Blade of the Immortal: one wearying bloodbath after another in a film on obsessive vengeance, duty and the hell of immortality

Takashi Miike, “Blade of the Immortal” (2017)

Condensed from 30 volumes of manga into a single work of about 140 minutes, this film was probably always going to be light on the character development and plotting especially under the direction of one Takashi Miike. What he doesn’t condense though is the original story’s gory nature – if watched casually, the film looks like a never-ending series of sword-bashing bloodbaths following in quick succession – and the sense of exhaustion and tedium that comes with being an immortal samurai. The story takes place in Tokugawa-era Japan, as most such samurai films do, and starts with ronin Manji (Takuya Kimura) and his kid sister Machi (Hana Sugiyaki) being ambushed by a 100-strong horde of thuggish sword-fighters. Machi is cut down by their leader and Manji is forced to fight through the lot of them to reach him. Several minutes later, Manji is the last one standing, or staggering with mortal wounds rather, when along comes a female demon who plugs him with a stack of bloodworms that clean up and heal his wounds, turning him into an immortal.

With the opening scene done, dusted and tidied away, we skip 50 years to the story of another young girl, Rin Asano (Sugiyaki again), forced to watch in horror as her sword-fighting instructor father is cut down and her mother violated by another bunch of thugs led by the charismatic Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi). Rin manages to escape the butchery and vows vengeance upon Anotsu. Conveniently the female demon appears and directs the girl to seek out Manji. Rin quickly finds him and Manji agrees to help the child – but has he taken on an impossible task, given that Anotsu learned his skills with the sword from his father and grandfather who themselves trained with Manji’s forebears? Is Rin’s desire for vengeance too excessive and likely to bring both Rin and Manji to ruin? And how much does – or can – Rin substitute for Machi whose loss Manji still grieves over?

On top of the possible obstacles Manji and Rin face in exacting vengeance on those who destroyed Rin’s family, the villain Anotsu himself is double-crossed by the Shogun’s representatives who draw him and his gang into a scheme to teach the Shogun’s warriors sword-fighting skills. The government’s treachery leads to the annihilation of Anotsu’s school of thugs so by the time Manji and Anotsu finally meet (after they have both shredded entire armies of fighters into near-mincemeat), the two almost feel some sympathy for each other as outsiders operating on the fringes of an oppressive and corrupt law, and sickened and exhausted by the demands others make on them to keep fighting and killing.

The problems Manji and Anotsu encounter on their respective quests – Manji for finally being able to die, and Anotsu for power and influence – give the film some depth (if not much) and something for the actors to play with that enhances their characters. Miike’s flamboyant and excessive approach in retelling the story of Manji ends up interrogating the notion of vengeance: can the pursuit of vengeance become an end and an evil in itself as the mostly useless Rin keeps egging on Manji to pursue Anotsu? Why does Manji readily agree to Rin’s demands? At this point he might well curse the demon for having made him immortal – because his life becomes a relentless grind of one killing spree after another.

Miike paces the fighting sequences well – a huge battle scene may be followed by a smaller scuffle, in turn followed by another bloodbath – and while the major characters are essentially one-dimensional, Kimura at least conveys Manji’s world-weary attitude well. On the other hand, sub-plots that include two female antagonists, one of them a sword-wielding fighter (Erika Toda), are not very well developed and could have been omitted from the film.

The incredible fight scenes are well choreographed if surreal – there ain’t no-one that good who can mow down a hundred swordsmen with a long sword, a short sword and whatever other cutlery he carries with him – but over the course of 2 hours and 20 minutes their extreme and excessive nature can be wearying. Perhaps if Miike had cut out some of the more unnecessary fight scenes and concentrated more on Manji and Rin becoming a tight little family unit, or on Anotsu’s background, making the character a not unsympathetic fellow battling what he sees as government corruption, he could still have his intense and over-the-top film, that opens up a new focus on character and plot in future films.

Zatoichi: a colourful package of comedy, violence and drama masks an unoriginal plot and characters not always worthy of sympathy

Takeshi Kitano, “Zatoichi” (2003)

Based in part on the television and film series revolving around the adventures of itinerant blind masseur / swordsman Zatoichi in late Tokugawa Japan, Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi” smoothly combines drama, slapstick comedy and extreme violence in equal measures around a not-too-original plot narrative in which a lone wandering martial arts expert comes across a community suffering from poverty, oppression and exploitation by local warlords and their gangs, and sets about freeing the poor from their tyranny. This theme happens to dovetail with Kitano’s own fascination with violence, the underworld and vengeance, so perhaps we should not be surprised that his version of “Zatoichi” emphasises bloody swordplay, the machinations of warlords and their gangs, and extreme revenge. Yet at the same time the film draws audiences into sympathy for vulnerable characters and empathy with their behaviour and motivations.

