In the suburbs of Kyoto, two fiftysomething artists, identical twins Yukihiko and Seizo, are designing a children's book. Their illustrations recall their own childhoods in a distant village just after World War II. As the camera moves over the bright colors of the drawings, Village of Dreams begins its evocation of a way of life that Japan essentially has left behind.
When we first see the young boys, they're sloshing through a summer downpour, carrying fishing poles and a bucket with a catfish in it. Moments later at home, after they've thrown off their wet clothes, they wrestle and laugh riotously, their skinny, naked bodies full of pleasure and competition.
Director Yoichi Higashi has chosen to structure Dreams as a memoir filled with light and nostalgia, with just a pinch of magic, plus a few friendly spirits tossed in for flavor. Commenting on the twins' doings are three old crones, seen sitting in the branches of a large tree. At first we're not sure how they've gotten up there, then by the end of the film they're flitting in and out of sight like Macbeth's witches turned into fairy godmothers.
Though most of Dreams follows the twins on their daily adventures, from swimming and fishing in a stream to pranks and fits of tearful frustration, Higashi also paints a rounded portrait of rural Japanese life, with its simple beauties and painful contradictions. A girl from a poor, hardworking family goes to school each day without shoes, no matter the season. Although she's generous and friendly, particularly with the twins, no one thinks to help her protect her feet. Another student is mocked for his poverty and for daydreaming at school, though he proves to be a loyal friend to the boys.
Like Federico Fellini's Amarcord and Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, Village of Dreams is a loving, yearning look at older ways of life, but in this case the message is a pointed criticism of the present. In Japan, a conquered nation inundated by American "progress," traditions of meditation and appreciation of the earth have been dumped en masse. A revelation for young and old alike, Higashi's film is a beautiful inventory of what's disappearing.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at email@example.com.