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Another intriguing amalgamation of different styles and moods in this sombre romantic drama by Hideo Gosha
Fans of Hideo Gosha's earlier years might be taken slightly aback by the content of USUGESHO. The director was already undergoing a thematic change by the early seventies but THE WOLVES, a slow-burning gendai-geki about yakuzas, was still punctuated by sudden jolts of the old ultraviolent. In USUGESHO the violence is present, even pivotal in the story in some ways, but never on screen. Except for one instant - more on that later. This is a melancholic drama on lost loves, destroyed lives, regret and reflection of the past.
Ken Ogata is Tokichi Sakane, murderer of his own wife and child. The opening of the movie finds him running from a bomb he has planted in a nearby house. The desperate act of a chaotic man at the end of his rope. He ends in prison where he's beaten to confess where he hid the corpses of his wife and child. He attempts suicide in his cell. Failing that he breaks out of prison by dugging a tunnel and goes on to get a series of jobs as a construction worker in various places, trying to pass incognito while the police is hot on his trail. It is in this desperate situation that he finds a new lease of life in the love of a young girl.
Gosha this time experiments with a complex narrative in an attempt to portray the different sets of mind of Sakane. Style IS substance for the great Japanese director after all. Nine years before PULP FICTION would make narrative jumps in time a fad, USUGESHO, anchored around the moment in time when Sakane attempts suicide in his prison cell, moves simultaneously in two directions, pushes forwards and backwards, in the same time exploring what made Sakane the man he is and what future lies in store for what he has become. In a series of flashbacks we are presented with Sakane the scoundrel, the cheater, the thief, the coldhearted murderer. After his escape, Sakane the repentant, the fugitive, introverted and plagued by guilt and regret.
Identity has remained a constant in Gosha's thematology. Here as well. One of the cops in pursuit of Sakane tells the other: "He's a born killer". Well, is he? That is what Gosha invites the viewer to examine. What is any man after all if not the sum of his experiences, and what often governs these experiences if not blind cruelty? No one is born ruthless and coldhearted. And is Sakane a new man after he escapes from prison? Has he suffered his penance to be reborn anew? Whereas Izo Okada, the loyal and betrayed samurai in HITOKIRI, is stripped off his old name and given a new one, Sakane adopts one himself in order to hide from his pursuers. It is for that reason that his suicide attempt attains a symbolic quality. It is a moment of rebirth this shedding of the old self and perhaps for that reason, to imprint the moment with a violent burst in the viewer's mind, Gosha has Sakane slicing his throat in the middle of his cell in what is the only instance of graphic violence of the entire movie.
The movie flows at a decent pace and remains interesting throughout except for the final 15 minutes when it seems to run out of steam. It suddenly crawls at a snail's pace towards an ironic conclusion but the momentum is already lost when the movie most needed it. For some reason Gosha decided to end the movie with a whimper instead of a bang but what precedes is still well worth seeing.
The great score and beautiful cinematography create a basis of aesthetic excellence, moderate compared to the rich excesses of GOYOKIN or THE WOLVES, but still very nice to look at. Ken Ogata also deserves a particular mention. The actor worked frequently with Gosha in the 80's and in USUGHESHO he gives a mighty tour-de-force as Sakane, hitting all the right notes in the duality of his role and covering the gamut of human emotion in the process.
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