Zatoichi (Kitano) wanders into an unnamed village caught up in a war between yakuza gangs who demand huge amounts of protection money from the villagers. He finds shelter with O-ume (Michiyo Okusu), a farming widow, and her ne’er-do-well gambler nephew Shinkichi (Guadalcanal Taka) who is often the butt of many jokes in the film. About the same time, two geisha siblings (one of whom is actually a man) seeking revenge for the deaths of their parents and other family members on their family estate ten years ago arrive in the village. Zatoichi, O-ume and Shinkichi befriend these geishas (Daigoro Tachibana and Yuuko Daike) and learn about their tragic history. The geishas eventually discover that the men who murdered their parents are the same yakuza gangsters terrorising the community, and Zatoichi sets about dispatching these men. For the most part, the job is not too difficult – except that the yakuza leader has just hired ronin samurai Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) as his bodyguard. Hattori boasts a mean, almost demonic way with his sword and a showdown between him and Zatoichi seems set to be the film’s pyrotechnic climax.

The film builds slowly and steadily to the inevitable clash of katanas with plenty of diversions along the way. This does mean that audiences need to concentrate quite hard to follow the plot. Kitano spends much time crafting back histories for various characters including Hattori as well as the geisha siblings, touching on touchy subjects such as paedophilia and suggesting that life for ronin samurai and their families could be as hard and oppressive as the lives of lowly peasants. One feels as much for Hattori and his need to help his sickly wife as one does for the geishas, no matter how intensely and darkly their desire for vengeance burns and eats them up. Special attention should be paid to the bartender and his aged assistant father who washes the sake cups and chops the vegetables. Kitano’s own character Zatoichi differs little from the type of characters he usually plays: impassive, stoic, saying very little and giving the impression of harbouring great, often unearthly wisdom and not a few dark secrets.

The violence may be bloody but it is done quickly and efficiently (and maybe a little too artistically and cleanly in a way that screams it was done with computer-based effects) and often it is over before the audience has had time to draw breath.

One feels that Kitano packs so much into this film because the plot is not all that original and very few characters are actually worthy of much sympathy. The cinematography is often very pretty. The film seems made for a Western audience which might explain why some of the dance sequences are so long and why Kitano opted to include a Hollywood-style chorus-line musical extravaganza, complete with tap-dancing, at the end of the film. We do not learn very much about the character of Zatoichi himself, why he is blind (or pretends to be blind) and why he elects to travel alone from one isolated community to the next and to flush out corruption and oppression everywhere he goes. The theme of blindness in its various guises – including the notion that having sight often makes one blind to things that visually blind people would pick up – is not as fully explored and fleshed out as it could have been.

There is a nihilistic aspect to the film as well: some characters die undeserving and tragic deaths; and the geisha siblings are more affected by their desire for vengeance than by their suffering than they are prepared to admit, and how they will cope when the cause of their suffering has been obliterated by others is unclear.

As expected, Zatoichi goes on his way to another oppressed village in a fantasy pre-Meiji Japan and audiences will have had their fill of comedy, tragedy and drama in a colourful and stylised package.

Memoirs of a Geisha: overblown rags-to-riches soap opera romance with a shallow and conservative message

Rob Marshall, “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2002)

Essentially a variation on the Cinderella story through Western stereotypes about geisha and their role and function in Japanese society, “Memoirs …” is an overblown rags-to-riches rise of a young girl from an impoverished farming family living in Japan in the early 20th century. The child Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is packed off to a geisha house to work as a servant. There she meets the haughty geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who kicks the child around. In spite of the bullying and numerous beatings from Hatsumomo and the mistress of the geisha house, Chiyo dreams of becoming a geisha herself. A chance meeting with a stranger known only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) sets Chiyo on the path to becoming a maiko (apprentice geisha) under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) who teaches her dancing, music and the art of conversation among other skills she needs to be a geisha. Through the years Chiyo grows into a beautiful young woman and is renamed Sayuri. Sayuri becomes a highly accomplished geisha and her beauty becomes legend. Of course this riles Hatsumomo who with another traine maiko called Pumpkin plots against Sayuri.

