20 October 2018 | JoshuaDysart
An uncelebrated Japanese horror masterpiece.
"Take me back to the capitol city and bring me everything I desire...use your strength to please me."
Nobuhiko Obayashi 1977 "House" is the requisite Japanese horror film we talk about when we talk about the 70's. It rightfully deserves its place among the greatest, most influential, and certainly most memorable of the decade.
But now let's talk about, "Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees". I hadn't even heard of this movie until this weekend, but "Blossoming Cherry Trees", currently streaming on Filmstruck, is a visually stunning, quietly insane, masterpiece.
Careful to insert "quiet" in there, because it's not insane like "House". It's not over-the-top style dripping in excessive wave after wave of special effects. "Cherry Trees" is just a beautiful shot, bizarrely paced, horribly tempered, kind of insanity.
The director, Masahiro Shinoda, came out of Shochiku studious, oldest of the "big four" movie houses in Japan. There, in the early fifties, he learned his craft as an assistant to the great master, Yasujiro Ozu. Possibly my favorite filmmaker of all time (this changes as the wind blows).
Shinoda's first film as director in 1960, "One Way Ticket to Love", placed him firmly among the Japanese New Wave, though he doesn't seem to have quite caught on in the West like Shohei Imamura or Seijun Suzuki did.
"Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees" is a strange, gorgeously shot fable. In a land where walking under the blossoms of a cherry tree in bloom will drive a person mad, a base, violent, mountain bandit kidnaps a beautiful woman from the "capital" to be his wife. In love with her, he goes to ever more excessive lengths to please her whims, which themselves become more and more ungrounded from reality, turning towards the utterly macabre. Beauty and love, and what we do for them, is the horror on display here.
The movie stars Tomisaburo Wakayama from "Lone Wolf and Cub" as the barbarous mountain warrior, and Shinoda's wife, Shima Iwashita, as the mad city woman.
The movie is bookended with stunning, open, vistas of an entire valley filled with endless blooming cherry blossom trees, which composer Toru Takemitsu's score, atonal and traditional-flute haunted, somehow makes ominous even in the brightest of daylight, like giant, swaying ghosts. Drifts of cherry blossoms swoop on whirling winds across the images, and, as we near our climax, sometimes fill the ground, dense as snow pack.
But as the action moves from the mountains to the city, the style turns more theatrical, with sets designed like stages, allowing for a single camera point to gaze in at the choreographed action; large matte painted backgrounds in certain parts of the city to create a world ravaged by violence, weather, and immorality; opening narration, seemingly read by a child, stick it firmly into the mire of twisted storybooks; and the bold acting style, not uncommon for Japanese cinema of the era, recalls kabuki and noh styles.
This is a great, great film. If you have the penchant for 1970's Japanese cinema, I say seek it out.