Genre: Heart-Wrenchingly Abysmal Morality Tale
review in one breath
Sokichi's past and present tragically collide when his mistress Kikuyo, with whom he has fathered three children and then left, suddenly arrives at the home of he and his wife O-ume. The encounter leaves Sokichi speechless and his wife enraged. But when the wife begins heaping abuse upon Kikuyo, it becomes clear that Kiyoku will receive no help in her children's survival. In a fit of rage, Kikuyo abandons her children, leaving them with Sokichi and his hate-filled wife, sending the three younglings, and their father, into a god-forsaken spiral toward visceral tragedy.
There are certain stories which so thoroughly grip you, both emotionally and humanly, that you cannot help but follow upon whatever tragic path they lead you. In this regard, two films come strongly to mind: Takahata Isao's 1988 anime feature Graveyard of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) and this 1978 film by Nomura Yoshitaru. Here, the emotional and situational realities are so raw and the narratival trajectory so unbending that it leaves you realizing what a dark place this world can truly be.
As in a few of his other films, director Nomura bases this project upon a novel by author Matsumoto Seicho. Matsumoto's works often seem to involve criminal mysteries revolving around specific -- and remote -- regional locations. In Zero Focus (Zero Shoten), which Nomura also adapted into a film (1961), the sinister location is the wintery sea-side town of Kanazawa. In the current film, the narrative's tragedy climaxes at the sea-side resort of Noto at the peak of its summer tourist season. Interestingly, both these towns are in Ishikawa Prefecture (with Kanazawa being the prefeture's capitol) and thus both share the same renowned feature of high, jagged cliffs which steeply drop into the Sea of Japan. (Note: I suspected his interest in Ishikawa might stem from it being his home region, but Nomura was born in Asakusa, in the heart of Tokyo, on the opposite side of the island.)
The title of this film is Kichiku, a Japanese term which conceptually combines the notion of "demon" (oni) with "brute animal", and thus amounts to a reference to Evil Incarnate. The "incarnate" part is important, since the term is generally used to connote an utterly debased human nature or morality (rather than some supernatural "devil"). You can find the term used in this way in the title Kichiku Dai Enkai (where it is translated "beast"), a brutal film by director Kumakiri Kazuyoshi depicting pure, ideologically-driven moral meltdown. In the current film, the term applies to the moral character of Sokichi, derived straight from the screamed accusations of the mistress Kikuyo. Unlike Kumakiri's film, however, audiences are compelled to empathize with the hapless character Sokichi, even as he determinedly descends the path of Hell itself.
This film was released in 1978, which also serves as the storyline's historical setting, though you would hardly recognize this from depictions of the economic status of Sokichi's household. Though he and his wife work diligently in maintaining their small business, their proximity to poverty clearly emerges once they are forced to feed three young children. Nomura's camera often wanders from the claustrophobic confines of Sokichi's world to panoramic views of a thriving, modernized Tokyo. Thus scenes of Giinza, polished multi-storied shopping centers, and particularly the monumental Tokyo Tower all stand juxtaposed to the cramped, dirty, urban street within which his three children are forced to play daily. When at last Nomura brings us out into a normal world wherein fresh air, trees and horizons abound, we quickly find it is only to hand us a nightmarish moral message on a platter.
The foolish past decisions of Sokichi soon explode in his face when Kikuyo, his mistress of seven years with whom he has fathered three children and then abandoned, suddenly shows up at his doorstep. Not only does this shock and outrage his wife O-ume, but also Kikuyo, who had no idea Sokichi was married.
It seems that seven years prior, while still single, Sokichi met and seduced Kikuyo, a young and succesful bar-owner, swearing his commitment to her. After some time, when she told him she was pregnant, he elatedly confessed his devotion, pleading that she give up her business, rely upon him financially, and mother his child. Though he lived hours away in Tokyo tending to his own printing business, this degree of devotion convinced Kikuyo to sell her business, move into a house rented for her by Sokichi, and eventually give birth to three healthy children.
Sometime during the seventh year of their relationship, Kikuyo received word from Sokichi that his business had been destroyed through fire and that he would be a little late in sending her money. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, until the children were in danger of malnutrition. In a fit of anger and desperation she loads herself and her children onto a train to Tokyo to confront Sokichi. Once there she finds that, indeed, Sokichi's business has burnt to the ground, but that he has also acquired a wife who likewise owns a printing business.
As this history spills out amongst the three (and the audience), questions regarding Sokichi's motives are immediately raised. Did he intend to abandon Kikuyo and his three children, or was he planning to send them further support? Did he marry O-ume out of love, or to simply to gain ownership of her printing business? Does he feel primary responsibility/allegiance toward his wife? His mistress? His children?
The "story" I have divulged thus far accounts for the first 10 minutes of this film. The remaining 100 minutes allow Sokichi to answer these questions ALL. BY. HIMSELF.
Although I've seen many a Japanese film, this one film will undoubtedly stand out in my future recollection of "films I have seen".
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD with English subtitles. Available via all mainstream venues.
|Another gut-wrenching adaptation of a Matsumoto Seicho novel by director Nomura Yoshitaru.||Hmmm...||Desperate and depressing scenes of survival passion.||may god damn us all.|