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Demons (1971)

Shura (original title)
After being robbed by a geisha, a ronin warrior carves a bloody path to seek revenge.

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Cast

Cast overview:
Katsuo Nakamura ...
Gengo
Yasuko Sanjo ...
Koman
Juro Kara ...
Sango
Masao Imafuku ...
Hachiemon
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After being robbed by a geisha, a ronin warrior carves a bloody path to seek revenge.

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Drama | Horror

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13 January 1974 (USA)  »

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Demons (1971)
30 March 2015 | by (Croatia) – See all my reviews

WOW. Rarely does a film leave you this speechless. Toshio Matsumoto's Demons is for sure one of the greatest Japanese New Wave films, and there were so many other masterpieces made during this unofficial film movement that it's really a wonder how still, everyone's associations to Japanese cinema are just the films from the '40s and '50s, with J-Horror and late Kurosawa added in to the mix. Demons is a haunting, ballsy and unforgettable film that will linger long in the memory.

Of course, it comes with a fair share of annoying alternative titles - Bloodshed (too generic), Pandemonium (okay, well, I like this one), and Shura: The 48th Ronin (falsely implying that the main character is called Shura). The original title Shura is derived from asura, the Sanskrit name for a demon. In fact, Shura is sometimes regarded as a specific asura, a dark god of destruction, mayhem and violence, who doesn't rest until he spills someone's blood (echoing the mental state of the film's antihero). The word shura is additionally a Noh drama term for a play about ghosts and suffering warriors. So yeah, Demons is the most correct translation.

It's based on the play Kamikakete sango taisetsu by Nanboku Tsuruya, who's better known for the often-adapted-to-film kabuki play The Ghost of Yatsuya. Indeed, Demons is a very theatrical film; few locations, all of them indoor and/or artificial, very few characters, shoestring budget, theatrical acting and dialog-driven drama. The movie is full B&W, but begins with a color shot of the sun setting to prepare the audiences for the type of film this is, and the rest of the film takes place in two nights. The dawn never breaks out, the space is extremely confined to make you as claustrophobic and paranoid as possible, not to mention the establishing shots are replaced by title cards. The theatrical style somewhat reminds me of Masahiro Shinoda's Double Suicide, except that one went full-kabuki (or rather bunraku) on us.

Demons is a cruel, ironic tale of a samurai descending into madness and turning other characters' lives into Shakesperean lunacy. The film knows exactly what it wants to be - brutal and unforgiving, so much so that it was banned in UK for the depressing tone and violent content. And indeed, one particular scene... Uh. There's no sugarcoating or presenting violence as anything desirable, vengeance as noble, etc. No, this movie has a strong moral sentiment, but you're the one left to decide what the message is.

The movie is also an alternate history tie-in with the historical event about the famous 47 ronin, a subject of many Japanese films. Here, the antihero belongs to the same clan (hence the last alternate title) but never interacts with them, nor do the other ones appear. The tale of the 47 ronin's vendetta is as noble and heroic as possible, yet our protagonist plunges into unimaginable depths to further spice the movie's sense of irony. There are no real relatable characters or anyone to root for, but you're still absolutely transfixed to the plot and can't look away. The atmosphere is splendid and the tension is unbelievable. The narrative also likes to trick you sometimes, by adding unsignalled violent fantasies of the antihero which tie in seamlessly with the rest of the story, only for him to suddenly snap out and the actual event to unvelop.

Of course I have to mention the cinematography work on this film - it's simply mind-blowingly beautiful like in many, many other Japanese films. The overwhelming use of negative space which makes the characters look like disembodied spirits, the incredible chiaroscuro work - it's all there, and it's as beautiful as it is downright despicable.


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