“Oil Hell Murder” (1992) has to be one of the least inviting of movie titles. The Japanese title of what provided to be the last movie directed by Gosha Hideo, “Onna goroshi abura no jigoku,” which means “Woman murdered at oil hell” is at least more informative, specifying the sex of the person murdered in a lot of spilled oil at an oil store in 18th-century Osaka.
The movie opens with police examining and charting the knife wounds (plus two severed fingers) on the corpse. It then shows the recent past of Kichi (Higuchi Kanako), the wife of an oil merchant who was also the daughter of one. I think she was the cousin of the spoiled young womanizer, Gohei (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi). At one point he calls her “auntie.” Whatever the exact family relationship, Kichi took care of Gohei as an infant and continues to lecture him on how he should settle down and learn the business rather than collecting the hearts of geishas. (Higuchi Kanako is six years older than Higuchi Kanako.)
Gohei is carrying on an affair with Kogiku (Fujitana Miwako), the only child of the Ogura-Ya oil magnate (on whose good will Kichi’s husband’s shop depends) Kichi is determined to end the affair for a number of reasons and chides Kogiku as well as Gohei. Both women call him a womanizer, though the movie does not show him being at all promiscuous.
First he is in love with Kogiku, defying the brutal opposition of both families. Then Kichi seduces him and he is besotted with her, demanding that she run away with him with or without her two young children. After being married to a socially good match, Kogiku is sleeping around. Kichi is less a cocktease than a heart-tease, wanting a sexual relationship with her younger relative (Yohei) but not to leave the husband who has never provided her sexual pleasure, but who has sired two children on her.
The movie is based on a kabuki melodrama (of the same name) by Chikamatsu. Goha was an action-film director, even in the bizarre campy “Death Shadows” (1989), the most recent other Goha movies that Criteiron/Hulu has imported. Gohei’s knife is frequently brandished and even more frequently shown sheated, and there are some beatings and a prolonged, slip-sliding in the oil murder, but no swordfighting. Not just in being based on a Chikamatsu kabuki play but in the artful composition of shots (the cinematographer was Ichida Isamu, who had shot earlier films, including “Tracked,” for Gosha) , the movie seems more like a Shinoda film than a Goha one. The focus on a woman’s sexual obsession could as well have been Shinoda’s or Ôshima’s. The slow pace does not differentiate the late work of any of these three new wave directors.
Either of the other two would probably have provided more female nudity than Goha did. “Oil Hell Murder” displays all of the body of Tsutsumi Shin’ichi except for what little is covered by a fundoshi (and Kogiku slices off a “strap” of it). All three leads were physically attractive (and received multiple closeups), though none of them is very sympathetic a character. In that she should be the mature one, Kichi’s seems more reprehensible to me than the other two’s, though she pays the ultimate price for her manipulations.
Reviews of the other Goha-directed movies available from Criterion/Hulu and stars (1-10scale):
Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) 8
Sword of the Beast (1965) 8
Goyokin (1969) 8.4
Hunter in the Dark (1979) 5.5
Tracked (1985) 5.4
Death Shadows (1986) 3
Oil Hell Murder (1992) 6
©2016, Stephen O. Murray