Film Review: Satoyama: Japan's Secret Watergarden

by Dawn Stanton, May 15, 2005 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

Satoyama: Japan's Secret Watergarden was shown during the 28th International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, April 30-May 7, 2005. This 52-minute film documents one season of human and nature interacting in a village near reed marshes supplied by Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture. (Lake Biwa is Japan's largest freshwater lake and one of the world's oldest lakes.) Much of the documentary focuses on the life of a single villager, Sangoro Tanaka, an old man who fishes the reed marshes using a traditional net trap fishing method, and part of it follows the lives of a few of the animals that share the waterways as their home. The houses in the featured village are all designed so that fresh spring water from the village's water system is piped directly into each house, a unique system called "kabata" that ties the health of the village directly to the well-being of the water. "Satoyama" is the word for a unique ecosystem wherein man and nature live in balance. ("Kabata" is just one part of satoyama.) Even something as simple as washing dishes becomes part of this balanced system: Fish that swim freely between the village waterway and each home's stone sink consume the leftover bits of food from the dishes. In this way, the waters stay free of unsafe bacteria.

In terms of imagery, it's understandable why Satoyama: Japan's Secret Watergarden won Best of Festival at the 28th International Wildlife Film Festival. Many of the images of nature suggest a Zen-like simplicity. The camera lingers on bright purple, red, and green vegetables free-floating in a sink filled with the fresh spring water. As the water continually pours in from the pipe above the sink, the vegetables bump and float in an ever-changing kaleidoscope. Later, a time lapsed sequence captures the cutting and bundling of a field of tall, dry grasses. The cone of stacked bundles all leaning into one another, although manmade, maintains its sense of simple nature.

The film's only weakness lies in its attempt to give equal time to both the human and animal subjects living along the waterway. This results in a nagging discomfort in a viewer's mind as to where the story lies. The film feels too long, and yet at the end, a viewer may find himself thinking, "Is that it?" It's a beginning -- the introduction of the secret watergarden -- that never moves to a middle or end.

Awards and production information: Satoyama: Japan's Secret Watergarden won Best of Festival and First Place in Best Human-Wildlife Interaction category. It was produced by NHK (Japan Broadcasting System). Producers: Shinichi Murata, Hiroyuki Wakamatsu, and Masaru Yoneno.

Many, perhaps most, of the films screened at the International Wildlife Film Festival held annually in Missoula, Montana are not shown outside the festival. If you're interested in viewing Satoyama: Japan's Secret Watergarden for yourself, please contact the International Wildlife Film Festival and Media Center regarding their policy on borrowing from their video library. Their URL is

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