“The Petrified Forest” is an accurate translation of the title of Shinoda Masahiro’s 1973 film “Kaseki no mori,” though I don’t understand the relationship between the movie and the title. (The leading character uses the metaphor of “petrified” at one point, but not a petrified forest.)
The movie is a neo-noir with one of the most common noir ventures at its center: a man in love with a woman who wants her husband (though in this case it is a sexually demanding and jealous boss) eliminated. It takes a while for that to come into focus, however.
The movie begins with Ozu troupe veteran Sugimura Haruko sitting into a device that seems to blow steam into her open mouth. Soon she is on a train through the snow and into a long tunnel. The tunnel does not function as a visual metaphor in the way it did in 1950s Hollywood movies. Though there is sex ahead, it involves characters not yet glimpsed.
Disorientingly, the viewer next is in medical school, watching a terminally smug surgeon lecture and then perform in an operating theater. Japanese physicians have long been particularly notorious for not being candid with their patients, particularly failing to tell them or confirm that they are dying. Here, the surgeon/professor refuses to tell the mother (Yagi Masako) of the boy whose brain he has operated on that it is very unlikely he will ever again be able to hear. Given the cancer, it is something of surprise that he can see, the faculties of sight and hearing usually being bundled for those undergoing that radical surgery.
Hauro (the slender, long-haired, very handsome Hagiwara Ken’ichi) violates protocol and is more candid with the mother, which very nearly gets him ejected from the medical program.
In a shopping center where she works as a beautician, Eiko (Ninomiuya Sayoko) sees Hauro. They were classmates, and she and the viewer soon learns that he was obsessed with her when they were in high school. Soon they are fucking. Afterward, her boss (Mizushima Hiroshi) beats her, and Haruo volunteers to provide her a very lethal pesticide, having just been at the autopsy of a casualty who died from minimal exposure to it in the chemical factory that is producing it.
The compound is colorless, though Hauro pours it into a deep blue container that is photogenic and frequently photographed during the rest of the movie. Eiko is in a rush and fairly reckless in administering multiple fatal doses. (Hauro just happens to be in the beauty shop—getting a shave that I can see no need for—when the man collapses. Though not a full-fledged doctor yet, he has a considerable advantage in knowing what is afflicting the man than another doctor would have, though he cannot reveal – or reverse — the cause of multiple organ failure.)
Hauro’s mother tracks him down. He does not want to see her. Eventually, the viewer learns that he was outraged seeing her with a man not his father seven years older. Heedless of his wish to have nothing to do with his mother, especially since she wants to live with her son, Eiko befriends the lonely older woman. This is not a good way to ensure Hauro’s devotion, and when he goes off to think about what they have done, Eiko does some very unwise things. The most unwise turns out to be trusting Hauro’s mother with all her secrets.
The husband of the brain-damaged boy is drunk all the time and images that his wife is having an affair with Hauro, who heroically saves the boy’s life.
The movie is not upbeat, though one character seems to get what she wants by the end.
The soundtrack is typically eerie (and bassless) Takemitsu and the movie has chilly cinematography (not just the early snowscape) engineered by Okazaki Kôzô.
The standout in the cast is the long suffering Sugimura Haruko. The young lovers are attractive, but as the hysterical femme fatale, Ninomiu Sayoko is unimpressive (can I say “no Barbara Stanwyck”?). Hagiwara Ken’ichi looks good and is adequate in the central part, especially when he realizes he has repeated his mother’s history and numbly acquiesces to his mother’s return.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray