Tag Archives: Supernatural

CAPSULE: KAGERO-ZA (1981)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yusaku Matsuda, , Katsuo Nakamura, , Eriko Kusuda

PLOT: A playwright gets caught up with a rich industrialist’s two wives, putting both his life and soul in mortal danger.

COMMENTS: After the success of Zigeunerweisen, Seijun Suzuki returned to the Taisho era for another morbid tale with supernatural undertones. Zigeunerweisen was often unfocused and difficult to follow, but Kagero-za is even more loosely structured, borderline incomprehensible at times. Its title refers to a haze seen on particularly hot days, which can play tricks on the eyes and create illusions. In keeping with this title, the film moves with the slow, languid pace of a dream. It’s never certain if what’s being seen is real or illusion.

The film begins, fittingly, with an illusion seen in a heat haze. Or was it an illusion? A young man (Yusaku Matsuda) meets a mysterious married woman, Shinako (Michiyo Okusu), who asks him to escort her to a nearby hospital, for fear of an old woman she saw selling bladder cherries at high prices—and also advertising them as women’s souls. When they investigate, the old woman seems to have vanished into the vapors that she came from, and the married woman ends up giving the man her soul instead. From this point onward, the man is repeatedly drawn to her, seduced by circumstance and seemingly doomed to commit double suicide with her when her rich husband (Katsuo Nakamura) finds out about the affair.

But all is not what it seems. The woman’s husband has another wife, Ine (Eriko Kusuda), who may or may not be dead. In the film’s most explicit commentary on the effects of Westernization in the Taisho era, the husband is said to have met Ine while studying abroad in Germany, captivated by her blond hair but also determined to make a Japanese woman out of her. The fact he studied abroad in Europe suggests that he is either an industrialist or a member of the new class of elites which led the charge of modernization in Japan at this time. Shinako, the other wife, is relegated to the shadows, barely noticed by her husband. However, she serves as a reminder of Japanese tradition in its purest form, repeatedly coming back to haunt her husband and her lover in an unending cycle which torments all involved.

Halfway through the film, Shinako portentously muses that “If dreams didn’t end, they wouldn’t be dreams anymore.” With this in mind, it might be best to take the world of Kagero-za as a dream which becomes its own reality. What begins as a fairly simple love triangle with Gothic undertones becomes progressively stranger in its second half, going off on feverish tangents which range from freemasons exchanging dolls with intricately carved sex organs hidden inside to a children’s kabuki theater which ominously reenacts the film’s central love triangles, while an unseen playwright gives directions from on high and the real-life characters look on with expressions of frozen alarm.

Of course, none of this makes much sense, but it wouldn’t be a Seijun Suzuki film if it did. It’s a dream journey not unlike ’s Eyes Wide Shut, except that it involves a man’s affair with a married woman and his subsequent internal and external crises, rather than a man struggling to come to terms with his wife’s real or imagined infidelities. Still, the pacing is interminably slow and the particulars of the central affair (which is more imagined than real to begin with) are rehashed to the point that they lose all sense of meaning or tension. It’s worth watching for its stunning cinematography and surreal depiction of cultural corruption in pre-WW2 Japan, but it’s a pretentious and muddled step down from the chilling and subtly supernatural Zigeunerweisen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the wantonly eccentric narrative is set in 1926 Tokyo, though, given Suzuki’s contempt for coherence, it might as well take place in another planet… [T]here’s no denying Suzuki’s knack for ravishing disorientation even if you take one character’s description of ‘a too complicated game to enjoy’ to apply for the film.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine (DVD)

CAPSULE: ZIGEUNERWEISEN (1980)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Toshiya Fujita, , Naoko Otani, , Kisako Makishi 

PLOT: Two professors and a mysterious geisha form a bond that transcends life and death.

COMMENTS: In the West, Seijun Suzuki is primarily known for his hallucinatory 1960s thrillers for the Nikkatsu studio, especially Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. Over a decade later, however, Suzuki made a series of three period films set in Japan’s Taisho era (1912-1925). Filled with hallucinatory imagery, intoxicating period atmosphere, and ghostly ambience, in Japan these three films, known collectively as the Taisho Trilogy, are held in equal esteem with Suzuki’s early films; but they have been difficult to find in the U.S. until recently. Arrow Films gave them a limited release in 2017 in a lavish 6-disc DVD/Blu-ray box set, but now Arrow has streamlined both the size and cost of the set, finally putting these three hidden gems back into circulation as part of an affordable 3-disc Blu-ray box set. The extras from the previous set (which include introductions from critic Tony Rayn, a making-of featurette and a vintage interview with the late Seijun Suzuki) have all been carried over to the new release.

The Taisho era was a time of rapid modernization in Japan, but only in certain sectors of society, particularly the upper classes. Traditional ways of life and long-held superstitions about ghosts and spirits remained prevalent even as Western music, clothing, and technology began to seep into society. This is the world in which Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-za (1981), and Yumeji (1991) take place. Zigeunerweisen opens with two men listening to a 10-inch gramophone recording of the titular “Zigeunerweisen,” a contemporary composition by Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, in which a voice is heard saying something unintelligible. They note that hearing this almost inaudible voice is more interesting than the music itself—it’s the voice of someone they’ve never met, the unintentional preservation of an everyday moment which occurred halfway around the world.

