Monday, March 22, 2010

"Just Like Heaven...."

Ok, so, I owe you patient students an explanation. I've been waiting for weeks now to receive my copy of Tod Browning's Mark of the Vampire, which is due any day. I need that because quite frankly Return of the Vampire isn't interesting enough to warrant a solo post. So, I'd been waiting and watching all manner of other historically important revisionist vampire movies just waiting for the one that falls in line historically to show up. But even I get itchy after a few weeks of radio silence and you lot have been patient enough so though I know I'm breaking continuity, I'm going to treat you to a special little half-vampire film that almost no one's seen. Recall if you will in my Living Dead Girl review I bemoaned the lack of legit auteur work on DVD in the states namechecking one Kaneto Shindo, director of the superb Onibaba, as one such underrepresented artiste. Well thanks again to that great series of tubes known as the internet, I've finally seen another of his films, making the total count in the four years since first seeing Onibaba...three. Pathetic. As. Shit. Pick up the goddamn slack DVD manufacturers. Seriously! No one in this country needed to see Pigs or Shrooms, and that's leaving out the fact that clearly Kaneto Shindo is a genius on the level of Orson Welles or Kenji Mizoguchi (an apt comparison, as we'll see). You know what? Fuck that. I've only seen three of his movies and only two of them were fiction, but Shindo is better than Orson Welles and Kenji Mizoguchi. Take that establishment! Oh....Shit! Now we're getting dangerous. Now on to the vampires!

by Kaneto Shindo
It's probably the 16th century and its definitely Japan, specifically a little hamlet run by a monomaniacal lord. There's a war on, which means all the men are away, leaving the women to fend for themselves. This is bad news for Gintoki, who's left his mother Yone and wife Shige at home alone for a band of retreating soldiers to find. They come in, overpower the women, steal their food and drink, take turns raping them and leave as the house accidentally catches fire, sealing their listless, shell-shocked bodies inside to be incinerated. The only thing that survives the fire is their pet cat, which lingers over their bodies after the flames have died down. Something strange happens then. A few nights later a samurai is out riding near the Rajomon gate (a landmark of the town Yone and Shige lived near) and happens upon none other than Shige in geisha make-up and gossamer robes. She tells the man that she's terrified of being ambushed alone in the woods and would he mind escorting her to her house. You and I know that no such house should exist but lo the house is there and Yone is inside waiting with Sake for the hapless samurai when he walks in the door. Within minutes he's drunk and Shige is flirting with him but just as they begin writhing around in the throes of passion, her appearance changes suddenly into something more feline and she tears his throat out. An indeterminate time later, another samurai happens by the Rajomon gate and finds himself ensnared in the same trap. By morning peasants have discovered his maimed corpse. A third night yields a third body and the authorities begin to listen to the stories of the increasingly nervous peasants.

What Raiko, the landlord, plans to do has everything to do with Gintoki. Since leaving his family, he's become something of a hero. After a battle in which literally everyone on either side was killed, he waited until the enemy general was too tired to fight anymore and cut his head off, which he presented to the high command as a trophy. They can think of no better purpose for a war hero than saving a town from an apparent monster. Raiko fills Gintoki in on the direness of the situation and sweetens the deal by promising him any of his housemaids if he can find and kill whatever's been making mincemeat of samurai lately. That does nothing for him as he still doesn't know the fate of his wife and mother. On his way home an old neighbor tells him and indeed the charred remains of the house are the only thing waiting for him. Being a war hero has come at quite a price it would seem, though on the plus side he's got nothing to lose, right? It only takes one night by the Rajomon gate for Shige to appear to Gintoki and bring him back to his own house. He notices that the women look exactly like his deceased family but notices that there is something different about them. He leaves before either kills him and in his absence the two women speak of the Evil Gods and the bargain they made. Yone senses that Shige must be desperate to see her husband again but she must remember her vow. When Gintoki returns, he and Shige make love and no one ends up dead. For the next six nights Gintoki comes to Raiko empty-handed and sleeps with his wife on the sly. After the seventh night he returns and finds Shige gone. Yone explains that she had bartered with the evil ones for seven nights with her former husband in exchange for the eternity killing samurai she had evidently signed up for. A horrified Gintoki realizes that his seven nights have cost his wife an eternity in hell. He flees the premises and the next night the killings start again. Raiko's this close to hanging Gintoki, whose claims of banishing one of the ghosts do nothing to curry him any favor. If he wants to live through the week, he's going to have to murder a ghost that may or may not be his mother, who he never said a proper goodbye too before her death. If you can think of a more strange or difficult task for anyone to face, I'd like to hear it.

