One Missed Call (dir. Takashi Miike): over-the-top approach smothers observations about families and chaos in the world

Takashi Miike, “One Missed Call” (2004)

Coming from Takashi Miike (of “Ichi the Killer” fame), this contemporary update on the Japanese psychological horror ghost story in which a group of university student friends is terrorised by death notices from the future on their cellphones and one by one succumbs, in usually gruesome and violent fashion, in accordance with the time and date of the original message, is as loopy, graphic, comic and bizarre as expected with a message about the potential for abuse, manipulation and violence in family relationships, particularly in parents and children’s expectations of loyalty and support from each other. There may be no issue or subject Miike hasn’t met from which he can’t extricate the maximum amount of shock, revulsion or nervous laughter from his audiences. Certainly there is a lot of violence and some ketchup is spilt, but apart from a few scenes the gory stuff has been toned right down and as much violence happens off-screen as on. “One Missed Call” also lingers quite close to the territory of cheese in its pace and the way scenes may be drawn out as though to bait and exhaust audiences’ capacity to experience and absorb the characters’ fear and terror, especially in the movie’s last 40 minutes from the time one character enters an abandoned hospital.

Yumi (Ko Shibasaki) is the film’s focus of a small, close-knit bunch of pals at uni who start getting messages on their cellphones that come from a specific time and date in the future and in which their own voices make a short statement, scream and quickly fall silent. Perturbing also is that the messages are originating from their own cellphone numbers! Come the time and date of the strange message in the student’s real life and the person dies violently, usually by decapitation, while making the same statement and scream; at the the same time his or her cellphone rings its number to convey the victim’s last moments, and shortly after death, a red lolly pops out of the victim’s mouth. After losing two friends in this way and finding others have died in like manner, Yumi contacts the police who at first are unsympathetic towards her story but at least pass her onto detective Yamashita (Shinichi Tsutsumi) whose sister, a nurse working with child abuse victims, was the first to die from the cellphone curse. Together Yumi and Yamashita try (and fail) to prevent a third friend, Natsumi, falling victim to the death phone curse on a live TV broadcast: this moment must be Miike’s over-the-top comment on how the media exploits, sensationalises and ultimately trivialises ordinary people’s suffering. The two gradually connect the deaths of the friends and others to a case of a mother, Marie Mizunuma, suspected of having abused her two young daughters, of whom one, Mimiko, died of an asthmatic attack and the other, Nanako, is mute and now under the care of social workers.

Unexpected and surprising twists a-plenty appear in the two allies’ race to save Yumi herself from death by dialling after she also receives a death notice. Miike sure loves to pile on surprise after surprise and subvert viewers’ expectations and guesses as to the identity of the vengeful ghost that enjoys playing with other people’s lives. In an already fairly tight though sometimes drawn-out screenplay, he delights in giving two climaxes to the film as though to beat audiences clean out of their minds and patience, and whacks in an original and demented conclusion in which time is forced to travel backwards to give us the “right” conclusion as to what happens to Yumi and Yamashita, rather than the “wrong” conclusion. Miike clearly isn’t a believer in the quantum theory idea of parallel universes in which an incident in one universe can give birth to at least two and usually more than two universes, of which in one universe Yumi survives the death curse, in another universe doesn’t survive the death curse, and in another universe appearing to survive the death curse – among others. The conclusion is set up in such a way that any, maybe even both or all, of these scenarios applies to Yumi!

Technically Miike is a very accomplished film-maker with excellent control of the script, no matter how loopy it gets, and using background settings, sequencing with jumpy cuts and sometimes deliberately jerky filming to create and sustain an atmosphere of unease rising to fear, terror and sheer fright. His use of sound, colour and lighting in the hospital corridor scenes where Yumi is menaced by the ghost and constant reminders of human mortality in jars of preserved bodies being placed before her is effective in generating increasing tension. Miike sure doesn’t mess much with introductions: he gets right into the thick of things by despatching two of Yumi’s friends in the film’s first 30 minutes before settling down into more extended scenes as Yumi and Yamashita conduct their investigation. He demands a great deal from his main actor Ko Shibasaki who, though deteriorating into a screaming damsel in distress in the second half of the film, works those facial muscles and vocal flaps well, sinking right into the character for most of the film and changing dramatically in the film’s denouement to something sinister and quiet. As for the other actors, Tsutsumi at least plays his detective character as directed, not giving it anything that would really set it apart from other movie detectives, and minor characters register as one-dimensional stereotypes in a plot-drive movie packed with over-the-top melodrama.

