Smokescreens and the Snow Machine

“Flaherty arranged, for example, to film a walrus hunt in order to show how indigenous people once gathered food. The Inuit had long since stopped walrus-hunting, and they ended up struggling to drag a harpooned walrus out of the Arctic surf and begging Flaherty to shoot it with his rifle. Flaherty pretended not to hear them and kept filming…When a shot didn’t work, Flaherty asked his subjects to repeat what they were doing until he was satisfied.”

-Louis Menand, “Nanook and Me” (The New Yorker, 2004)

When Robert Flaherty’s landmark documentary Nanook of the North was released in 1922, audiences were gripped by the rawness of reality in this portrait of an Inuit family. Yet everything unravels in its own time—truths turn out to be staged and what Filmmaker wants, Filmmaker gets.

This tendency for the idealized to be realized carries over in Takayuki Yoshida’s short film, Ponpoko Mountain. A love letter to the innocence of one’s early years, Ponpoko Mountain is so named after air playground equipment commonly found in Japan. In Ponpoko Mountain there is a transcendence in the conveying of movement beyond the visual into the aural. As the film flits between moving shots and still images, sound bridges come in between and filled in the gaps, acting as transitions. Nothing moves for our eyes to sense but from the ambient noise it is clear time does not stop. 

Yoshida himself professes admiration for Nanook of the North, if only for its aesthetic. In Ponpoko Mountain, the stark white trampoline does resemble an igloo, but the similarities between the two films may not be reduced to visual recreation alone. While Flaherty presented his preconceived notions about the indigenous tribes of Canada as fact, Yoshida is certainly not guilty of the same dishonesty. However, where the former built his film upon a kind of fantasy, the latter does as well. Here, childhood is a plane of existence where pain does not seem to exist. None of the clumsiness of little limbs, the petty fights that could have risen when so many small humans are clumped together—no, not in Ponpoko Mountain. Pirouetting off the convex mass shaped like a pregnant woman’s belly, their play is unbounded by a fear of broken bones. In this massive womb they will always be safe.

This is further underscored in the elementary school glee amid trees in varying degrees of dying and dead. White occupies half of almost every frame—a color that is all at once purity, cleanliness, calm and ultimately, death. Even with a boy sprawled out like a crucified Christ, he is only resting, youth ever unscathed. The manipulations and contrivances in Nanook of the North went over most moviegoers’ heads upon first viewing, but in their state of being lied to they still enjoyed what they saw. Until now, post-exposé, the documentary remains culturally significant despite said fabrications. Likewise, Yoshida’s lost boys and girls appear to be quite content atop artifice. After all, an actual snowy hill could never have made them bounce the way the fake one did.

— Mariya Lim

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