Saturday, June 13, 2009

Woods Are Wet (1973)

Japan, some time in the 1920s or 30s. Young Sachiko (Hiroko Isayama) wanders the countryside. She has been wrongly accused of the murder of her mistress and is now on the run. Her luck seems to take a turn for the better when an obviously well off woman (Rie Nakagawa) gives her a lift and invites Sachiko into her home. She tells the girl that she is in dire need of female company to distract her from her brute of a husband (Hatsuo Yamaya) and that she would be delighted to take Sachiko in as a friend.

In the pair's strange house in the woods, things turn out to be quite a bit different. Husband and wife threaten to call the police on Sachiko if the girl doesn't help them with the little games they so like to play. The pair runs an inn in their house, not for money, mind you, but for the pleasure they derive from torturing, raping and killing their guests. Of course they wouldn't presume that Sachiko is going to help them with this, instead, she'll just have to run along and warn their newest guests of the danger they are in. If those guests manage to escape, her hosts won't bother Sachiko anymore.

Woods Are Wet is a Nikkatsu film loosely based on elements of de Sade's Justine (fortunately not on the lists and the repetition) and functions, depending on one's inclinations, either as a Sadean fairytale or as a darkly comic nightmare. It is a very beautiful film in any case. Even the bleached VHS prints that are the only way to see it in the West right now can't hide director Tatsumi Kumashiro's incredible use of candle light and shadows completely.

Kumashiro's gaze on the rather unpleasant things that are inflicted upon his innocent heroine (played by Hiroko Isayama with the shell-shocked look of a survivor) is cool and clinical. While the film doesn't show much compassion towards anyone, it also isn't complicit with the sadists, unless you take its refusal to judge as complicity. After sucking us in - as Sachiko is sucked into the world of the homicidal sadist philosophers - the camera is just there to show us things, leaving the viewer in the position of a cold and distanced voyeur.

A further degree of abstraction is provided by copious black boxes which cruelly (and isn't that Sadean?) break up Kumashiro's meticulous framing of the sex scenes. The director, or so the film's titles inform us, wasn't too pleased with the usual fogging of not unimportant parts of the human body the censor demanded, and used the big black blocks in protest of the custom. The way these blocks are used is often very funny, and I dare you not to giggle (quite nervously, but still) during the climactic orgy/male rape/torture/necrophilia sequence.

This is a film in dire need of a subtitled DVD by a company like Mondo Macabro. I'm pretty sure it would be even more fascinating if one could actually see more of what's happening on screen or even make out people's facial expressions.


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