Though the lead character is a female who initiates the investigation into the cause of the death notices, Miike’s idea of what females should and shouldn’t do is limited and conservative for a director who supposedly has a prolific body of often imaginative work in nearly all major film genres with a reputation for subverting genre conventions: “good” girls here are passive and loyal to their families even when parents do bad things to them or death threatens; and “bad” girls are active, behaving wildly and impulsively like the forces of nature, and they can only be controlled, kept at bay or placated with sacrifices, their motives or reason for behaving as they do beyond human understanding and reasoning. Male characters don’t get off lightly either: either they’re not interested and end up being puzzled victims, or they try to deal with the problem using known solutions without knowing what they’re up against. Only Tsutsumi attempts to try to understand the nature of what he’s dealing. The police force is relegated to mopping up after messes made. The vision expressed here is nihilistic and despairing – chaos is ever present and ready to wreak havoc, and the structures we humans put up to make sense of the world, including the technology we rely on so heavily and which we fetishise, can be infiltrated by chaos and turned against us. The use of psychiatry with reference to Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy (MSP) – a psychiatric disorder in which parents deliberately sicken or injure their children to get attention from medical professionals – is a superficial addition to the plot used to confound audience expectations about the ghost’s identity. Science, religion and rationalism turn out to be useless weapons against chaos.

The film looks like a typical ghost-horror screamathon but there are some deep observations beneath the frenzy and pile-up of twists and surprises about the nature of the world , the loss of connections and alienation, and of dysfunctional families that most people will miss completely. That’s a pity in a way, as this film might have been stronger if those observations weren’t so deeply buried beneath the excess. It’s possible that Miike is parodying and questioning the horror film genre by exaggerating its conventions and taking them to their utmost extreme but that might not always be the best road to take if you want to send up something that you love and want to have fun with. Miike certainly has a lot of fun with “One Missed Call” and some of it is very funny – I found the scene where Yumi hugs a decaying body and the surprised look on the ghoul’s face one of the more hilarious moments – but I suspect I’m one of just a very few people who can see the fun and the serious stuff through the body count.

Dororo: a fun escapist samurai-fusion film let down by cheap effects

Akihiko Shiota, “Dororo” (2006)

Based on the original manga by Astroboy creator, Osamu Tezuka, “Dororo” is a fun and entertaining escapist fantasy adventure about two wanderers, Hyakkimaru and Dororo, in a post-apocalyptic Japan. Curiously this Japan resembles pre-Tokugawa Japan in its culture and politics: the country has been split up and is ruled by warring clans each eager to wipe out the others and reunite the land by force and tyranny. Leader of one such clan, Daigo Kagemitsu (Kichi Nakai), is so keen to be the first Great Unifier since Ieyasu Tokugawa that he readily enters into a Faustian pact with a group of demons at a temple: the evil ones demand the body of his first-born son as payment. When the child is born, the demons seize and dismember him, leaving behind bare scraps of flesh held together by the baby’s spirit. Daigo Kagemitsu forces his wife to abandon the child and she does so tearfully, sending him off in a basket to drift down a fast-flowing river.

The baby is found by a sorcerer who painstakingly sets about reconstructing the tiny body using the remains of children killed in past wars together with various prostheses that include swords hidden in the boy’s new arms. Scenes of the reconstruction look amusingly (and intentionally) like their equivalents in old Frankenstein movies: the sorcerer distils the life essence of the dead children amid a collection of boiling potions in glass containers all joined together with transparent tubes and he uses magic that resembles electricity to animate the body parts. The boy, wrapped in bandages, floats in a soup of life-sustaining liquid. The process has to take a long time as the boy needs bigger parts and prostheses as he grows up. The sorcerer takes time to educate the boy as well. On reaching the age of 20, the boy (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is as ready as can be to take on the demons which is just as well as the sorcerer conveniently gives up the ghost and commands Hyakkimaru to destroy his life-work so that it should not fall into the wrong hands for evil purposes. Hyakkimaru burns the sorcerer’s house and life-work and begins his odyssey around Japan in search of the 48 demons who took his original body parts.

He acquires a side-kick, Dororo (Ko Shibasaki), who, on seeing him despatch a spider-demon in short and spectacular FX-enhanced order at a tavern, becomes curious about him and learns of his history from the time the sorcerer found him from a mysterious lute-player (Katsuo Nakamura) who happens to be the sorcerer’s friend. Dororo is a teenage thief, orphaned at an early age and commanded by her mother to suppress her gender identity by impersonating a boy; the girl desires revenge upon the Kagemitsus for destroying her family and community. Together Hyakkimaru and Dororo – incidentally, they acquire their names as nicknames, their real names being unknown – cross the length and breadth of a scenic and beautiful wild countryside (the movie having been filmed in New Zealand), killing the various demons who were part of the group that negotiated with Daigo Kagemitsu, in order to recover Hyakkimaru’s physical inheritance piece by piece … until they come to the lands of the Kagemitsus where Daigo Kagemitsu’s son and heir Tahomaru hears of Hyakkimaru’s arrival and seeks him out, inviting him to come and meet his parents …

The screenplay is better plotted than I expected: Hyakkimaru and Dororo could have spent the entire film chasing and killing rubber monsters and CGI ghouls with Dororo falling in love with Hyakkimaru along the way and Hyakkimaru unable to reciprocate until he has regained all his body parts. The showdown with Daigo Kagemitsu could have been shelved for a sequel but “Dororo” chooses to meet this head-on with a revelation that the demons handed Daigo Kagemitsu a dud deal, taking the first-born son’s physical being and going to town on that with some el-cheapo cheesy Godzilla cast-off costumes and computer effects that are irregular in quality, but most of all failing to deliver all of their client’s enemies to him in good time.  Yet Daigo K never appears to want his child back or at least take the contract to the relevant Department of Fair Trade. The movie can appear rather uneven: in its early scenes and the later scenes where Hyakkimaru confronts his father, the movie adopts a serious and drawn-out (maybe too drawn-out for fans of action) tone, and in other scenes where the two young ‘uns confront and kill demons, it’s quite flippant and the demons are more cartoonish than terrifying, but the screenplay holds up in spite of the changes in approach. I guess the emphasis is that the business of killing demons is secondary to Hyakkimaru discovering his true heritage and what it means to be human, and on how Dororo copes with finding out that the man she is following is the son of her family’s killers and whether her thirst for revenge is fulfilled.

Shibasaki and Tsumabuki do the best they can with their one-dimensional characters: Shibasaki’s Dororo comes across as a stock jester or clown character in the vein of similar characters in other Japanese samurai movies though the acting involved is substantial and Shibasaki does a convincing job throwing jokes, tantrums and tomboy bluster; while Tsumabuki’s Hyakkimaru has an uphill battle demonstrating an increasing capacity for feeling, empathy and humour when he has to acquire humanity bit by tiny bit. After all, by the time he’s resolved his issues with Dad, he’s only halfway to full humanity with 24 more jigsaw puzzle pieces to collect. No wonder then that he appears robotic throughout the film and only seems to become a bit human at the end. There are hints in “Dororo” that acquiring humanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that becoming human means becoming vulnerable to wounding, both physical, mental and emotional; it would have been good if Shiota had played up that angle more so that the whole business of tracking down the demons and killing them, one by one, just to get your body parts back, one by one, becomes more complicated on an existential level. Particularly also if you decide to bring some futuristic neo-Buddhist beliefs about the relationships between material desires and the nature of suffering into the picture: the more human you become, the more subject to desires you also become, and the more likely you will sin and cause other people to suffer.

Combining manga and various movie references, sci-fi, fantasy, martial arts, Japanese folk mythology and some old-fashioned story-telling with flashback sequences and a bit of philosophising about family members sticking together, “Dororo” juggles its influences and the genre-mixing fairly well to deliver a fun light-hearted ride at least. The major complaints I have are that the special effects and the CGI work aren’t of consistent quality and often look cheap, especially when the rest of the film looks good and sometimes even majestic, and the various demons Hyakkimaru meets tend to be animal and plant spirits rather than real demons straight out of people’s worst nightmares: we have the spider-demon, the tree-demon, the lizard-demon, the moth-demon, the fox-demons … all not terribly original and restricted in their roles as particular animals and plants. Sure, some can morph into humans but they don’t morph into anything else to make life more fun for themselves and extra difficult for everyone else. The futuristic world created for Hyakkimaru and Dororo should look more of a pastiche of different cultures, past and present, within and outside Japan, than it does. Armchair experts in mediaeval Japanese culture and history would recognise a great deal borrowed from Japan’s Sengoku warlord period (about 1450 – 1600) which preceded the Tokugawa shogunate; the film looks like one of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures remade on a budget. The one part of the film that’s truly cosmopolitan and outstanding is the music soundtrack which features considerable bluesy-sounding flamenco-style guitar music.

If a sequel to “Dororo” gets off the ground, I’d expect a bit more character development and maybe some delayed teenage angst on Hyakkimaru’s part as he acquires more human feelings and emotions, and maybe questions whether it’s really worth his while getting all his body parts back. Reading some of the comments on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) though, I found one which stated an sequel is not likely as the estate of Osamu Tezuka does not like the film and has refused permission for sequels. I have never seen the manga but apparently the film makes drastic changes to the original manga story – to take two examples, the manga Dororo is a young preteen boy, and the tone of the manga itself is more serious than that of the film – and possibly it is changes such as these that the estate objects to. For the time being anyway, manga fans and the general public alike can enjoy the film as a post-modern samurai-fusion flick and if some people are inspired to read the original manga, that will be a bonus.

Empire of Passions: pedestrian story saved by beautiful visuals and psychological character study

Nagisa Oshima, “Empire of Passions” (1978)

By coincidence, when I saw this film the first time early in 2010, I had just finished reading “Therese Raquin”, a psychological novel by late 19th century French writer Emile Zola, and I have to admit I failed to see the similarities between the two at the time. Although the novel is not the source inspiration for the film, there is a similar basic idea: a woman and her lover plot to kill her husband, they carry out the deed in a way so as to ensure there are no witnesses, and for the rest of the story, the murderers suffer pangs of guilt either openly or indirectly and their guilty consciences lead them to act out certain behaviours or say things that arouse the attentions and suspicions of others. The film is based on a real incident that occurred in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Oshima has fleshed out the plot into a mix of story genres – traditional Japanese ghost horror story meets modern thriller with a psychology study thrown in – that may comment on the impact of Western rationality and police-state control, as exemplified by the soldier lover and the police officer who investigates the crime, on a traditional easy-going and spontaneous rural society with its particular set of values as exemplified by the unfaithful wife.