In its first half the film is slow and laboured in building up Chiyo’s background as a downtrodden servant who holds fast to her dream of becoming a geisha. The movie only starts picking up speed once the Chairman meets Chiyo on a pedestrian bridge and then Mameha appears at the geisha house to offer to train the girl. Events move quickly and the film becomes more interesting and sumptuous. Hatsumomo becomes even more of a threat to Sayuri as she determines to ruin the younger woman’s reputation permanently. Yet as Sayuri triumphs in her chosen career, she discovers numerous career shortcomings: other geisha are jealous of Sayuri’s rocketing to fame and many men vie to become Sayuri’s danna (patron) but her heart yearns for the one man who could take her away from having to entertain male clients for a living and give her true love.

Tailored to Western audiences and their knowledge – or lack thereof – of Japanese culture, the film does not strip away very many common stereotypes about the geisha profession. Viewers knowing little about how young girls train to become maiko and then geisha will get no help from whatever information the film proffers. Whatever independence is demonstrated by geisha – the woman running the geisha house where Chiyo meets Hatsumomo is very indomitable – is often undermined by some of the dialogue and the voice-over narration portraying geisha as women whose futures depend entirely on ensnaring a wealthy danna. The reality is that while many geisha do need a rich patron, the world of geisha houses is completely dominated by women: they run the geisha houses, they recruit and train new geisha and they are responsible for their own incomes and the incomes of the geisha houses they run. In short, geisha are more often than not independent and capable businesswomen. Instead the movie focuses on the soap opera situations Sayuri finds herself in but her character and the characters of the rest of the cast are bland and colourless; only Gong Li’s bitchy and cruel Hatsumomo offers something meaty if somewhat overdone. Yeoh is wasted as Sayuri’s okiya Mameha and likewise Watanabe as the Chairman drifts in and out ineffectually for much of the film. The acting overall is capable but not great.

As expected of a film about geisha, based on a best-selling novel, and with a big budget, the cinematography is excellent, the costume design is lavish and the interiors of Japanese geisha houses and tea houses are beautifully designed and constructed.

Ultimately the film is a shallow exploration of a character’s survival through at least three tumultuous decades in Japanese history without providing much detail about how becoming a geisha has made Sayuri the wise elderly narrator looking back over her life. The movie’s plot shoehorns what might have been a story about endurance and patience during a period of dramatic change, crisis, war and foreign occupation into a live-action Disneyland romance. In doing so, it demeans the intelligence of Western viewers by delivering a conservative message that also reinforces stereotypes about Japanese women and society.

High and Low: a crime thriller of downfall and redemption, and a plea for compassion for material and spiritual suffering

Akira Kurosawa, “High and Low” (1963)

Most movies based on pulp crime / police procedural novels rarely exceed their pulpy inspirations but legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa seems incapable of sticking to the style of the original source material, in this case an Ed McBain novel. No, no matter what sources he uses, be they ordinary crime action scribblings or Shakespearean plays, his films become meditations on human nature and society, and enter the panoply of great classic films. “High and Low” is one such of his works, if perhaps underrated because it’s set in the present day rather than in an exotic mediaeval Japanese past of samurai honour. Kurosawa teams up with equally legendary Toshiro Mifune, playing a ruthless businessman, and a capable no-nonsense supporting cast to bring to the screen a straightforward crime thriller with a timeless plot of downfall and redemption and a plea for humanity to rediscover precious lost values of compassion and consideration for others’ suffering.

Kingo Gondo (Mifune) is planning to buy out his partners in National Shoes and to that end has mortgaged his hill-top mansion to raise the loan that will enable him to take over the company and run it the way he wants. (Admittedly his partners want to convert the shoe-making operations into making cheap shoes for easy profit whereas Gondo believes in making long-lasting quality items that will ensure a regular income stream in the long term.) On the verge of achieving the buy-out though, Gondo receives a mysterious phone call from a stranger claiming to have kidnapped his son. The catch is that the stranger has actually kidnapped his chauffeur’s son Shinichi. The stranger demands a huge ransom that, if paid, would totally ruin Gondo – but if he does not pay, the child will surely be killed. Ever the Machiavellian, Gondo declares he will not pay in spite of his wife and chauffeur’s pleas and the recommendations of the police investigating the case.

