When Horses and Bison Ruled Europe: Werner Herzog’s ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’

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Watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), a documentary about the oldest known painted images. They were found in Chauvet, which is in Southern France, and have been dated some 25-33,000 years old. This place radiates with beauty. An exceptionally sacred area.  Belying the myth of the “caveman,” the images left behind by these ancient artists are evidence of a spiritually sophisticated culture, which likely possessed a complex oral and ceremonial tradition, in which the great animals depicted on these cave walls were immensely powerful and revered beings.

‘Eye of the Needle’, or ‘The Spy Who Pretended to Love Me’: If James Bond were a Nazi agent and played by Donald Sutherland

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When I recently found a pocketbook edition of Ken Follet’s Eye of the Needle, I was reminded of Richard Marquand’s 1981 film, starring Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. The story is an intimate one, involving a Nazi spy trying to escape with info about the Allied invasion at Normandy, but who gets swept up in the life of a lonely woman and her family off the coast of Scotland. At the same, the film evokes the epic sweep of one of David Lean’s grander endeavors. Richard Attenborough’s work also comes to mind. Obviously, I liked this movie.

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If you ever met your doppelgänger, what would he think of you?

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Spent my evening watching Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Doppelgänger (2003). It’s about an inventor (Kôji Yokusho) suffering from an acute creative block, who encounters his double. What results is a scientific breakthrough, the price of which is murder, not to mention the inventor’s sanity. The story is a dark comedy, which is a complete departure from the kind of films on which Kurosawa built his reputation, namely ‘Cure’ and ‘Pulse’.  At the same time, Doppelgänger clearly exhibits Kurosawa’s fascination with the paranormal.

‘Goth’ (2008): Gen Takahashi’s Ode to Death and Beauty

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Like most adaptations from novel to film, Gen Takahashi’s Goth (2008) is more of an interpretation of Otsuichi’s 2003 award-winning story than a literal representation.  Rather, I should have said stories, as the original novel was more of an anthology of morbid tales than a single narrative, in spite of the recurring presence of its two main characters, namely “Yoru Morino” (played by Rin Takanashi) and “Itsuki Kamiyama” (played by Kanata Hongô).

As such, whereas Otsuichi’s novel recalls a number of gruesome murders that occurred throughout the area in which Morino and Kamiyama live and go to school, replete with the sordid details and an exploration of the killers’ minds, Takahashi’s film focuses more on the relationship between the two main characters.  However, by “relationship” I do not mean anything the least bit romantic.  On the contrary, Morino and Kamiyama are drawn together by their mutual fascination with the horrific aftermaths of killings, a perverse “hobby” that ineluctably leads them onto the trail of a serial killer.

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Even more compelling, though, than solving these crimes is solving the mystery of Morino. She is the antithesis of the cute and exuberantly cheerful Japanese school girl. She is consistently sullen, yet alluringly beautiful in her Black Lolita-style school uniform. As for her relationship with Kamiyama, as mentioned above, it is not romantic, nor is it much of a friendship.  Probably the best way to describe their union is that it is commiserating—they understand each other’s attraction to death.  Consequently, because Kamiyama understands Morino in a way that others before him did not, he becomes the conduit between Morino and her darkest secret.  Indeed, as the story proceeds, even after the serial killer’s identity is revealed, Kamiyama continues to lead the viewer further into what’s hidden behind Morino’s black, melancholy eyes.

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‘Strange Circus’ (2005): Sion Sono and the Horror of a Normal Family

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What’s worse than murder or betrayal?  In Sion Sono’s 2005 film Strange Circus the ultimate taboo is violated, disclosing more than the demons dwelling within the heart of a middle-aged man as he preys for his daughter.  As we follow the emotional turmoil of “Mitsuko Ozawa” (Masumi Miyazaki/Rie Kuwana/Mai Takahashi) and her mother “Sayuri” (Masumi Miyazaki), who are both forced to endure the sexual torment of father and husband “Gozo Ozawa” (Hiroshi Oguchi), a poignant critique of polite society emerges, in particular for the way in which it forces victims of abuse to hide in the shadows with their suffering.