The film revolves mainly around the two lovers, soldier Toyoji (Tatsuya Fujii, who appeared in Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” prior to making “Empire of Passions”), who relies on reason and experience; and Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) who, in spite of her mature years, being old enough to be Toyoji’s mother, retains her youthful looks and figure and a naive, morally flexible and child-like approach to life that Toyoji takes advantage of to seduce her. Viewers may sense that Seki’s life with her rickshaw-driver husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) is in some ways unfulfilling: her personal needs and desires go unspoken and unsatisfied as she is kept busy looking after hubby and two kids and working for the landlord in his fields and kitchen. I can’t help but compare Seki with the “good girl” characters in Danish director Lars von Trier’s trilogy of films about self-sacrificing heroines (“Breaking the Waves” / “The Idiots” / “Dancer in the Dark”) in which the good women live in or come from situations of isolation – and you could argue Seki herself has lived in isolation of a sort, as a woman married to a poor man in a rural community sidetracked by Japan’s industrialisation in the 1890’s – and are so innocent and naive that they readily agree to be co-opted by their men into behaviour and actions that lead to their downfall (cruel, violent death or family ostracism). The difference is that Seki comes to regret her actions and is tormented by the murder. Why Seki would want to throw away her settled, comfortable if hard-working family life for a man with no job prospects and who rapes her, mutilates her by shaving her and then forces her to co-operate in the murder of her husband and his body’s disposal, is never adequately answered in the film. One assumes that the position of women in rural Japan in the late nineteenth century was so dreadfully low that women like Seki were completely lacking in self-esteem and control over their lives and bodies to the extent that others had more rights to their reproductive systems than they themselves did.

Toyoji himself is a puzzle: having been discharged from the army, he’s only interested in having a good time and in preying on Seki’s generous nature and innocence, only to become disinterested in her after murdering her husband. Oshima offers no explanation as to why his behaviour towards Seki changes. Toyoji appears to have no qualms about murdering Gisaburo but his constant repetitive actions in visiting the well where Gisaburo’s body lies and dumping leaves there might well suggest guilt. Even his apparent disinterest in Seki may reflect his guilt: if he and Seki were to be seen together by the neighbours after Gisaburo’s disappearance, the community might well add two and two together and come up with five, and so he and she must wait for as long as they can (if necessary, for years) before they can be seen together openly. Another interpretation of Toyoji’s character is that he’s simply being rational in insisting on waiting and not appearing to be a couple. As it is, three years after the murder, various folks including Seki’s daughter Oshin report being visited in their dreams by Gisaburo and these reports play on Seki’s mind sufficiently that she starts to see Gisaburo’s ghost regularly at nights. Understandably Seki is frightened enough to want to stay with Toyoji; when he rebuffs her, she responds by trying to burn herself and the family home.

In the meantime police inspector Hotta (Takuzo Kawatani) arrives to investigate Gisaburo’s disappearance and the various rumours that he has been murdered. Unfortunately the film pays little attention to the way he conducts his investigations, apart from his eavesdropping on Seki and Toyoji one evening, though it’s not much of a surprise to viewers when he has enough evidence to indict Seki and Toyoji. It’s almost as if Hotta and the police authorities decided that Gisaburo was murdered, and that Toyoji and Seki are his killers, and all they need do is collect or even fabricate evidence to clear up the matter. Since Hotta enters the film around the half-way mark, the plot might have worked better if Hotta’s point of view had become dominant: viewers would have been able to follow Hotta eavesdropping on the couple, observing Toyoji and Seki going out to the well, and writing up his thoughts and opinions about the two acting in ways that suggest their guilt and shame. The police then would have a better case to prosecute Toyoji and Seki, and their torture of the two to force their confessions could still take place and appear all the more cruel (because it’s not necessary). Indeed, telling the story from Hotta’s point of view could reinforce Oshima’s message about late 19th century Japan becoming a more military and fascistic society, because Hotta himself would be the mouthpiece for the selective mix of extreme neo-Confucianist and Western, specifically Prussian, ideologies that became the basis for the Japanese imperialist police state of the early 20th century.

Away from the pedestrian plot which leaves a lot unexplained and therefore is open to numerous interpretations, the film is mainly remarkable for its investigation of Seki’s psychological state after the murder and for its depictions of the changing seasons, particularly of the snowy winter backdrop against which Gisaburo’s murder is committed, and of the spring and summer periods during which time community rumours about Gisaburo’s disappearance gestate and are made known to Seki. The cycle of the seasons demonstrates how Seki and Toyoji become trapped, physically as well as psychologically, by their actions with the implication that eventually their crime will lead to an even more base crime (the killing of the landlord) and the two must face punishment with no hope of forgiveness or redemption. The ghost story element is actually less important than the police investigation but it does make for a chilling moment where Seki in her growing mental torment accepts a ride from the ghostly Gisaburo in his rickshaw and he gets lost taking her home.

The film is a companion piece to Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” and was his reply to the outrage that accompanied the earlier film’s release for its controversial plot, based on an actual incident, of a gangster and his lover who engaged in sadomasochistic sex. In that particular film, the sex served as a metaphor for the individual’s revolt against a repressive and increasingly militaristic society.

Throne of Blood: a fine film let down by truncated plot and mostly sketchy characters

Akira Kurosawa, “Throne of Blood” (1957)

Often referred to as an adaptation of the Shakespearean play, “Macbeth”, this historical drama by Kurosawa is a fine film that is actually sourced from many different inspirations and influences, of which the play is a significant inspiration, and which also combines some features of Japanese Noh drama and the American Western film. “Throne of Blood” often hailed as a masterpiece but, truth be told, I found it less compelling than Kurosawa’s later “Ran” which also partly references Shakespeare (“King Lear” to be specific). Certainly if filming in colour, a bigger budget and a greater knowledge of Japanese military history and mediaeval fighting techniques had been accessible to Kurosawa in 1957, then “Throne of Blood”, technically at least, would have been a much greater film than it is. As it is, the film has to depend much more on plot and character than “Ran” does, and in this, it’s a much lesser film than “Ran” (and even then, the characters in “Ran” can be rather one-dimensional with the exception perhaps of Lord Hidetora’s fool). Part of the reason is that the plot of “Macbeth” is much whittled down in “Throne …” with a watered-down Macduff character to oppose the Macbeth character, Lord Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), and as a result a source of tension and interest is removed; another reason is that with his epic samurai films, Kurosawa intended to say something about the nature of war and killing in our age, and used a specific historical period in Japan – the period from about 1450 to some time in the early 1600’s (known in Japan as the Sengoku period, or Warring States period) when the Tokugawa shoguns took over the country and ushered in an unprecedented age of peace and prosperity- as a way of enabling people to view modern warfare and killing objectively, and this lesson takes precedence over character depiction to the extent that the characters appear clunky and one-dimensional.

The film opens with two warrior friends, Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki), lost in a forest after successfully crushing a rebellion against warlord Kuniharu Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), who holds Spider Web Castle. After fruitlessly riding through dense fog and dark trees, the two men come upon a witch (Chieko Naniwa) who, chillingly, spins thread on her spindle in the manner of the Three Fates of ancient Greek mythology. The woman prophesies that Washizu and Miki will be promoted for their efforts and that Washizu and Miki’s son will become lords of Spider Web Castle. Naturally the two men are doubtful but the prophecy that they will achieve military promotions comes true and this leads Washizu to become uneasy, restless and not a little ambitious. His clever wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) realises the inner turmoil he’s going through and starts egging him on to realise his ambitions. Soon enough, Lord Tsuzuki comes to stay at the garrison where Washizu and Asaji have just moved in with their household and this affords both husband and wife an opportunity to kill him. They cover up their treason by blaming the murder on Tsuzuki’s guards. With Tsuzuki out of the way, Washizu becomes Lord of Spider Web Castle but the other part of the prophecy about Miki’s son begins to trouble him and Asaji, and they soon start acting in strange ways and doing things that alert others to suspect that they (Washizu and Asaji) are Tsuzuki’s real murderers. Eventually Asaji goes mad and Washizu rushes headlong into a war that will be his doom.

Mifune gives a great performance as Washizu, though much of the time his face is distorted into fixed expressions of rage, and even in the extended sequence where he is being hounded by arrows in a narrow corridor, he still looks often as angry as he does terrified. Yamada, made up in Noh make-up and costuming, is as emotionless and artificial as Mifune is as openly emotional, neurotic and panicky to the point where he starts to flail about with his sword and … oops! … someone’s cut in half and looking very dead. The two complement each other perfectly: Asaji knows how Washizu’s mind works and she guesses correctly that he wants Miki out of his way so she arranges for this to happen. She doesn’t need to say a lot to goad Washizu into killing Tsuzuki as she knows only social convention and the samurai code of honour are preventing him from fulfilling his ambition. The pity though is that these two characters are the only fully rounded characters in the film: all the others, Miki in particular, are so slightly delineated as to be moving wallpaper needed to prop up the plot. Miki may be a ruthless warrior but you wouldn’t know it from the way he is portrayed in the film. The code of honour that compels Washizu to treat Miki as his equal and which is part of the reason that Washizu has qualms about killing Miki seems superfluous. Miki’s son (Akira Kubo), who one might expect to be at least hell-bent on avenging Dad’s death, merely attaches himself to a rival warlord Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura), the would-be Macduff character who never gets to meet Washizu and avenge Miki’s death on the son’s behalf as the code of honour would require. Neither Noriyasu nor Miki’s son is more than window-dressing for the plot. Incidentally Shimura and Mifune had appeared together in a previous Kurosawa film “Seven Samurai” so it’s rather strange that Kurosawa decided not to pit their characters against each other in a climactic do-or-die fight that would allow Washizu to die nobly and gasp out some last words about how the gods play around with humans like toys, and Noriyasu in return spout something about maintaining samurai honour and restoring the natural order of the world to appease the gods.