The film divides into two unequal halves: the first half takes place almost completely in Gondo’s home, acquiring a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere and focusing on Gondo as he wrestles with other people’s demands and his obsessive desires; the second longer half, taking place in parts of the city beneath the hill where Gondo’s home is located, deals with the police search for the kidnapper and bringing him to justice. In this section, Gondo is no longer the main character though his downfall is made fairly obvious; the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game with the police led by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) pursuing the kidnapper and closing in on him by setting up a sting operation in which they pretend that two heroin addict accomplices he has killed are still alive and are (irony of ironies) extorting him for more junk.

The film’s minimal presentation throws attention onto the tense plot and the characters themselves as they deal with the emergency at hand and its aftermath. Mifune’s understated acting is commendable and demonstrates clearly the dilemma Gondo is placed in, his obsession with maintaining his status and family’s comfort and how eventually he is transformed by the results of the decision he finally makes. Being portrayed as a hero by newspapers for the decision he does make (under pressure from others, not because of his conscience), Gondo becomes a humbler man (though this transformation is not shown) and on meeting the kidnapper at the end of the film, seeks to understand his motives for Shinichi’s abduction.

The film achieves its epic status in many ways: it highlights the class differences between Gondo and the people he comes to rely on to rescue Shinichi and recover his money; it shows something of what motivates Gondo and the kidnapper, the social and economic gulf that separates them, and how their differing motivations and the resulting behaviour might lead one to redemption and the other to damnation; and then it adds ambiguity and irony to suggest that the one who is redeemed does not really deserve it after all. This is all done with a well-structured plot that moves quickly and generates plenty of tension, in a city where social and economic contrasts are great and each is a comment on the other. Few films are able to combine rich psychological study, a tale of downfall and redemption and an engrossing police investigation all in one.

A pointless rehash of a low budget TV series in “Evangelion: 1.11 – You Are (Not) Alone”

Hideaki Anno, Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki, “Evangelion: 1.11 – You Are (Not) Alone”

Since the original “Neon Genesis Evangelion” anime series aired on TV over two decades ago, its stories have been repackaged and retold and this film is intended as the first of yet another revision of the series in four parts. “Evangelion: 1.11 …” revisits the first six episodes of the TV series.

As a retelling, the film’s narrative sticks closely to the original series’ story arcs and the only difference is that the film’s plot is much more streamlined with more emphasis on action and fighting. The characters in the film are as one-dimensional as they were in the TV show, probably even more so as much of what has been pruned is central character Shinji Ikari’s background history and his self-pitying tendencies. Those who have never seen the original TV show are likely to be mystified as to why adolescent children with major mental health issues like chronic depression are employed by governments to drive giant robots to battle mysterious alien invaders (called Angels) in the middle of densely populated cities and cause massive destruction and chaos for local emergency service crews to clean up afterwards – but unfortunately those naive viewers will find no answers or comfort from the film and its successors.

Most of the improved animation is to be found in the background scenery and the details of the highly bureaucratised, technocratic society in which Ikari and the people who employ him live. Unfortunately the animators did not extend the improvements to delineating the main characters who all tend to look much alike (only their hairstyles and hair colours indicate who they are or aren’t) and still resemble the crude cartoons of the original TV show.

There really isn’t much to commend this film in its character and plot development, or even in its technical aspects. This is a film clearly aimed at pleasing its fans to the point of indulging them. Whatever the reason in making the main character Shinji a passive boy forced to deal with the responsibility of saving the world from alien invasion, on top of struggling with his low self-esteem, his desire to find his life’s purpose and inner peace, and to be accepted by his distant father, seems lost on the film’s creators. The creepiest aspect of the film is that, in order to find acceptance and connection with others, Shinji must divest himself of all that makes him an individual like no other, and turn himself into a cog in Japan’s technocratic machine.

In the Realm of the Senses: two lovers pursuing happiness and freedom in a repressive society

Nagisa Oshima, “Ai no korida / In the Realm of the Senses” (1976)

Forty years ago this film was made and it still has the power to shock current audiences with its explicit sexual scenes, the intense sexual obsessions, and the asphyxiophilia leading to the shocking climax and aftermath. For much of its running time though, “In the Realm …” can be boring and excruciating to watch: the plot is very basic and repetitive, and only really gets going towards the end when its protagonist and antagonist start exploring the extremes of their sexual passion; and the characters themselves tend to be one-dimensional and underdeveloped.

The plot is based on an actual historical case in Japan during the 1930s and the names of the two main characters are unchanged from those of the original doomed lovers. Kichi Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) runs an inn in Tokyo where Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) comes to work as a waitress. The two are attracted to each other and in no time at all have commenced an affair even though Ishida is already married. Initially in their affair the two experiment sexually and indulge one another but gradually their affair becomes all-consuming: Ishida leaves his wife and Sada becomes intensely jealous and obsessive to the point of threatening to kill Ishida if he returns to his wife or sleeps with another woman. Their affair soon occupies their attention almost daily and their sexual experimentation becomes ever more extreme with Ishida suggesting to Sada that she try strangling him to excite him sexually. Sada cannot conceive of life and happiness without Ishida and the emotions this arouses together with the erotic strangling has horrific if entirely predictable consequences for the two lovers.

As a character study, the film doesn’t work very well: there are early indications that Sada has been a prostitute in the past and is possessed of a powerful sexuality that draws men to her. She can also be easily roused to anger and strong emotions, and her anger may respect no human-made boundaries. It’s apparent that life for a passionate young woman in the Japan of the 1930s, a hierarchical and strongly conformist society then passing into militarism and fascism, is going to be very difficult. Unfortunately Oshima does not emphasise the conflict between Sada’s nature and the society that would try to turn her into a meek and submissive woman much at all. By contrast Ishida is a curiously passive man who readily gives in to Sada’s demands to the point of leaving his wife and any children they already have, and to neglect his business. This surely would have been enough to earn the couple considerable social opprobrium and ostracism. As it is, the affair forces Sada to take up prostitution again at various points in the film. With the way Oshima has framed the narrative though, focusing exclusively on the intense affair and Sada’s obsession with continuing it, viewers see nothing of the effect it has on Ishida and Sada’s ability to cope and survive, and on the people most affected by the relationship; and this narrow focus may be considered a major defect of the film.

The film’s themes are more important than its plot or its character development, superficial though the latter is: through Sada and Ishida’s obsession, Oshima raises the question of how far people can go to pursue happiness and fulfillment in an increasingly repressive society. At first their obsession provides Sada and Ishida with some measure of happiness, connection and freedom to express and explore themselves, psychologically as well as physically; but over time it becomes a destructive and paradoxically enslaving addiction for both. While the two pursue their passion, the outside world comes to see them as strange and perverted though curiously it makes no attempt to separate them. The sexual experimentation (and its explicitness and increasingly extreme character) becomes a revolt against political and sexual oppression; at the same time this revolt isolates Sada and Ishida from the rest of humanity so as rebellions go, it is a rather pathetic one. This alienation could have been made more devastating had Oshima included something of the outside world’s opinion of the affair through Ishida’s wife and employees, or through the rural inns the couple flees to, to conduct their relationship.

The film can be seen as a criticism of the roles men and women are or were expected to play in Japanese society: Sada, a poor working girl and prostitute, plays the active role in the relationship while Ishida, her employer and social superior, follows her lead. Again the sexual experimentation represents a break with the expectations of what is appropriate behaviour for men and women in sexual relationships, and gives a glimpse of an alternate world where people are free to express themselves and explore new identities free of gender limitations.

While the film is sexually graphic, I don’t see it as a pornographic film: the sex on display illustrates the couple’s break with and alienation from society, and it is not at all titillating or arousing. Whereas pornography seeks to enforce the status quo in gender and class relations, “In the Realm …” goes out of its way to question and criticise what pornography accepts without question. This is a film of two people trying to find inner peace, happiness and freedom in a world marching towards war and repression.

Dead Sushi: wacky comedy horror film takes pot-shots at corporate culture and greed, and food obsessions

Noboru Iguchi, “Dead Sushi” (2012)

In the tradition of wacky Japanese comedy horror flicks comes this little number that takes a bizarre concept (bloodthirsty monster sushi) and milks it for all it’s worth (and then some) while managing to sneak in a coming-of-age / road movie theme in which discovering your true self and talents is the goal. Teenager Keiko (Rina Takeda) is trained by her sushi chef father to be both a sushi chef herself and a martial arts practitioner. The exacting standards her father imposes on her – plus his disdain for the fact that she was born a girl, not a boy – lead Keiko to run away from home and take up a job as a waitress at a rural hot springs resort. The other waitresses bully her and the resort owners kick her around roughly and warn her to maintain the place’s high (chortle) standards. Only the gardener Mr Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki) treats her kindly. A group of corporate employees from a pharmaceutical firm arrives at the resort and the guests start throwing their weight about as well. Unbeknownst to all, a former employee has followed his erstwhile work colleagues to the resort, planning to avenge his sacking on his former bosses by injecting a liquid into sushi that turns the tasty morsels into fanged ravenous critters with the power of flight!

