documentary about the Fukushima disaster, Memories of a Lost Landscape (he is planning to premiere a third at Nippon next year).  One of the people he worked with knew the owner and took him for a visit to the ripped-up shed, where the surviving horses had somehow managed to survive the flooding.  Later, when they were granted permission to retrieve the horses, he decided to work alongside them as a helper, filming as they went.  After the initials setbacks in getting government approval, they were finally able to bring the horses to a shelter where they are slowly fed and given medical treatment.  We see the seasons slowly change as they gain wait and, in nearly all cases, are able to survive for the next festival. 

            As far as documentaries go, it is very sparse in its speech and information- nearly all of the film is just footage of the horses, showing them slowly regaining their strength.  There are a few moments of the owner talking about his first experiences with horses, but even he is rarely on-screen.  This festival that they are a part of is also never explained in detail, other than to say that it was originally a way for samurai-in-training to condition their horses.  But as far as what sort of activities or events the festival is actually composed of, I could not say.

            In the Q&A session after the showing, Yoju explained that this was an intentional decision on his part- after watching his original cut, he decided that the story of the horses themselves was powerful enough to not really need much dialogue, interview clips, or explanation.  As a result, he cut out a significant amount of interview and exposition materials. 

            While I can certainly understand the sentiment- cinema, after all, should be show and don’t tell before all else- I don’t know if it was a particularly effective decision as far as this subject matter is concerned.  Much of the footage of the horses is beautiful and moving, especially after they are finally able to run free outdoors again, but I would have at least preferred to have learned more about the festival they are a part of, with perhaps comments from some locals on what the festival means to them.  Or perhaps a bit more from the owner, who seems like the sort of quiet, dedicated person who deserves to have a whole documentary devoted to their life and work. 

            Those are, of course, to a certain extent, just things that I personally would have done, and need not reflect negatively on the director or his film.  There is a clear affection here that shines through the screen, and a reverence for the physical majesty of the horse.  That makes it, at the very least, a highly unique and personal work of documentary filmmaking. 

Next film: Unforgiven

-Noah Franc 

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