It would have been really worthwhile too if at some point during Washizu’s extended death scene, mighty and terrifying though it is, the samurai realised he has been manipulated by the witch through his blind faith in her “prophecy” and that he has thrown away his own life and the lives of people he cared for dearly as a result. All his achievements will be dwarfed by his treason and other crimes. There is nothing to suggest that Washizu and Asaji come to learn anything about themselves through their failings and misdeeds. I can’t remember from my own readings of Shakespeare’s plays whether he dealt with the idea of free will versus predestination. I have a feeling that he did, and that one play in which he might have done this is “Macbeth” so it should have been possible for “Throne of Blood” to combine both the notion of people trapped in a world where all their actions have been pre-determined by fickle gods or evil spirits and one character coming to realise that he has been exploited in this way and maybe should have resisted the witch’s words.

Though there are some great scenes – an early prolonged scene in which Washizu and Miki race around in circles in the fog demonstrates perfectly how enmeshed in the workings of fate they are and how their arrogance will undo them – the film does feel very cramped in its outdoor settings and use of black-and-white film. Even so, black-and-white film is used effectively to create creepy atmospheres and moods, especially in the forest scenes, and the weather becomes a significant character in the film, reflecting characters’ inner moods and thoughts, and portending what is to happen in the plot. “Throne of Blood” really does cry out to be filmed in colour, even if the range of colours that suit the film is in the dark blues, greys, blacks and blood-red, and with more panoramic filming techniques and appropriate film stock so you get a real sense of Japanese history and what the unsettled Warring States period might have been like.

Ran: stock characters make this film merely good, not truly great

Akira Kurosawa, “Ran” (1985)

“Ran” (“Chaos” or “Revolt”) was Kurosawa’s last attempt at creating and filming an epic historical drama set in Japan’s Kamakura period when feudal warlords ruled the country. At the time he made it, it was Japan’s most expensive film ever at a budget of US$12 million, financed mainly by French producer Serge Silberman. The film’s initial inspiration was stories about a 16th century daimyo (warlord), Mori Motonari, but the screenplay was also influenced by the famous play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare.

The film revolves around aged daimyo Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) and the consequences of the decision he makes in dividing his lands and the responsibilities that attend them, among his three sons prosaically named Taro, Jiro and Saburo (“one”, “two” and “three”, played by Akira Terao, Jinpachi Neru and Daisuke Ryn respectively), while retaining his titles, the symbols and privileges of his position. Taro and Jiro happily agree to the arrangement but Saburo, foreseeing trouble as Hidetora had not exactly been a model dad or a just ruler, objects. For his disobedience, Hidetora angrily banishes Saburo who is then forced to take refuge with Fukimaki, one of two rival warlords – the other named Ayabe – wishing to marry their daughters to him. Saburo allows one of his retainers, Tango (Masayuki Yui), to continue serving Hidetora in disguise.
 
Hidetora plans to spend his twilight years boarding at Taro and Jiro’s castles in turn. It’s not long before Taro, egged on by his wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada),whose family was murdered by Hidetora, finds a way to boot out Dad and his retinue so the aged man seeks Jiro’s help. Jiro, forewarned by Taro, also finds an excuse to refuse hospitality so Hidetora finds refuge in Saburo’s recently abandoned castle and lands. Alas, even this isn’t to the older sons’ liking as they join forces to storm the castle, killing nearly all of Hidetora’s followers and forcing him to flee into the wilderness. While exulting in the destruction, Taro is killed by Jiro who had been plotting all along with his generals to usurp Big Brother.

Hidetora’s fool (Peter) and Tango locate the old man and help him find refuge with a hermit who turns out to be Tsurumaru (Takashi Nomura), young brother of Jiro’s wife Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki). Years ago, Hidetora had killed the young siblings’ parents and blinded the son. Confronted by the evidence of his evil deed, Hidetora begins to lose his sanity and leaves the shelter. Meanwhile back at the Jiro ranch, Jiro is approached, seduced and manipulated in turns by his brother’s widow, Lady Kaede, who has shrewdly guessed his ambitions and persuades him to repudiate and kill Sue and marry her instead. Sue is forced to flee for her life so she finds Tsurumaru and they go to their parents’ abandoned castle ruins. Hidetora and his two followers have also arrived there and on seeing the young people, Hidetora descends further into madness and runs onto the plains of Azusa.