The computer-generated gore flies freely and bloodily and the fight sequences are perhaps a little too sharp and smooth in their choreography. Most characters are as one-dimensional and stereotyped as can be – even Keiko isn’t completely plausible as the shy, put-upon doormat who becomes an unexpected heroine – and director Iguchi has to continually pile on one send-up or cliche on top of another to keep the film going. The victims of the mutant sushi turn into rice-spewing zombies, the angry researcher transforms into a giant tuna monster, two pieces of sushi propagate an army of killer baby sushi balls (which later make for a beautiful spectacle of whizzing colour as they attack a human victim) and a giant salmon roe sushi battleship flies after Keiko flinging chains and blasting fire at her!

What helps to keep the movie going, aside from the pace and the ratcheting up of more jaw-dropping silliness, is a sub-plot involving the resort owners and the sushi chef they employ, along with themes of corporate corruption and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Underdogs, be they human or sushi, perform heroic deeds and sacrifice themselves if necessary to thwart evil. No-one associated with the film, least of all the cast and the director, takes it all that seriously and the general tone is light-hearted. The film ends on a happy note with both the corporate baddies and the monster sushi brought to heel and Keiko finally discovering her life’s purpose. For all the silly fun and jaw-dropping freakishness, the film cleverly skewers plenty of cultural stereotypes in modern Japanese society: the obsession with perfection in food preparation that amounts to gastro-pornography, the control that corporations have over their employees, and men’s sexist treatment of women, among others. Like Iguchi’s other gonzo freak-fest “RoboGeisha” which I reviewed not so long ago, “Dead Sushi” in its own way critiques contemporary Japanese society and values by throwing its obsessions at it and exploiting them to the hilt.

Ugetsu: a parable of two men in pursuit of fame and glory, with social justice themes

Kenji Mizoguchi, “Ugetsu” (1953)

Two interwined morality plays about peasants blinded by thoughts of personal fame and glory are the basis for an exploration of love, loss and the importance of community and working together in this sumptuous historical drama. The story of Tobei and Genjuro is set during a period of civil war and instability in mediaeval Japan. Tobei, a farmer, dreams of becoming a samurai and Genjuro is obsessed with becoming a master maker of pottery, selling his wares and enriching himself and his family. A skirmish of samurai employed by a local landlord gives Tobei and Genjuro the opportunity to escape their ravaged village and realise their dreams.

The tale of Tobei is very straightforward, centred around the foolish Tobei himself and his long-suffering wife who pays a heavy penalty for her husband’s ambitions. The story could have ended very badly for Mr and Mrs Tobei but at the end they are still together … and moreover, living quite happily ever after. Genjuro’s story is as complicated as the character himself: taking his ceramics to sell in a market town, Genjuro encounters the mysterious aristocratic Lady Wakasa who invites him to stay at her family mansion. As you might guess, Genjuro and Lady Wakasa become a little too friendly with each other and Genjuro forgets that he has a wife and son waiting for him at him. A mendicant monk disabuses Genjuro of any fancy notions about living with Lady Wakasa as man and wife and Genjuro finally realises that Lady Wakasa and her retinue are ghosts. Sadder and wiser, he goes home only to discover that his wife has been killed by soldiers, leaving their son behind.

Both Tobei and Genjuro’s stories can be read as parables on the folly of men trying to achieve dreams and ideals beyond their talents or abilities to control, and the suffering they cause to their wives and children. On one level, the film can be read as essentially conservative, in urging people to accept their places in society according to their abilities and skills. On another level, the film warns that individuals who try the play the system for material profit risk being destroyed by forces against which all their own intelligence, skills and wiles are bound to fail – because the system is rigged against them. Certainly Tobei comes across as a stereotypically foolish dreamer who lacks insight and who fails to understand that to become a samurai, one needs to be born into the right social class and have the means to pay for intensive weapons training, learning how to fight and how to plan military strategy. As for Genjuro, a more intelligent man on the other hand, his materialist greed and lack of concern for his wife and child separate him from his family and put him in spiritual danger and his loved ones into danger from the chaos and violence of war. While Tobei and his wife survive simply by sheer luck, and one is unsure as to whether Tobei has truly learnt his lesson, Genjuro’s family is much harder hit – yet his suffering and his son’s suffering have an unexpected benefit as the wife’s spirit becomes an inspiration to Genjuro to refine and improve his pottery-making skills, and concentrate on creating pottery of intrinsic beauty rather than pottery aimed at pleasing others and for monetary profit.

