When a beastly bad man joins with an evil woman, he becomes almost sympathetic

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Shinoda’s 1975 “Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees” (an accurate translation of the Japanese title, “Sakura no mori no mankai no shita”) looks like a ghost story, though there aren’t any ghosts (well, I couldbe mistaken about a blood-hungry demon who may be a ghost). And the body count makes it something of a “horror movie,” with a woman collecting severed heads (that don’t decay or draw flies, though they turn into skulls seemingly overnight). It has some beautiful shots of cherry blossoms on trees and falling, but they are sinister, making men who walk under them crazy.

The oddest thing to me is that the homicidal brigand of the mountain (Tomisaburo Wakayama the “Lone Wolf and Cub” movies) does not kill the woman ( Iwashita Shima, Shinoda’s wife since 1967) when he kills her husband and the rest of her entourage. He thinks her very beautiful and quickly is taking orders from his very manipulative prisoner, starting with a demand to kill all but one of the wives he has been living with. She wants one, who is crippled, to serve as her maid (Isayama Hiroko).

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She soon gets bored in the hermitage for three and demands to return to the capital (Edo, now called Tokyo). The brigand has accumulated a lot of money from travelers he has murdered, though he doesn’t understand the relative value of differing amounts of it. (I’m not sure whether she buys a house or whether they are squatting in what they turn into a sort of waxworks of detached heads.)

It is in Edo that the woman demands he harvest heads for her to play with. Eventually, he is apprehended and transformed into the police force of acquitted criminals, though eventually escaping and going home through the snowfall of cherry blossoms, thinking he has become immune to their toxicity. I can’t imagine any viewer being surprised that he is mistaken in this and that there are fatal consequences… (or, alternately, that he sees her for who/what she really is for the first time).

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I don’t like the orgy of violence. Moreover, I think the simple story of the hunter getting captured (and emasculated) by the “game” (quarry) could have been told in much less time. There is typically eerie Takemitsu music and superb cinematography by Suzuki Tatsuyo (acclaimed for Shinoda’s 1995 “Sharaku”).

 

Maybe sadistic women were Shinoda’s main interest, but despite some beautiful compoisitions, I find his 1970s films “Himiko” and this one heavy,unpleasant going. Yet he would bounce back to make my favorite Shinoda film, “Moonlight Serenade” in 1997 after making some more films I don’t much life.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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