Tag Archives: Kei Satô

CAPSULE: ONIBABA (1964)

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DIRECTED BY: Kaneto Shindo

FEATURINGNobuko Otawa, Jitsuko Yoshimura,

PLOTTwo women make a living luring passing samurai to their death in a large pit and selling their belongings, until the return of a lusty neighbor leads them headfirst into a deadly conflict of sexual passion and supernatural punishment.

COMMENTS: Anyone familiar with Japanese films from the 1950s and ‘60s knows that the samurai film was very popular in those days. But if your image of Japanese horror is The Ring and The Grudge, you might be surprised to know that Japanese horror films of earlier eras also skewed towards the samurai genre (when not of the Godzilla variety, that is). This isn’t the samurai film of and Toshiro Mifune, though. Onibaba takes place in an even more distant era of Japanese history, some time around the 14th century, during the Warring States era, which found samurai generals leading groups of conscripted farmers waging endless wars on behalf of various emperors and warlords.

The story goes like this: an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in the middle of a vast susuki grass field, awaiting the return of her son and unable to farm because of bad weather and the lack of men in the area. To make ends meet, they ambush passing soldiers stranded in the tall grass and kill them for their belongings, disposing of the bodies in a deep dark hole. One day, a neighbor (Kei Sato) returns from the war, bearing news of the son’s death. Before long, he makes advances towards the dead man’s wife, infuriating her mother-in-law as well as a ghostly spirit who rises from the tall grass at night.

Except for that last part, this might not sound much like horror. To be fair though, Onibaba is not so much a fright film as it is an erotic drama with supernatural undertones. The sexual passion arising between the young man and woman is elemental, like the tall grass that fills the Cinemascope frame and dwarfs the three main characters. While scenes involving the evil demon who appears to punish the two lovers can be hair-raising, ultimately it’s the grass that makes Onibaba such a strange and compelling experience. Depending on the moment, it can look like ripples in a shallow pond, flowing hair, a raging fire, a cage, or a bird’s wings.  You experience the isolation of the characters in a way that is tactile and sensual. Feelings of sexual desire and fear take on a primitive intensity, as Japanese taiko drums thunder in the background with threatening urgency.

Adding to the film’s mystique, the cast and crew lived in makeshift huts in a remote field while making this film, with contracts that required them to stay on location for the duration of the shoot or forfeit their pay. The finished film reflects the isolation and frustration resulting from these conditions, with the actors expressing their characters’ desires with a physicality atypical for Japanese cinema: rolling around in the grass like dogs in heat, grinding their bodies against wooden poles, and attacking their samurai prey like wild animals. This makes for an unusually intense film about sexual desire and spiritual beliefs in a more primitive era of humanity, with a ghostly and unsettling atmosphere that perfectly evokes the fears you might experience if you lived your entire existence in an all-encompassing sea of grass.

Onibaba has recently received an upgrade to its previous Criterion Collection release from 2004, a new Blu-ray edition which retains most of the special features from the original DVD (including an interview with director Kaneta Shindo and on-set footage from the shoot), along with a new HD restoration and a 2001 commentary featuring Shindo and actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura. If you’ve never seen this Japanese horror classic, there’s never been a better time to remedy that situation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The director’s brooding tale is abetted by Hiyomi Kuroda’s cloudy, low-key photography and Hikaru Kuroda’s properly weird background musical score. But despite Mr. Shindo’s obvious striving for elemental, timeless drama, it is simply sex that is the most impressive of the hungers depicted here.”–A.H. Weiler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

Koshikei

“You mustn’t think our film is just labored theorizing. The officials’ attempts to convince R that he is R are amusing and bizarre. I think it’s a spot-on depiction of all us Japanese in all our amusing bizarreness.”–Nagisa Ôshima

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yung-Do Yun, Fumio Watanabe, , Akiko Koyama

PLOT: After the failed execution of a Japanese-Korean double murderer, various state functionaries are at a loss as how to proceed when the criminal’s body refuses to die. Going to increasingly outlandish lengths to remind the convict of why he is there and condemned, the prison’s officials inadvertently explore the nature of crime, nationality, and culpability. Eventually a young woman is introduced to the group, and the captors decide to get drunk.

