Saturday, April 23, 2011

Two Films by Kaneto Shindo

Kuroneko (1968)/ Kaneto Shindo

Kuroneko is a work of remarkable significance. Its director, Shindo, is not interested in philosophical insinuations – in that, he looks at characters as being merely skin deep. At best, his most noble aim is to confirm the depth to which humanity will relegate itself to when confronted with a dire situation. Existence in a Shindo film is invariably a state of crisis: it’s a civil war, a nuclear holocaust, or a cast-away family. The situation becomes Shindo’s excuse to present his characters as machinery – devices of blunt survival that conduct their livelihood like one may conduct commerce. As such, the characters in his symptomatic Onibaba are involved in pursuits that are blatantly material: they are looking either to get fed, or to get laid. The latter film’s emphasis on its characters’ antediluvian animalism is so strong that when one of the characters climbs down into a pit whose bottom is populated by around forty human skeletons, it comes across as perfectly ‘normal’ – a sequence one would otherwise look at as being grotesque, or repelling.

Shindo is not interested in endearing any character to the audience; instead, presenting them as cardboard cutouts – one dimensional executioners of a single motivation. Despite this peculiar approach, however, Shindo is a humanist. His approach is of revelation, not of obscurity. In that, his direction of cinema functions in a manner completely opposite to Kubrick’s : Kubrick locates the one-note in a three-dimensional human being, Shindo locates the three-dimensionality in a one-note machine. In effect, Shindo’s cinema functions in the particular faith that even within the assigned social roles and thus, the accompanying quality-code – a ghost will be evil, a samurai will be brave, a peasant will be hungry, a young woman will be a nymph - there are flourishes of unexpected ‘humanity’. The schism where the machines tire of their pretense and divulge a human motive. 

The headiest moment in Onibaba is its final : when a demon-faced mother, who has hitherto been presented as a single-minded, battle-ram of greed, jealousy and lust, leaps and yelps at the camera : ‘I am a human being!”. Such sudden revelation of humanity happens much earlier in Kuroneko, perhaps the most ‘atmospheric’ of all Japanese films (notwithstanding Kobayashi). At around the half-way mark, the mother-daughter duo, who have until that point, devoted themselves to being cat-vampire ghouls who like to bite into samurai necks, suddenly reveal a side of them that is very ‘human’ : they fall in love (maternal and romantic, respectively) with a samurai assigned to get rid of them. The samurai is the son, and the husband they were waiting for while they were alive, but has returned only now, when they are dead. Such metaphysical distinctions, however, do not stop them from relinquishing their statuses as evil spirits and indulging in more human desires. One is punished with Hell for such violation, the other chooses to retract to her status as a vengeful spirit. The point is, however, that Kuroneko is a relevant film. Why? Because it is poignant while largely being about machinery; because it is perceptive without being philosophical.

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