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(there are a couple of mild spoilers in this review, but *nothing* that would really "spoil" the film)
This is probably my favorite film out of the number of recently released Shinoda DVDs (R2 Japan, TOHO ltd. with English subtitles). Shinoda worked for Shochiku with a few of the other Japanese new wavers (in my opinion, giants of cinema) before the exodus into a more independent film-making, and in some ways he's the most conservative of the bunch (which is to say, not very conservative at all). Written by the extremely controversial author Sakaguchi Ango (an essay about his key work will be linked to at the end of the review) but to me this film didn't seem "politically" very daring at first glance. Though in a broader auteur context it does, like many Shinoda films, deal with woman's place in Japanese society in fact, it's largely a ghost story, fitting into a genre relatively defined (with a few notable examples being Kobayashi's Kwaidan, Jigoku, Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari, Shindo's Onibaba, and Kuroneko). You could call this genre a lyrical Twilight Zone riff, without the robust voice over work (usually), but more extremely stylized. Some of it's points are made very clear when you do some checking, which I'll get to a paragraph down.
Beginning in present day (1975, in a park with people dancing and singing) with a child's voice telling the viewer that Cherry blossoms are now celebrated but we're told that before the Edo period, they were greatly feared, and to be under them alone would lead to madness. We're then brought hundreds of years into the past, through a forest of blossoming cherry trees, blossoms blowing in the wind, and breezes moving the branches as if breathing (unintended plentiful "B" use). It's easy to understand why they were feared, they seem mystical, powerful, and Shinoda presents them as a force. The plot is filled with a beautiful woman (Iwashita Shima, Shinoda's wife) bending a fairly unattractive, bloodthirsty and blustery man (Tomisaburo Wakayama, recognizable from Shinoda's Captive's Island a decade earlier) to her will. Many beheadings, murder, sexual perversion (I won't go into detail here, but there are some moments that will lead to serious eyebrow raising and head scratching), and ambitious city-dwelling fill the story. And falling right in line with the ghost story genre, you have your twist ending.
You'll find a woman as man-eater ("Spider woman", that is) and man as a lust-filled animal, with plenty of tragedy thrown around. I call her a Spider-woman, yet unlike the category defining heroine of Imamura's Insect Woman, she does placate herself to a man's will at some point. She also holds up the definition in that she is sexually "free", and prone to putting pleasure at the foremost of concerns (these concerns become that of the audience as well, due to the morbid nature of her beast.) Sakaguchi wrote in his 1946 essay Darakuron ("On Decadence") that " both the Emperor System and Bushido state that 'the virtuous widow never looks at another man.' This prohibition itself is not merely inhuman, it directly contradicts human nature." At the beginning of the film, Shima's husband is killed by Wakayama, and she immediately adapts (in this way she exhibits strongly the qualities of the "spider-woman") and places herself at the "head of the table" in her new home. I suppose you could also read the subtext of the trees bringing madness as the old way of life, and Japaneseness, having a similar result. This point comes through even more clearly when a troupe of monks are seen flailing about as if under a spell.
The cinematography is outstanding (maybe there's a listing for the individual responsible at jmdb), and the Takemitsu score adds to the dreamy flow of the film. I'll not soon forget the close-up of Iwashita with blossoms fluttering against her face as she smiles ambiguously. It's unfortunate that Desser dismisses the film as "minor", in my opinion it seems one of his best works (extremely accessible to those in need of exoticism, but a fantastic film no matter how you see it.) This, Himiko, and Ballad of Orin all seem to have similarities, which I'll give some thought to (I only have an unsubtitled version of Himiko, but it's fantastic to look at even though crippled by a language barrier).
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