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Gozo is the principal at Mitsuko’s school, where he’s regarded as a respectable figure.  At home, though, he’s a monster who subjects his wife and daughter to his heinous sexual desires.  What results as the abuse continues is that Sayuri begins taking out her shame, anger, and jealousy on Mitsuko.  Out of this cruel chaos “Taeko” (Masumi Miyazaki) emerges, an emotionally unstable and wheelchair-bound novelist who writes erotica about “Mitsuko” and lives in a baroquely decorated house, complete with a secret room, where the truth of Mitsuko dwells.

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Because of the popularity of her work, Taeko has a number of assistants, among whom a new face has joined in her employ, “Yûji Tamiya” (Issei Ishida), who identifies himself as a “great fan” of Taeko’s work, and who eventually takes on the assignment of discovering the story behind Taeko’s handicap and the inspiration for Mitsuko.  In addition to being another chapter in Sono’s exploration of the darker aspects of the human psyche, as occurred in Suicide Club (2001), or the hidden needs of the marginalized, as seen in Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), Strange Circus unleashes a damning criticism of the patriarchy that still pervades Japanese society, which disempowers women, and normalizes male abuses of gender inequity.  And in the case of Mitsuko there’s nothing more disturbing and traumatic than to see the face of the man who’s supposed to protect her turn into an expression of lust.

Does Hell Exist? It Does If You Believe It, It Doesn’t If You Don’t: Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s ‘Séance’ (2000)

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Inspired by Mark McShane’s 1961 novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, director of Cure (1997) and Pulse (2002), among other classic dark cinema features, ventures into the realm of made-for-television movies. As such, it may be easy for J-Horror aficionados to overlook this little gem in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. Kurosawa’s previous works for television, a series of Yakuza stories, have not distinguished themselves. To put it simply, the kind of death and horror that Kurosawa would soon display in Pulse is de-emphasized for the sake of a more general television audience. Nevertheless, Kurosawa does not curtail his talent for telling a story that is driven by well-rounded characters, complete with the inner-turmoil and failings that are often a part of life, and which compel his characters to given in to their fears.

“Sato Koji” (Yakusho Koji) and “Sato Junco” (Fubuki Jun) are an ostensibly ordinary couple living in a country house. Seemingly happy, Koji works as a sound technician for an unnamed company while his wife Junco stays at home. However, Junco is not exactly a typical housewife. She has a gift for contacting the dead—she is a medium. It is also a power that has attracted the attention of a psychology graduate student “Hayasaka” (Kusanagi Tsuyoshi) who is interested in studying her psychic abilities. From the perspective of science, Junco’s capacity for communicating with the deceased is something that ought to be validated through research. On the other hand, from Junco’s point-of-view, her connection with the spirit world is both a gift and a curse, which becomes evident when she takes a job as a waitress at a local restaurant and her proclivity for seeing ghosts becomes an issue.  In between Junco and Hayasaka is Koji, who obviously knows the burden that his wife carries and does his best to be supportive.

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Fate soon appears in the form of an anonymous little girl (Isobe Shiori) who is kidnapped by a deranged former policeman, only to escape unknowingly into the hands of Koji, who happens to be out on an assignment at Mt Fuji, where he is recording wind blowing through the trees. At first shocked at finding the kidnapped girl on their property, Koji and Junco initially decide to call the authorities. However, Junco has sudden doubts about how things will look, given that this child is the victim of a much-publicized kidnapping. Consequently, instead of calling for help, Junco comes up with a plan for what she thinks will spare them any accusations from the police. Junco will feign using her psychic ability to “help” the police locate this girl. In fact, because of Junco’s relation to Hayasaka, she has already been introduced to a detective (Kitarô) as a possible resource for finding this little girl. In light of which, Junco will use the trust she has earned from Hayasaka and convince him that, whereas before she could not be of help, now she can, a ploy that will also inspire a desire for fame in Junco’s heart.

