In 14th century war-torn Japan, among overgrown waving grass and an ominous pit in the earth, live an old woman and her daughter-in-law. They barely subsist on selling the gear of murdered lost soldiers, but their careful balance is threatened when one of the local men returns home—and a cursed demon mask appears shortly after. ONIBABA is a dark but fun tale of two women who have essentially sold their souls to survive. It’s full of tension, horror, eroticism, and a pinch of humor, all heightened by some fantastic acting and black-and-white art direction. The two main actors seem to have mastered the cold, dead stare, while the wilderness around them perfectly mirrors their wild desperation. I can think of few films in which the landscape itself seems so dangerously charged. Scenes of the wind ripping through the grass, set to a jarring and experimental soundtrack, are enough to set the tone for the whole film from the start. And watching the vulgar, macabre story slowly unfold from there is a treat.
Akira Kurosawa’s first color film is a collection of stories set in a slum. Bookended by a young man who thinks he drives a trolley through the squalor, it’s full of characters who find ways of getting by. The stories range from light and humorous (I adored the two color-coded couples who swap husbands) to the macabre. The most memorable, and certainly most grotesquely theatrical, imagery comes from a homeless father and son who dream of their ideal home while things fall apart. Some of the plots are more engaging than others, but most of it I enjoyed. And though the stylistic combination of realism and fantasy can be disorienting, it mirrors the duality of the characters’ lives. Sometimes they live in grime and decay. Sometimes they live in exuberantly painted backdrops that are like the bright children’s drawings in the “trolley” conductor’s home. Kurosawa’s first use of color may be over the top at times, but you won’t hear me complain.
In 19th century Japan, beautifully recreated, a young doctor finds himself stuck at an unglamorous, underfunded clinic. His adversary, the head doctor, eventually becomes his mentor, teaching him compassion and humility in the face of the surrounding poverty. Although the main storyline of RED BEARD involves the relationship between these two men, the narrative works more like a collection of short stories. Each minor character shares his or her tale, and the result is a tapestry of tragedy and struggle that ultimately highlights the goodness of humanity. (I do love a film that takes a thoughtful and optimistic view on people.) Toshiro Mifune, in his final role for Kurosawa as the caring director of the clinic, is engaging and moving as ever. But I was also particularly moved by the performance of Terumi Niki, playing a young girl who is rescued from prostitution and mistrust.
What can I say about Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film HOUSE? The trailer calls it the first fantasy horror film, and I suppose that’s as good a description as any. A schoolgirl named Gorgeous and six friends go to visit her aunt in a large, secluded house, and things just get weird from there. The imagery is something out of a fevered dream: hungry pianos, evil cats, and floating body parts among other things. I love the surreal painted backdrops and bits of frenzied animation, not to mention the humor. The overall effect is more campy than scary, and that’s just my cup of tea.
Last week would have been Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday, so I’m arriving a little late to the celebration with his masterpiece, RASHOMON. A woman is raped in the woods and her husband killed, but who is the murderer? Truth becomes increasingly inscrutable as the story is recounted from four perspectives: the bandit, the wife, a bystander, and even the deceased husband as channeled through a medium. Events unfold differently each time, full of malice and cruelty, with most of the players claiming responsibility for the crime instead of blaming each other. RASHOMON is beautifully filmed and superbly acted. And though it is driven by action and plot, the heart of the film is its examination of truth, the justice system, and the goodness of man.