The story may sound familiar to those of you with an introductory knowledge of mainstream Japanese cinema from the 50s through the 70s; it even shares with Onibaba a triangular structure with an older woman and a young man and woman but the similarities end there. Indeed it's not exactly the wheel reinvented, but a number of things keep Kuroneko (as I've since learned is the popular translation) or Black Cat From The Grove from ever being run of the mill. The first is that I believe this to be Shindo's answer to Mizoguchi's much loved Ugetsu Monogotari. In that film, based on a couple of old folk tales, two men leave their spouses behind and come home as heroes only to find their wives have become prostitutes and ghosts respectively. Ugetsu isn't what you'd call a horror film and indeed any of the reverence it's inspired among cineastes is because of its lyrical direction and the usual "timeless themes," not for sneaking ghosts into an Oscar-nominated period piece. Don't get me wrong I like Mizoguchi, I just don't think he's the cinematic demigod everyone makes him out to be. Ugetsu is a great, great movie and there is definitely an invisible efficiency to its storytelling, I just happen to think that a film like Kuroneko works harder to earn your respect. Ugetsu was a capital 'A' Art film and independent producers like Shindo, who rose to prominence in the decade following Mizoguchi's death, hardly got the time of day from the mainstream establishment when they made genre films. Japan, being the mountain of consensus that it is, will simply pretend you don't exist if you confront the masses with things they don't want to hear. They're only too happy to let the films of Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu drift across the ocean but try looking for a sanctioned release of the minor works of Teruo Ishii or Nobuo Nakagawa and you're asking for a headache. The critical establishment has to adopt you or your shit out of luck. When critics reappraised the work of Seijun Suzuki, suddenly all of his 60s films were in print again. Shindo often went looking for favour outside his country but fate was rarely on his side. Kuroneko was due to be included in the 1968 Cannes Film Festival but anyone familiar with French history knows why that didn't work out. Anyway, Shindo was a lover of Mizoguchi's films (the only other of his films you're likely to find over here is a documentary he made about the director's life included on the special edition Ugetsu DVD from Criterion). Thus Kuroneko, which like Ugetsu is based loosely on an old folk tale, can be seen as both a rebuttal and tribute to the Mizoguchi film and it's a damn good one on both scores. The story elements are the same, indeed everything down to the make-up over the eyebrows of its female leads seems culled from Mizoguchi, but handled in Shindo's inimitable style. I wish I had more exposure to his work because it's tempting to say that Shindo's sense of time, visuals and sound design is sui generis. He takes the eerie beauty of Mizoguchi's film and retrofits it as a horror film, which, when you think about it, is incredibly impressive. It's a bit like what Phillipe Grandrieux did to Krzysztof Kieślowski, but I can't even prove that that was deliberate. The reason it's easy to love Ugetsu is that its a kind of fairy tale and doesn't go out of its way to upset anyone beyond its premise. Take that story, amp up the horror elements and make a film that is if anything even more arresting and gorgeous than its source and we may have a historical contingency, a freak. Can anyone else think of such an event? Imagine if Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland had in fact been a horrific reading of the Lewis Carroll story where absolutely every creature is some nightmarish monster. Now imagine that film is the best adaptation of the book to date. Pretty tough to do, no?
So just what does Shindo do that makes his film so special. Well for starters, every inch of it is under his control. The environments are all tightly controlled and thanks to his pacing and visuals, once night falls, one gets the distinct feeling that they've entered a dream. The editing style that kicks in when the body count starts rising is nothing short of remarkable; it's shockingly preternatural and predicts a style that Western cinema would adopt maybe 30 years later and appears to have just been something Shindo toyed with; Kuroneko is different enough from Onibaba to suggest that Shindo was an innovative enough filmmaker to attempt radically different styles from picture to picture. Kiyomi Kuroda's cinematography captures the unreality of the events in the spirit cabin perfectly. The strength of the images outside are defined by their harshness, their perfect clarity, whereas when night falls, the light becomes presentational and follows no rules. The difference between night and day is just that and Kuroda's lighting techniques are just as impressive in the ordinary light of day as they are in the nightmare world of the evening. Hiraku Hayashi's music is also so good that at times I wondered whether Shindo had written his film to the pieces. The music has such a strong voice it's tough not to think it came first. The performances are all also first rate, especially Kichiemon Nakamura, whose Gintoki plays a few roles himself and who wears the stress of his assignment splendidly. The change he undergoes from screaming war hero to exhausted, lovelorn widower is remarkable. To put it another way, the film is crafted expertly and is almost totally unique, especially given its release date. And when the movie veered into its erotic detour, I was as thrown as I was delighted. Any other filmmaker might have been content to simply stick to the horrific elements, but Shindo mines the depths of human nature realistically and in a wholly devastating way.

