Demons ★★★★

Wow, there's a lot to unpack here. From the images to the story, this is a film that deserves to be more widely-watched. I lived in Japan years ago, and since vowing to explore more of Japanese cinema than hentai anime and shogun assassins, this one has been pretty top of the list. Every Autumn, I do my own little celebration of O-bon by spending the month steeped in Japanese media, and first up this time was "Shura", which literally means "demons" but is sometimes translated (as on Mubi) as "pandemonium". Either could accurately describe this film.

I hadn't read the Letterboxd description, which both gives away some twists and also gives some helpful context. There's actually a lot more context that would be helpful for watching this, because the intricate plotting of this film is a kind of side story to arguably the most famous Japanese story of all time, the Chushingura. It's the tale of the 47 Ronin, which has been added to and embellished over time with various kabuki plays to flesh out the stories of the ronin and other supporting players involved. Most of this is common knowledge to a Japanese viewer, and this film (an adaptation of the kabuki play "Kami Kakete Sango Taisetsu", - Lovers’ Pledge) was definitely made to build on that knowledge and those expectations.

Demons, like other jidaegeki, is concerned with that very Japanese sense of unforgiving societal duty, and the strain it puts on humanity and basic human emotions. Rules for behavior and expectations of the different classes in the Edo period (think: Shakespearean times) were inflexible and inexorable. The Chushingura is perhaps the greatest celebration of the genre, working with the idea of fulfilling both duty to one's lord and duty to the samurai code (which was, in reality, often an excuse to exercise power over the lower classes and abused pretty heavily). With their lord having been wronged and unjustly killed, 320 samurai lose their positions, their lands, their income, and their honor overnight. The only honorable thing to do would be to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) and go the way of their lord, but 47 refuse to do so and instead become ronin: dishonored, masterless samurai.

They play these roles, living poorly, often drunken and debased lives, often changing their names. All the time, they lie in wait for the moment to strike back and gain revenge against the daimyo who wronged their lord. It's a grueling, long-play revenge game, and has been made into several kyogen and movies over 100s of years. And this film takes place during that time, accurately portraying the people populating the lower end of this class warfare. When they reference a ronin needing 100 ryo (a small fortune in gold) to join the quest for vengeance, they're talking about becoming one of these later-famous 47 ronin. The audience would've known this, and would also have known the reasons why geisha are who they are.

Actual geisha rarely slept with their customers, because they were classy ladies with a wealth of other skills to entertain, and social status to boot. But there are all kinds of levels of courtesans that often just get translated as "geisha" in subtitles, and the lower level ones were used more for their bedroom skills than their singing ability. The ones here appear to be at that level, and these kind of girls were usually sold into sexual slavery by their family, a brother or father. Girls from poor, rural areas, due to one hard luck story or another, some man in power would take an interest in the 14 or 16 year old, and another man in power would make some money off her if she didn't have a guy already eyeing her for marriage. When the beautiful Koman says here "it's my fault for being born a woman!", that's no lie.

For anyone who hasn't seen/read Memoirs of a Geisha, it was possible for a girl to work her way up the ranks from Shikomi through Maiko to a senior Geisha position, but this took many years and a lot of money. The whole time, she's being charged for room and board, for all her beautiful gowns, makeup, and so on. And to attract better customers, she needs more expensive stuff, and so on. The point is that for most girls, they would work away their entire youth before managing to pay off their "debt" to the geisha house, that they'd incurred simply by being sold into it. A much more realistic way to get out would be to find a rich patron and get him to fall in love with you. You'd convince him to pay off your debt (essentially buying out the "investment" of the guy who originally bought the girl from her family) so he could make you a proper lady and marry you. Or if he was already married, just to free you and keep you as a respectable mistress. This is what Sangoro is trying to arrange for Koman here.

While all the ways this story develops and how it plays off each person's feeling of obligation tends to take center stage in this tale, I can't neglect to mention how it's filmed. Matsumoto-san is a real artist, one a lot less concerned with making movies than with specific techniques. He's actually currently the director of fine arts at Kyoto University! But his commercial career is more notable for short films than anything. This one is a very traditional tale, and yet he imbues it with a lot of interesting choices. For example, he shows a glorious sunset at the start, then switches to black and white for the rest of the film, often lighting scenes so sparsely that they drown in darkness. He also employees spotlighting techniques like on a kabuki stage, moving between spotlights on a horizontal dolly shot to transition, rather than the typical shot/reverse-shot cutting between players.

The editing in the film keeps you guessing just as much as the story, and is one of the oldest films I've seen that employs the fantasies of characters playing seamlessly with the reality so that you're never quite sure what's real until after the scene has moved on. This is one of the earliest films I've seen to use the (now common in Asia) technique of playing a shot repeatedly from several angles. It makes judicious use of title cards almost like an early silent film, and the music is sparing and ominous. Combined with some graphic violence befitting a horror film, the net effect is to make the whole story feel oppressive and disturbing, particularly for a 1971 audience. Watching today, I was more appreciative than shocked, but I found that the whole thing held up much better than other better-known so-called "classics".

The film owes a lot to its kabuki origins, from the basic setup to the framing of character positions and the lighting. Even the casting captures the classic looks of the various kabuki character types, from the "noble retainer" to the "long-faced, tortured hero". The story is certainly painting itself as a counterpoint to the Chushingura, one where people's dreams of escaping their societal positions lead them down the path to pandemonium. It's a work of humanism, a reminder that the ends don't justify the means, and that, well....karma is real, bitch. The Buddhist tones in the film are overt, and where true Buddhism has karmic value being determined in the afterlife, this film can't wait that long.

"Man's enemies are not demons, but human beings like himself." -Laozi

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