The suffering that Tobei’s wife is subjected to as a result of his folly – and the tragedy of Genjuro’s wife – highlights the social injustices women were forced to endure in traditional Japanese society. Even an aristocratic woman such as Lady Wakasa is denied the freedom to live and love as a human, and has to become a ghost in order to experience the full range of human experiences.

The film has a smooth gliding quality that enables the ordinary and the supernatural to co-exist and allows a fairy-tale featuring ghosts to deliver a message about the suffering political instability (represented by civil war) and socio-economic hierarchies cause to working-class people and their families. While the editing is sometimes slower than most Western audiences would prefer and the film’s conclusion tends to drag, the narrative weaves from Tobei’s story to Genjuro’s story and back easily and smoothly. The horror provided by the ghost story sub-plot is stealthy and insidious rather than overt, and viewers get the impression that Genjuro is very lucky to escape Lady Wakasa with his life and soul intact.

The film is often cited as one of Japan’s greatest movies though I sometimes wonder whether the social justice aspects of the film make much impression among its fans.

A socialist revolutionary parable and story of Buddhist compassion in “Yuki: Snow Fairy”

Tadashi Imai, “Yuki: Snow Fairy” (1981)

In the hands of Tadashi Imai, notable as a director of social realist films in Japan in the 1950s / 1960s, the novel by children’s author Ryusuke Saito becomes a socialist revolutionary parable. Thirteen-year-old snow spirit Yuki is entrusted by her heavenly grandparents with saving a village in mediaeval Japan from robbers and rapacious samurai over a twelve-month period, after which time, if she fails, she will turn into an insubstantial grey puff of smoke. Yuki descends to earth and is befriended by orphan girl Hana who leads her to her adoptive family of other orphaned beggar children led by the one-eyed, one-legged patriarch Only One. The beggars hang about the village whose farmers pay rent to local landlord Goemon. Almost as soon as Yuki becomes known in the village, a gang of robbers attacks but Yuki is able to best their leader thanks to her ability to tame and ride Goemon’s high-strung colt Blizzard. The farmers and Goemon’s hired samurai are able to drive the robbers away.

Next thing you know, after the summer rice harvest Goemon raises the taxes the farmers must pay and this leads to a revolt against him. Goemon flees but Yuki and the beggar children pursue him and the chase leads to Goemon’s ignominious death at the bottom of a cliff. The farmers rejoice that they have overthrown their oppressor and are now able to govern themselves but a series of earthquakes shakes their confidence and leads them to wonder if Goemon’s invocation to the Demon God to rain disaster on them is having effect. At this point Yuki realises that the farmers are faltering in their belief that they can be self-governing and determines to battle the Demon God herself – though this confrontation is certain to kill her …

The social realist slant of the film’s plot is noteworthy: significantly Yuki doesn’t appear to do a great deal apart from being an inspirational role model and catalyst but that’s the point of her mission: to show humans the path to their liberation and allow them to seize their destiny and work towards freedom. Gifts are best appreciated when blood, sweat and tears are exerted in the effort to obtain them. The farmers overcome their fears at upsetting the social hierarchy but become emboldened as they realise that by working together they can defeat the robbers and get rid of Goemon. Once the Demon God intervenes on behalf of lackey Goemon, the farmers are trapped by superstition and pagan belief and Yuki realises that the psychological warfare waged by elites against the common people can be as dangerous and deadly as physical warfare. She then determines to battle the Demon God, no matter what the consequences may be for her, to free the villagers and her friends from the internal mental fetters that Goemon has placed on them to keep them under control.

The film can also be read as an example of Buddhist compassion and empathy for one’s fellow humans: Yuki resembles a bodhisattva returned to earth to help others overcome negative karma and work towards their own enlightenment. Only when one is emptied of all selfish attachments and desires, when one is prepared to sacrifice oneself for others, is nirvana possible.

The plot is easy and straightforward to follow and its pace is fairly brisk. There are stereotypical characters in the film but they never seem limited and one-dimensional in what they do and say, and Yuki herself gives the impression of being self-possessed and having reserves of inner strength. She certainly needs all that strength when she confronts the Demon God. Other characters can be fun and child viewers can readily identify with Hana and the other beggar children. The film’s delivery is so matter-of-fact and business-like that one barely blinks an eye at the schmaltzy pop music that plays while Yuki and her fellow mendicant minors travel through treacherous mountain territory to find and confront the villagers’ ultimate oppressor.