Still from Death by Hanging (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The criminal in Death By Hanging is based on Ri Chin’u, who also murdered two Japanese school girls. In addition to his crimes, Ri Chin’u gained a degree of fame for his extensive writings while in prison.
  • Much of the dialogue between R and his “sister” is taken from actual correspondences between Ri Chin’u and a Korean journalist.
  • Death by Hanging came during Ôshima‘s most experimental period, made back-to-back with the Certified Weird satire Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Like most of Ôshima‘s mid-to-late 1960s work, Hanging was initially ignored in America, not even screening for the first time until 1974 and not officially reaching home video until 2016.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The movie is stuffed to the gills with claustrophobic shots of slapstick fused with philosophy, none more so than the penultimate scene: an unlikely combination of prison officials getting hammered around a “table” while the convict “R” and his (probably imaginary) sister consider the nature of guilt. The drinkers take turns discussing how they came to this kind of work while R, reclining with the young woman beneath a Japanese flag, comes to the conclusion that though he committed his crimes, he is not responsible for them.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stubborn corpse; rape re-enactment; hallucination participation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Death By Hanging starts with a very traditional documentary approach, including narration reeling off statistics and some expository shots of a nondescript execution facility in a prison compound. Quickly, however, the aura of formality disintegrates as the hapless officials endeavor in vain to make sense of the film’s central conceit: a young convict refusing to die. Their efforts to restore his memory and edge him toward accountability grow desperate and extreme until a point is reached where everyone involved in the process begins to believe in the unreal.


Original trailer for Death by Hanging

COMMENTS: While most leftist directors merely point a shotgun at Continue reading 233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

224. JAPANESE SUMMER: DOUBLE SUICIDE (1967)

Muri shinjû: Nihon no natsu

“I think that our only route to freedom and our only route to pleasure can come after we have first recognized that freedom and pleasure are not possible in this world.”–Nagisa Ôshima

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Nagisa Ôshima

FEATURING: Keiko Sakurai, Kei Satô, Masakazu Tamura, Taiji Tonoyama

PLOT: An oversexed eighteen-year old girl wanders a city looking for a man to sleep with her—any man. She takes up with a strange, reserved older army deserter, but fails to convince him to service her, as he has a death wish and is only interested meeting someone who will kill him. The two are abducted and taken to a compound where outlaws are being recruited to fight in a secret underground war; meanwhile, television reports tell of a foreign sniper killing civilians on the streets, driving all of Japan to hide in their homes.

Still from Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • Disappointed by the timidity of the Japanese studio system and the political controversy surrounding his 1960 movie Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Ôshima formed his own production company in 1965. Japanese Summer: Double Suicide was one of the baker’s dozen of self-produced films he directed between 1965 and 1972, and the first one to indulge in wall-to-wall surrealism.
  • Stars Keiko Sakurai and Kei Satô also appeared in Nagisa Ôshima’s next film, Death by Hanging, which was Sakurai’s only other acting credit.
  • Ôshima would go on to cult success in the West with his sexually explicit provocation In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) starring .
  • This feature should not be confused with Masahiro Shinoda‘s 1969 arthouse hit Double Suicide, a fourth-wall breaking adaptation of an 18th century Japanese play about doomed lovers. Although entirely unrelated, Shinoda‘s film is worth seeing in its own right.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In what just might be a bit of symbolic foreshadowing, the two main characters lie down on top chalk outlines around which, moments ago, reverent monks had been circling and chanting. (Curiously, the outlines are sketched on what should be a busy four-lane highway, yet there is no traffic).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Virgin nympho; deserted highways; “a Japanese Dallas”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Starring a nympho who can’t get laid and a suicidal man who can’t get killed, Ôshima’s surrealistic Sixties satire carves out a unique space somewhere between a ian joke and an extended zen koan.


Original trailer for Japanese Summer: Double Suicide

COMMENTS: When our on-the-make nymphomaniac meets the Continue reading 224. JAPANESE SUMMER: DOUBLE SUICIDE (1967)