Further underscoring the dreaminess of the film is the handling of the nature of the creatures. It is clear from the two women's conversations that they are evil and perhaps working for Satan himself (or whatever the 16th century Japanese equivalent is). What's not clear is just what the hell they are. The appearance of the black cat meowing just before something evil happens, not to mention their extraordinary jumping ability and occasionally appearing like cat women (complete with furry ears) in jump cuts, gives the impression of a kind of ghastly were-cat. They drink the blood of samurai like vampires yet are distinctly feline. Many of their habits are directly in keeping with vampire lore (only come out at night, must be invited in, etc.), which if anything makes them more frightening in that Shindo is never up front about what they're capable of. When Gintoki claims a piece of one of them it takes the shape of a feline-human hybrid and is the stuff of nightmares. In a film less self-assured and contained, the appearance of the cat-man limb might have seemed silly. Here it's just unnerving, as is the ghost's response to having it taken; it reminded me in fact of an old ghost story that found its way into those Scary Story anthology books Alvin Schwartz used to publish. The film found its way into my childhood unconscious...always a good sign that it’s working. Jigoku did the same thing. It reminds me just how much more terrifying it is when the supernatural comes out of your imagination and knocks on your door.
The genius of Onibaba is that its horror lay in manipulating the real world, in the things that people are capable of doing to each other (and of course that mask). It's quite a success to learn that Shindo was equally at home dealing with the supernatural; with, so to speak, real horror, vampires and curses and the like. But of course the story's foundation is in the horror of human nature. Though it's only one of many, one of the more ominous images in the movie is of that first scene of the marauding soldiers filing out of the woods, coming to take what isn't theirs. The men are noiseless (like so much in Kuroneko) and without so much as a warning shot end two lives and ruin another (unpredictability was something Shindo did well. As with Onibaba I had literally no idea how the film was going to turn out from one scene to the next). The efficacy of violence is something we all fear in some way or another (how could we not, everyone in America's got a gun and every country in the world has the bomb) and nothing drives this home more than the opening of Kuroneko. Shindo proves himself a filmmaker with an incredible grip on human nature and in scenes like the false purification (turns out faking devotion to religion was just as important to 16th century lords as it is to 21st century conservative ideologues), proves himself a humanist and a realist, even as he spins a truly fantastic yarn.

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