The recording will appear again, but it’s not the only case in which characters will be haunted by disembodied voices. Ghosts are very present in the lives of Aochi (Toshiya Fujita), a German professor at a military academy, and Nakasago (Yoshio Harada), Aochi’s former colleague and vagabond friend. After parting ways when Nakasogo quit the academy to become a drifter, the two meet in a seaside town where Nakasogo seems to have been involved in the death of a local woman. Suzuki introduces Nakagoso with a feverish montage of close-ups, emphasizing his unkempt good looks and wild man charisma. We then see the a woman lying dead on the ground; a red crab appears from between her legs and fills the screen.

After Aochi helps Nakasago escape from the police and local mob, the two retreat to a local inn, where they entice a mourning geisha (Naoko Otani) to entertain them. Nakasogo is fascinated with her story of her brother’s suicide by poison, and how his white bones turned to pink ashes after being cremated. Nakasogo’s subsequent obsession with bones becomes a central theme throughout the film. He even coerces Aochi into making a pact that whoever dies first will donate their bones to the other.

There are many subplots and suggestions of supernatural intrigue throughout Zigeunerweisen, but it remains mostly submerged beneath the surface, more subtly felt than explicitly expressed. Nakasogo is often insinuated to be a demon in human form, and his secret encounters with Aochi’s wife (Michiyo Okusu) seem to take place in a parallel dream reality. One exception is an early sequence in which Aochi meets Nakasogo’s new wife (also played by Otani) and is enticed into coming back to her house, where a red light ominously flashes and time seems to stand still; Nakasogo’s wife slyly admits that she might be a fox (a common deceiver of humans in Japanese traditional mythology). The film’s chilling climax echoes this scene, bringing the story full circle and finally allowing its supernatural undertones to emerge fully formed.

Even earlier in his career, Suzuki was never a very effective storyteller. As lurid and visually stunning as his 1960s gangster films might be, they’re often unevenly paced and confusing, especially in the case of his hallucinatory tour-de-force Branded to Kill, which was considered so incomprehensible that he was effectively blacklisted from making films in Japan for over 10 years. Zigeunerweisen isn’t quite as difficult to parse out, but even though the running time is longer and the pace is slower, this is still classic Suzuki. The lack of tight storytelling and conventional horror techniques is made up for with imaginative visuals, feverish hallucinations, and a sophisticated sense of the supernatural, which is consistent with Japanese culture and the era in which the film takes place. A fascinating ghost story from the master of surreal Japanese crime thrillers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[W]ith Zigeunerweisen—shot in 1980, after Suzuki took a 10-year break from directing—Suzuki retires the cumbersome plots and predictable settings of his genre films, and lends his bizarre, outrageous, and completely visual language to a bona fide art film.” – John Behling, Slant Magazine

CAPSULE: ALL MY FRIENDS ARE FUNERAL SINGERS (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Rutili

FEATURING: Angela Bettis, members of the indie-rock band Califone

PLOT: A fortune teller carries out her psychic reading business in a country house inhabited

Still from All My Friends Are Funeral Singers

by a slew of ghosts.  The spirits do not haunt her, but keep her company; they’re one big family.  When the ghosts see a mysterious light outside, they feel they are being beckoned and rebel against the fortune teller, thinking she has trapped them against their will.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it is a bit quirky and takes a unique spin on the age-old haunted house tales, it is simply not that weird.  It is an unlikely little gem that unfortunately few will probably see.

COMMENTSAll My Friends Are Funeral Singers (great title, by the way) is the directorial debut by Tim Rutili, the front-man for the underrated indie-rock outfit Califone.  Being familiar with the band and a fan of their music, this movie sparked my interest.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a good film with an actual story and good acting, not just an extended music video piece displaying the band’s musical talents.  Viewers who are unacquainted by the music of Califone should appreciate this film for what it is…  a decidedly different independent movie with a supernatural approach. This is certainly not your typical horror film.  If anything, it is a hodgepodge of drama, comedy, and a pinch of suspense, all intermingled with the worldly twang of Califone’s score.

The character Zel is nicely played by Angela Bettis, whom some may recognize from another independent horror film: May.  Zel lives in an old isolated country house and makes her living providing fortunes and psychic readings.  What her customers are unaware of is that she is assisted by the actual spirits that live in the house with her.  The ghosts are not frightening or menacing, just regular looking people all wearing pristine white suits or dresses and having normal conversations.  They sit around playing Trivial Pursuit, theorize about the connections between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, talk about sex, or play music (sometimes too loudly for Zel’s liking).  Most fascinating are the snippets of documentary-style interviews with many of the ghosts discussing how they bit the dust.  A ghostly bride exclaims “I hung myself with my ‘something blue.'”  Another prominent spiritual entity is a young mute girl who Continue reading CAPSULE: ALL MY FRIENDS ARE FUNERAL SINGERS (2010)