Tango returns to Saburo who then prepares his army and returns to the family territories to find Hidetora. Jiro, forewarned by messengers (dontcha just love the Pony Express that operates around here? where can we get fast express delivery like that?), leads his army to meet his brother’s. In the battle, Saburo’s disciplined forces rout Jiro’s with gunfire; in the meantime, Saburo receives news of Hidetora’s whereabouts so he personally goes off to retrieve him. Jiro guesses at what he’s doing so he dispatches assassins to follow after. He then receives news that Ayabe’s army is advancing on his castle so his army hurries back with Saburo’s forces on his tail. Jiro and his generals manage to get back to defend his stronghold. One general, Kurogane, who had earlier defied Lady Kaede, confronts her and finds out she has intended all along to destroy Hidetora and his two sons, so he kills her. Anchorless, Jiro and his generals find themselves and their exhausted, depleted army facing the full onslaught of Ayabe’s fresh forces.

Saburo finds Hidetora and they joyfully reconcile but Saburo is cut down by one of Jiro’s unseen assassins. Overcome by the disaster that has resulted from his rash decision, Hidetora collapses and dies. By this time, Sue and her maid have also been killed to fulfill Lady Kaede’s wish. This leaves Tsurumaru stranded at the family castle ruins, clinging to a painting of Amida Buddha that Sue had given him – which he accidentally loses down a cliff-like wall.

It’s a splendidly shot film with great visual beauty and dynamics: Kurosawa often uses landscapes to enhance a sense of extreme isolation, as in the scenes where Hidetora and his fool hide out in the ruined castle, or to suggest chaos falling in on Hidetora when he is first cast out into the wilderness. Even the weather and the time of day are important: the film opens during a bright part of the day with thunderclouds gathering overhead and ends during sunset with a blood-red sun. In the film’s opening scene, Hidetora and his sons, mounted on horses, are standing at right angles from one other looking for something and this scene portends the division, conflict and chaos to follow. There is close attention to technical detail, at least in battle scenes and those scenes that take place in castles, some of which were built for the film, though it’s possible Kurosawa took some liberties with actual historical details for the purpose of the film. The use of guns suggests the film’s events occur during the late 1500’s / early 1600’s which coincide with Shakespeare’s life-span and it’s likely the battle between Jiro and Saburo’s forces is partly based on the Battle of Nagashino of 1575, which Kurosawa dramatised in “Kagemusha” (1980), in which the use of guns overcame cavalry.
 
Nakadai as Hidetora is credible in the way he deteriorates mentally and physically; his make-up, based on Noh play conventions, reflects his gradual downfall. At the same time he becomes less of a stock character and more of a human being with feelings and weaknesses. The problem I have with Hidetora is that, unlike Lear in the Shakespearean play, Kurosawa passes up an opportunity to have him become a more caring and compassionate person towards his fool and others. Perhaps Hidetora is restricted by his social role not to care for others lower on the social scale and indeed most characters in the movie are one-dimensional stereotypes restricted by their social niches. This is true particularly of Lady Kaede whose make-up, stylised movements and monochromatic clothing render her a highly artificial and refined alien creature nursing a demonic hatred for Hidetora’s family; she’s the least human of the whole cast. Did her upbringing as well as Hidetora’s treatment of her and her family turn her into a devil? Hidetora’s fool on the other hand, moves naturally and expresses the full range of human emotions including courage and grief, and is clearly the one sane person in a highly dysfunctional world. Harada and Peter’s performances as these two characters are by far the most memorable in the film, not least because these characters behave outside the accepted gender norms for their society and class.

My impression of “Ran” is of a world of people trained and restricted by their roles in life to act as unthinking ants for the amusement of indifferent gods, an ontological view expressed by a minor character in the film. The collapse of this society is total with the unnecessary death of Sue, so devoted to Amida Buddha and forgiving of Hidetora, and Tsurumaru’s total abandonment when he loses the painting. The conclusion  is melodramatic, perhaps overdone – even Shakespeare didn’t obliterate all his main characters in “King Lear” – but it certainly illustrates an extremely pessimistic, nihilist view of the universe. Even in this world though, I still think there’s room for character development for Hidetora and maybe his sons, and this would have made “Ran” a classic film rather than merely a very good one: the tragedies that befall them would have been so much greater and more painful, and the universe become more harsh and uncaring, if the men had come to regret their actions and tried to make amends to others, only to be smacked down for their efforts by capricious gods.

The Life of Oharu: unsentimental historical drama of one woman’s downfall

Kenzo Mizoguchi, “The Life of Oharu”, Shintoho (1952)

This is an excellent film about a depressing subject: I only wish colour film had been available to director Kenzo Mizoguchi when he made this film so that he could have used it as an element in portraying the downfall of main character Oharu. The story could have been any other fictional historical sappy soap opera about a woman who through a series of incidents and plain bad luck is condemned to a life of ruin. Mizoguchi instead gracefully invests the film with pointed social commentary about the way women, even women of nobility, were treated in mediaeval Japan, drawing attention in particular to their lack of autonomy over their lives and their bodies.

