Sunday, July 8, 2018

Summer of Ubume (2005)

Original title: Ubume no natsu

Japan in the early 50s. When visiting his former war compatriot, the private detective Enokizu (Hiroshi Abe), writer Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) stumbles onto a very curious case. A girl named Ryoko Kuonji (Tomoyo Harada) tells the strange tale of the impossible disappearance of her sister’s husband, and a the woman’s now twenty month pregnancy. Enokizu, who has the ability to see other people’s memories, doesn’t want to have anything to do with the case at all, for reasons he isn’t too willing to share with Sekiguchi. Sekiguchi can’t get his mind away from Ryoko and her tale, something about her tale and herself haunts him. Quite literally so, for after their meeting, he starts to fall into trancelike states, in which he encounters the original Chinese version of the yokai known as the Ubume. The Ubume is one of several female spirits accosting passersby with the request to hold her baby (depending on the local version of the Ubume, it may be bad to agree or to disagree), whereas the Chinese original kidnaps children.

Disturbed, Sekiguchi goes to his old school friend, bookseller/Buddhist priest/onmyoji Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi). Looking for some kind of help, one supposes, but Kyogokudo has a hard time stopping his endless monologues about the nature of reality or tone down a rudeness that makes Sherlock Holmes look personable. Eventually, both Enokizu and particularly Kyogokudo will become involved in the case too, opening up a sordid tale of secrets of the past Sekiguchi may know more about than he thinks, baby murders, multiple personality disorder, angry mobs, an old family, and other markers of the Japanese Gothic mystery movie.

This adaptation of Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s novel (one of only a few actually translated into a language I understand, so hooray) was directed by Akio Jissoji, a man working in tokusatsu TV, pinku and arthouse films imbuing all with the same sort of deeply personal sensibility and strange sense of humour, as well as the willingness to dig deep into artificial filmmaking techniques. So, obviously, when making a film whose central tenet and several important plot points are based on the subjectivity of perception and memory, he went all out on sometimes alienating filmic techniques, starting the film – more or less – off with Sekiguchi’s visit with the for my tastes pretty insufferable Kyogokudo (who knows everything and is right about everything and never stops talking), not marking the scenes with Ryoko and Enokizu as flashbacks, and from then on never leaving out a single peculiar camera angle, theatrical bit of lighting, and so on and so forth. We are, after all, just seeing our brains’ interpretations of reality and not reality itself. One can find this approach a bit exhausting but it is also admirable in its consequence, for in the end, every visual peculiarity and every visual metaphor actually has meaning and sense here, Jissoji not being weird for the sake of being weird but to let the audience experience the themes of the movie through more than just its plot.

While he’s at it, the director also turns the potboiler-y elements of the book up to eleven, often suggesting a man deconstructing a Japanese Gothic Mystery (that’s indeed a sub-genre one can encounter quite often in Japanese cinema, probably in books as well, but that stuff never seems to get translated into any language I can understand) by overcooking it terribly. Which is somewhat ironic seeing as Kyogoku himself is – at least in the handful of books of his I’ve been able to read - a rather cerebral writer who doesn’t wallow much in the sensationalist elements of his novels but prefers to philosophize for chapters (though his characters would probably say it’s not philosophy but science), demonstrate his admirable knowledge of yokai and uses the extremities of his plots sparsely.

Summer of Ubume is quite the experience to go through, taking the approaches Kon Ichikawa used in his Kosuke Kindaichi mystery adaptations but cranking them up to a degree of controlled insanity.

I appreciate the film a lot, yet even more so I appreciate that this is a piece of art which tries to convince its audience there’s nothing truly strange in the world through a story so strange it borders on the absurd particularly when it rolls out its “natural explanations”. It’s fantastic.

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