‘The Urge for Survival’: Japanese movies about the horrors of war at home

Kuroneko. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Kaneto Shindo’s melodramas are about war, but they’re not about combat or fighting. In focusing on the domestic aftermath of violence, Shindo’s movies are like the war movies that Francois Truffaut tried to imagine when he posited that there was no way to make an anti-war film.

Onibaba and Kuroneko, Shindo’s most well known films, are about scars, and the dehumanization of women and mothers in particular. “The Urge for Survival,” a retrospective of Shindo’s work hosted by BAM Cinemathek and presented in part by Benicio del Toro, showcases a number of draining films about the horrors of war at home.

As period pieces and horror films, Kuroneko and Onibaba are both great ways to break into Shindo’s dense oeuvre. His lithe camerawork, which emphasizes fluid tracking shots and elaborate images shot using cranes, is showcased well here, in films where what initially looks seductive is later revealed to be oppressive.

For instance, in Onibaba (“Demon Woman”), omnipresent blades of grass that are taller than the protagonists’ heads are attractive but dangerous. Hachi (Kei Sato), a slovenly deserting soldier and the only man in the film, slices his hand open while trying to hold onto a single blade. He stares angrily at the wound in his hand and flops on his back in a vain attempt at beating back the field of grass that surrounds him. That field is Hachi’s new home but only because he’s completely trapped by and in it. He has to make due with what’s available to him and that means emulating a woman identified only as “Kichi’s mother” (Nobuko Otowa) in killing stray samurai, stripping them of their swords and armor and trading them for food.

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The home in Kuroneko (“Black Cat”) is a product of equally treacherous conditions. Another man named Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) discovers the alien-ness of his post-war feudal environment after he discovers that his mother Yone (Nobuko Otawa) and wife Shige (Kiwako Taichi) are the same demons that his new master has asked him to kill. Like Hachi, Yone and Shige have had to debase themselves to adapt to their environments, seducing men and sacrificing them to evil spirits just to get by.

It’s a horrible position for them to be in, but Hachi isn’t much better off. He’s just barely more capable than Shige or Yone of defending himself: in his first scene, he narrowly escapes being bludgeoned to death by another starving deserter. (Like Hachi in Onibaba, Kuroneko’s Hachi is also a deserter, but unlike Onibaba’s Hachi, Kuroneko’s Hachi is able to re-integrate himself into feudal society). Hachi only survives the encounter because his opponent’s cudgel gets snagged in the surrounding swampy mire.

That having been said, Kuroneko’s Hachi has a sword, a position and a purpose, which is more than can be said about his abandoned wife and mother. Shindo emphasizes Yone and Shige’s greater powerlessness by introducing them to us after they’ve both been raped and murdered. Their premature deaths convey Shindo’s fascination with how much more fierce women have to be in order to survive without the support of their husbands and sons. They literally become feral in the case of Kuroneko, which ends with a confrontation between mother and son in which she holds her severed arm between her teeth and glares at him like the eponymous feline.

The dire finale attests to how badly society has regressed in Kuroneko. Things get even worse in Onibaba considering that there is no society at all for them to retreat to. Shindo never even shows us the peddler that Kichi’s mother pawns her victims’ belongings to. For all we know, that man doesn’t even exist. As in Kuroneko, the world of Onibaba is post-male, hinting at the regressed world that Shindo more directly depicted in Children of Hiroshima, a docudrama that apolitically humanizes the suffering working-class survivors of the atomic bomb.

Shindo’s films don’t use characters as a means of explaining why or how events happened. You don’t see the horrors of war first-hand because he doesn’t want you to be able to feel comfortable watching dehumanized characters hurt each other and not understand why or how they’ve devolved. Shindo goes to great lengths in Live Today, Die Tomorrow to show us, through convoluted flashbacks, how a teenager came to acquire a gun and become as depraved as he is in the film’s present. The abuse that he suffered as a child makes it impossible for viewers to watch him commit crimes without understanding that his violent outbursts are symptomatic of his own suffering.

Shindo is unwilling to give his characters simple reasons for their complex problems. They are, in many cases, partially responsible for making each other unhappy. Onibaba ends with Kichi’s mother wearing a mask that she is convinced is stuck on her face because Buddha wanted to punish her for opposing the unwed sexual union of her daughter-in-law and Hachi. She pleads with her daughter-in-law to pull the mask off but the two only co-operate once Kichi’s mother agrees to give her daughter-in-law her blessing.

Still, once the mask has been forcibly removed, the sight of Kichi’s mother’s grizzled face tells us that her suffering was caused by something else. Even with her daughter-in-law’s help, Kichi’s mother still looks like the diseased soldier she prized the mask from in the first place. There’s no order in the film’s world at that point; only the desperate need to survive remains. Once the mask is off, Kichi’s mother falls into the same pit that she dumped the dead samurais’ corpses in. Her last words echo and linger in the air because they could very well be the mantra for all of Shindo’s characters: “I’m not a demon! I’m a human being! I’m a human being!”