Kaneto Shindo thoroughly deserves the title of Grand Old Man of Japanese movies. Now 92, he has been a scriptwriter and director for more than half a century, beginning with a writing credit on Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1946 “Josei no Shori (Women’s Victory).” His films, including the classics “Hadaka no Shima (The Island)” (1961) and “Onibaba (Devil Woman)” (1964) have recently been reissued in one of those DVD box sets that reek of prestige.
But instead of resting on his considerable laurels or turning out the stiff, pompous films that define “geriatric cinema” in Japan, Kaneto has become sprightlier with age, as his 36th film, “Fukuro (The Owl),” clearly proves. Though the story may sound grim — the two remaining residents of a “pioneer hamlet” in Tohoku murder strangers for profit — in Shindo’s hands it becomes a delightful black comedy, filmed with a vitality and invention that would do credit to a director decades younger.
At the same time, Shindo’s anger at the government’s shabby treatment of the pioneers comes across loud and clear. The film is based on the true story of Japanese farmers who, fleeing from Manchuria following Japan’s defeat in World War II, were promised a new life at home, but were misled and neglected by their official saviors, who gave them only worthless land and left them to starve on it. Shindo’s telling of this story, while instructive, is never merely didactic. Instead, he universalizes his material — his heroines get their payback from not only local officialdom, but the entire male sex.
They are Yumie (Shinobu Otake) and her 17-year-old daughter Emiko (Ayumi Ito). The sole survivors of a group of 20 families who once lived and farmed in the hamlet, they have been reduced to desperate poverty. Scrounging for food with wild hair, dirty faces, ragged clothes and frantic eyes, they look like unemployed butoh dancers.
They are, however, not alone. A dam-construction project has brought workmen to their little rural paradise. They are, Yumie realizes, in need of relaxation — and she will give it to them. Soon she and Emiko are transforming themselves into reasonable facsimiles of bar hostesses. When their customers arrive they greet them with warm smiles and beer. When they are feeling frisky, Yumie suggests they retire with her to the next room, but they suddenly expire before they can sample the promised sexual delights — and the women inherit the contents of their wallets.
When they pay their long overdue electric bill, the power company sends a man to restore service — and he gets a similar offer of beer and sex. As does the guy who comes to turn on the water. More bodies and more money. Their next visitor is a bureaucrat from the prefectural welfare office, who is surprised by their sudden prosperity and accepts the proffered bottle.
Finally, a policeman comes around to investigate the disappearances. He is cleverer than the others, but the women, now accomplished at their game, are not about to break easily. Instead they . . . enough to say that the only one who sees all and knows all is an owl in a nearby forest and he isn’t telling.
There is a certain repetitiveness to the action, but Shindo inserts enough variation to stave off tedium, while moving the story along. The sameness of the modus operandi, in fact, adds to the comedy, as we observe the unvarying idiocy of the film’s long procession of horny males.
Otake and Ito work well as a mother-and-daughter team, but it is Otake’s performance, as a woman who will do literally anything for yen, that impresses more. (It rightly won her the Best Actress prize at the 2003 Moscow Film Festival). The unconquerable spirit of her hostess-from-hell inspires not only laughs, but admiration.
It’s interesting to compare this performance with Otake’s in Yoshimitsu Morita’s more mainstream “Asura no Gotoku.” Playing the oldest of four sisters in a comically troubled 1970s family, she overacts in approved “home drama” style, while pouring on the charm. In “Fukuro,” however, she drops the good-girl act, exuding instead a scorn that is more deeply felt and, given the arrogance, selfishness and general cluelessness of the men she encounters, entirely justified.
Her way of dealing with them is, of course, a complete fiction, but a satisfying one, especially if you’ve had a hard day or season battling Japan’s many and varied bureaucracies. It’s nice, once in a while, to see someone getting their own back — and let the bodies fall where they may. I hope Shindo will stay around to right more wrongs — and keep adding to that box of masterpieces.
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