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Genre: Period Samurai Drama Horror (Japan)
Directed By: Kaneto Shindo (The Black Cat • Naked Island)
Overview: In Feudal Japan, a woman and her mother-in-law are forced to murder samurai and sell their belongings in order to survive, tossing their bodies down an ancient pit.
These actors follow the guidance of the same melodramatic style common of Kurosawa films. If you compare it to modern Western film, you might be a little disappointed at the zeal, however this is brilliantly acted in a fairly traditional Japanese style. The mother and her devilish greed, the masked samurai and his intimidatingly deep voice... Everyone is just great in this.
Wind drifts through the tall marsh grass as they sway rapidly or lazily in time. The crisp restored Criterion version of this certainly helped bring out the amazing quality of the camerawork. Lighting effects that streak dramatically over the eyes, panoramic sweeps of countrysides contrasted with bold and frightening costumes. The magic of this film is in the cinematics. The black and white only enhances the chiaroscuro of it all. It's absolutely beautiful.
There is a simplicity in the delivery of emotions in the film that leaves nothing vague or unknown, yet done in such a way that there's no forcefeeding of plot elements. Through our players versions of their side of the story we see how each suffers or earns from their actions, and we get a greater sense of where the tale will take us. It's beautifully written because it's real and honest, without nuance, bold and clear.
Mainly, this is about the character dynamic between the mother-in-law, the woman and the returning soldier, and how each attempts to resolve their needs and desires and deal with their fears. It's about the power struggle between those who each have a different strength, who each have something great to lose. Knowing what's at stake for each of them early on only adds to the brilliance of this story. On top of everything else, this near-mythic tale ends in a tremendously impressive manner, wonderfully surprising.
Amazing poetic timing aside, we have here a film that touches on each character so perfectly that we are left with a sense of completeness about them. Little touches of mystery, fear, myth and even horror, not to mention the constant immediacy of their day-by-day survival and extremes they're forced to go to, everything plays into itself to create a truly unique experience that touches on the fantastical while still being deeply rooted in real human fears and the bestial darkness of the soul.
Overall Rating: 90% (Definitely Worth Oni-ng)
The one question I have about this is: Why are there so few of this director's movies available on DVD? In fact my primary source for film rentals, Zip.ca, includes no other films he directed, only ones he produced. This is a film that burrows into you and sticks with you. Incredibly powerful. The fact that it is also primarily about women in medieval Japan in strong survival roles is a nice touch too.