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Eventually, tragedy occurs and the once ordinary couple of Koji and Junco find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, the forces of which are becoming much more than either of them can control. One of the more memorable scenes is a conversion between Koji and the Shinto priest (Aikawa Shô) that he has asked to purify his home. Upon completing the purification ritual, Koji asks the priest what he should do, now that his house has been purified. The priest, after hesitating at the question, counsels Koji and his wife, who is not present, to be honest and live ordinary, which are two things that the couple has ceased to do. Two other noteworthy scenes are a symbolic encounter between Koji and his doppelganger, along with a nod to Nakata Hideo’s Ringu involving the little girl. Speaking of nods to other films, in the clip provided below, Kurosawa references a character that he will later develop in Retribution (2006).  Lastly, for anyone familiar with Bryan Forbes 1964 adaptation of McShane’s novel, one will quickly notice that the two films have very little in common. Forbes’ version is noted as being more faithful to the book, while Kurosawa’s film is more faithful to the world he created in Cure and further developed in Pulse, which themselves are respectful of the Japanese ghost story tradition.

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“Ghosts and People Are the Same”: The Cyber-Limbo of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’ (2001)

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001) is an important part of a wave of dark films that began appearing during the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, which collectively set Japanese Horror (or J-Horror) apart in world cinema. The trend began with Kurosawa’s earlier film Cure (1997), then continued with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2001), and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On (2002). J-Horror is distinct from the kind of shock films created during the same period by the likes of Kinji Fukusaka (Battle Royale, 2000) and Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, 2001). Unlike the latter two films, which rely on extreme violence, J-Horror depends mostly on the paranormal for inspiration.

In one respect, Kurosawa’s Pulse (titled Kairo, “Chaos,” in Japan) is a modern example of the Japanese tradition of ghost stories or Kaidan-shū, which go all the way back to the earliest stages of the Edo Period (17th century). In terms of cinema, Pulse is preceded by such superlative films as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) and Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba (1964). In another respect, Pulse is reflective of Japanese society at the end of the 20th century, which is affected less by westernized notions of the millennium and more by its own “Lost Decade” or Ushinawareta Jūnen. In the case of the parallel stories of “Michi Kudo” (Kumiko Asô) and “Ryosuke Kawashima” (Haruhiko Katô) they are confronted with a shadowy world of lonely spirits, who have found a portal into this world through the internet. Indeed, what appears at first to be isolated events turns into a global crisis.

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What is most startling about the world of the dead that is occupying various computer screens is that each case is the result of a suicide, whose ghostly aftermath leaves them in a “forbidden room” from which they plead for help. Most terrifying of all is the fact that the world of the dead is beginning to infect and transform the world of the living. Once exposed to the forces contained in the forbidden room, victims soon lose their will to live, either killing themselves or just as often turning into blackened silhouettes painted into the walls and floors where they were last seen alive. In spite of efforts to warn people away from the forbidden rooms by sealing the doors with red tape, the attractive force of that world continues to lure people into it, even causing one unnamed woman to plummet to her death in one of the more disturbing, not to mention memorable, scenes in cinematic history.

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The effectiveness of Kurosawa’s film is that it refrains from either becoming preachy about the ills of society  or explaining too much about what is happening. In fact, very little is explained at all beyond the speculation of some of the characters, all of whom are ultimately at a loss about what to do.  For Michi and Ryosuke, all they can do is worry about their friends, be they “Toshio Yabe” (Masatoshi Matsuo) and “Junko Sasano” (Kurume Arisaka) for Michi or “Harue Karasawa” (Koyuki) for Ryosuke, trying however they can to save them from a force that is overtaking all of existence—like a web of darkness.

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