It starts with Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) as a teenage daughter of a family on the brink of entering into the nobility, doing whatever young women of her class were supposed to do to make themselves attractive potential brides to the feudal lords; a page (Toshiro Mifune in an early role) of a lower social class is attracted to her and sneaks into her quarters but their affair is discovered by officials. The page is executed and Oharu and her family are banished into exile. Depressed, Oharu attempts suicide but, perhaps ironically given that she lives in a society that condoned self-murder in certain circumstances, this option is taken away from her. Instead she’s packed off as concubine to Lord Matsudaira to bear him and his infertile wife a son. Oharu does so but Lady Matsudaira, jealous of the lord’s attention to the young mother, dumps her back on her father with small compensation. In the meantime, Dad has racked up a sizeable debt in anticipation of great favours from the Matsudairas and Oharu is forced to work as a courtesan at a high-class brothel.

An incident in which a client is exposed as a fraud leads to her being thrown out and Oharu then goes to work for a couple. A series of incidents that revolve around the wife’s baldness and Oharu’s past leads to Oharu being dismissed from service. Then for once, Fate smiles on Oharu in the form of a fan-maker who agrees to marry her. Unfortunately Oharu’s husband is murdered by robbers while on a business trip. Needless to say, Oharu’s not entitled to any of the fan-maker’s estate so she attempts to join a nunnery. While training as a novice, Oharu’s past catches up with her again, resulting in her expulsion from the temple. All known options now exhausted, Oharu becomes a prostitute but not a successful one at that, descending lower and lower on the social scale of prostitutes as she ages and her beauty fades.

Next thing you know, salvation from a life of hardship and humiliation beckons but at a price: Lord Matsudaira has died and the new lord – Oharu’s son – offers sanctuary and an old age spent in comfort if she will agree to live under his restrictive conditions. Oharu is taken to his residence under heavy guard but, keen to see him, manages to evade all the soldiers and gets lost. As a result, sanctuary is withdrawn and Oharu becomes an itinerant beggar.

Mizoguchi presents Oharu’s life in a way that forces the audience to decide how much of Oharu’s ill luck is due to her fault or the fault of others who through foolishness, jealousy, lack of empathy or contempt close off her options and leave her with nowhere to go but down. There are occasions when Oharu is able to hit back hard at her oppressors, often to humorous effect, but while revenge can be sweet, her actions backfire on her and result in yet more degradation. Sometimes she’s very wilful and proud, and other times she is passive, too passive: the suggestion is that she defends herself when she shouldn’t and gives in when she should be assertive. You want to take her by the shoulders and shake her for some of the things she does and the scrapes she gets into: wouldn’t it be better, after all she has suffered, to take up her son’s offer, resign herself to his scolding and live in comfortable exile? Yet somehow I feel that by becoming a beggar, Oharu at last achieves something she never would have had if she had accepted the new lord’s sanctuary, remained a Buddhist nun or replaced Lady Matsudaira: the freedom to move around the country, to experience the changing face of nature, and to be her own person.

The elegant and understated way in which the film is made, with the use of long tracking shots that frame the individual at a distance from the camera, imbues it with a sense of the individual’s helplessness vis-a-vis an oppressive and unforgiving society that judges and punishes people harshly for even minor social blunders. Tanaka as Oharu moves gracefully as though in a Noh play, emphasising the character’s ability to cope with her misfortune and put up with the money-grubbing, status-obsessed people around her. We see the honest, natural beauty of her soul which contrasts strongly with the corrupted and rigid patriarchal society in which she has to live and suffer. It’s all the more gut-wrenching then to see how people, men and women alike, and secular and religious as well, use their social status, even when it is declining, to heap opprobrium and indignity on this woman. At the same time, one can’t help but think that her soul becomes more refined and unearthly the more the dirt is dished out on her; in her very early scenes with the page, Oharu treats him with disdain due to his lower social position so it’s obvious if her life had turned out differently, she would have been a coarser person.

It could have been a much better film with the use of colour but Mizoguchi was working on a small budget at the time he made the movie. I can imagine Mizoguchi using different shades of various colours to emphasise Oharu’s downfall so bright clean colours might have been used early on and paler or dirtier colours used later in the film. The settings and backgrounds could then have become more important as indicators of mood or to indicate a critical moment in the film. As the film’s pace is steady and unhurried throughout, some viewers are likely to find it slow and a bit boring, and the use of colour would have allowed those viewers to take in more of film’s backgrounds and take less notice of the pacing.

Anyone who thinks that life in Japan was better than it is now for most people should be directed to see this film – in its unassuming way, “The Life of Oharu” effectively demonstrates how very brutal and inhuman society was to women and other vulnerable people who through no fault of their own found themselves destitute and at the mercy of others.