Monday, February 11, 2013

Yoshitaro Nomura's THE DEMON (1978)

What F. W. Murnau's Sunrise is to spouse murder, Yoshitaro Nomura's Academy Award winner -- that's the Japanese Academy Award for Best Director -- is to child murder. Nomura is no expressionist like Murnau, though Kichiku, to call this by its real name, is brilliantly shot by cinematographer Takashi Kawamata. The point of comparison for the two films is their evocation of the moral terror felt by the person contemplating murder. In Kichiku that's Sokichi Takeshita (Ken Ogata also collected an award for his work here), a small-time job printer whose mistress dumps three illegitimate kids, aged 1, 4 and 6, in the laps of Sokichi and his decidedly unmaternal wife Oume (Shima Iwashita). The Takeshitas can barely make ends meet -- Sokichi can't get a loan for new machinery, despite abjectly promising kickbacks to the banker, because he's missed payments on a prior loan -- and now they're stuck with three extra mouths to feed who also constantly remind Oume of hubby's infidelity. The couple's strange form of reconciliation is the systematic elimination of the children.


The baby goes first, through some willful neglect (to say the least) from Oume. Then Sokichi takes the four-year old girl to the big city and abandons her on the observation deck of Tokyo Tower. That leaves the oldest boy, Riichi (Hiroki Iwase), who probably knows too much just to be left somewhere. That takes us to Sunrise territory as Sokichi takes his boy on a long nature trip to some extremely photogenic and menacing coastal territory, with the obvious thought of killing him and dumping the body in the ocean. Sokichi has been a hesitant demon throughout the picture -- in Tokyo his first attempt to leave the girl behind in a toy store is a pathetic failure -- and you can see the agony he's going through, especially when he reveals his own past as an abandoned child.

...and then there was one...

Kichiku differs from Sunrise, however, because Sokichi carries out his terrible task. To go further I have to spoil things and assure you that the boy does not die, if only because he lands in a tree when Dad drops him off a cliff. That does little to mitigate the horror of the moment, since we don't learn of Riichi's survival until after Sokichi has disposed of every trace he can think of of their visit to the cliff. But Sokichi has bared his soul and revealed his agonized ambivalence to the boy, which sets us up for one of the great enigmatic endings in movies. Riichi has been rescued and despite the Takeshita's attempt to leave no clues to the boy's identity the cops eventually track down the wretched Sokichi for a confrontation with the child. The case against the printer is pretty solid, except for one thing. The kid said his dad did it, but now he tells the cops that Sokichi isn't his dad, that he's never seen this man before. The guilty, guileless relief on Sokichi's face tells a different story, but Riichi sticks to his version. Here's the question: is he repudiating Sokichi, or attempting to exonerate him -- or both?

Shochiku studio propaganda said that The Demon was 20 years in the making, and it's clearly been long and well thought out. This is the first Nomura movie I've seen and I'm quite impressed by his detailed rendering of a working-class environment, the way he frames images to keep our attantion on big and small actors, and his direction of the adult and child actors themselves. The multigenerational ensemble is impressive from top to bottom, and Ogata definitely earned his award -- while I'm surprised that the ferocious Iwashita didn't get her share. Yasushi Akutagawa's score sounds like a precursor of Danny Elfman's work in its use of carnival and music-box tunes to eerie, unsettling effect. Despite the honors heaped on Ogata and Nomura, the film itself lost to another Nomura picture, The Incident. If that's a better film than The Demon I have got to see it.

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