"When love begins to sicken and decay..." Japan after the war is a displaced boy in Manchuria, the old feudalism continues in the Sakurada family manor, a countryside abode lit like a haunted mausoleum. (As the domineering grandfather, the lead-dusted, black-robed Kei Sato is straight out of Nosferatu.) Some decades later, remembering the serpentine procession of violations and deaths, the adult scion (Kenzo Kawarasaki) reaches out to his beloved cousin (Atsuko Kaku): "What are we?" "Just relatives. Someone to see at weddings and funerals." Nagisa Oshima’s grand autopsy of the national clan unfolds as a series of asphyxiating widescreen setups, with characters pinned to tatami floors, benches, shrines. The camera tracks rigidly, as if contemplating the corners of a vast casket. Every rite is a heavy lid on an anguished cauldron: At a wedding soiree where everybody must have a song, the combative cacophony ranges from the uncle’s (Hosei Komatsu) mossy Communist Party hymns to the aunt’s (Akiko Koyama) ode to traditional docility to the accusatory, jingoistic braying of the war criminal’s son (Kiyoshi Tsuchiya). Meanwhile, the protagonist is after different sounds, his ear pressed to the ground in hopes of hearing the heartbeat of the brother long ago buried alive. "You are not damned," he’s assured, "but you’d like to be." The acerbic line of thought takes off from Ozu’s Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family and is pushed beyond Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, surface after imperial surface slashed for the rage and torment underneath. The institutional farce is carried through to its surreal end in the unforgettably poker-faced banquet for the heir’s arranged matrimony, with the ditched groom dutifully posed next to a vacant chair ("the bride’s ectoplasmic veil," says Nabokov) before noisily cuddling with a pillow on his honeymoon. For Oshima, the circular family tree of oppression can only conclude via utter negation, the edge where madness meets illumination. Hou paints a contrasting cycle of bloodlines in City of Sadness, Stone in W. has the spectral baseball match. Cinematography by Toichiro Narushima. With Atsuo Nakamura, Fumio Watanabe, Nobuko Otowa, Rokko Toura, and Shizue Kawarazaki.
--- Fernando F. Croce