While the film’s look has dated somewhat and can be placed in the late 1970s / early 1980s, its unfailing optimism, hilarious child characters and detailed shots of nature and people hard at work cultivating and harvesting the rice in ways typical of rural Japan hundreds of years ago are sure to appeal to all age groups and pique interest in the history and culture of pre-modern Japan.

Onibaba: a psychological horror study with an anti-war theme

Kaneto Shindo, “Onibaba” (1964)

An old Japanese Buddhist tale of a woman who uses a mask to frighten her daughter from visiting a temple becomes in Kaneto Shindo’s hands a psychological study of a post-apocalyptic society in which people crushed by warfare and poverty exist as best as they can but are undone by the stresses of day-to-day living and the repressed emotions and tensions generated which can explode in unexpected ways. The film is set in mediaeval Japan during a period of civil war and widespread destruction; the capital Kyoto has been set ablaze and two rival Emperors are vying for power and control. Peasants have been recruited by daimyo to fight for either Emperor or the Ashikaga shogun family. Two women, the mother (Nobuko Otawa) of one such peasant and his young wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have fled into swampy countryside where, hidden by tall seas of grass, they eke out a living killing and robbing lone samurai and selling their armour and swords to a merchant who pays them in bags of millet.

One day, a soldier peasant, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from the wars: the mother immediately plies him with questions about her son Kichi and Hachi replies that he is dead. Hachi sets up his hut not far from where the mother and daughter-in-law live and eventually he seduces the daughter-in-law and invites her to live with him. The mother, dependent on her daughter-in-law to help in killing samurai, offers herself to Hachi once she realises what is going on but Hachi is not interested. The mother tries to prevent the younger woman from visiting Hachi every night but her efforts exhaust her.

One night while the daughter-in-law is out with Hachi, the mother meets a lost samurai (Jukichi Uno) who wears a demon mask. The samurai tells the mother the mask is necessary as he has a beautiful face that is not for peasants to see. The samurai forces the mother on pain of death to lead him out of the swamps but she tricks him into falling down a large hole where the women usually lure their victims. Once she is sure that he is dead, the mother descends into the hole to retrieve his armour and swords, and with effort takes the mask off his face. She sees that the samurai is severely disfigured.

The demon mask gives the mother an idea of how to control her wayward daughter-in-law and for the first few times she succeeds in stopping the girl from visiting Hachi by putting the fear of demons into her. Unfortunately an unexpected rainstorm enables the girl to escape and creates another problem for the mother with the mask …

The film may be very slow for some viewers but the pace helps to build up unbearable tension, especially unbearable sexual tension, gradually and relentlessly. The main actors do a fine job in expressing their fears of isolation and loneliness, and their need for connection and love, through their expressions, actions and dialogue, minimal though these are. The mother’s sexual frustrations and jealousy lead her to deny her daughter-in-law the chance of fulfillment with Hachi, even though he is a drunk and a sleaze, and these emotions transform the older woman into the demon hag of the film’s title. The film’s swampland setting, dominated by restless waving forests of susuki grass, and with its lone tree and the vagina-like hole that promises death to high-born samurai but gives life to the peasant women, reflects the sexual frustrations of its main characters and becomes a significant character in its own right. The music soundtrack which ranges from improvised jazz bebop to ritual drumming adds to the feeling of unease and tension.

Some audiences may be perturbed by the macabre grand-guignol climax which turns the film into uncomfortable comedy, completely at odds with its otherwise realist themes. The film’s conclusion comes quickly and is deliberately left open-ended. The one thing we can be sure of is that chaos will follow: the vagina-like hole, which had received male victims of wealth and status, might now receive an impoverished female victim and what cosmic disruption might now be caused by a new imbalance in nature can only be guessed at.

The film derives its impact and horror from the characters’ psychology, the stresses, inner conflicts and tensions they experience and the actions that result with their devastating consequences. Stunning black-and-white cinematography, an arch music soundtrack and a minimal style that throws emphasis on character development help turn a bare-bones story into an unforgettable work of art. Few other films showing how a debased society at war and the pressures of poverty and uncertainty it creates can lead to people treating one another in the most dreadful ways can match “Onibaba” for drama and impact.