JFF Plus Online Festival Wrap-Up – Animal Spirits

The Australian component of the Japanese Film Festival wrapped up on the 13th, leaving me with one more film to cover – but since there’s only so much I can say about a 10 minute short animation, I’ve paired it with one more addition of my own to the official programming. Having watched a 1950s science fiction film and a 1960s gangster film, I decided to stick with the era and round things off with a 1960s historical fantasy.

The Mad Fox [Koiya koi nasuna koi] (1962) is a heavily stylised film incorporating kabuki techniques and set in a historical era (the Heian period) far enough removed from the present that it’s treated as a fantasy setting, with little regard for adhering to historically established dates. It’s adapted from the Bunraku puppet theatre play A Courtly Mirror of Ashiya Dōman [Ashiya Dōman Ōuchi Kagami] (1734), which was later adopted into the repertoire of kabuki performers. The film opens on an illustrated scroll, gradually unfurling as the camera pans slowly from right to left, providing a pictorial summary (with narration) of the backstory established in the first three acts of the play. As the opening narration nears its end and the camera moves slowly in on the menacing glow of the erupting Mt Fuji, the image shifts into a view of the Emperor’s court saturated in red as they gaze in fear at the terrible omens.

Kamo no Yasunori (Usami Junya), the court astrologer and a real historical figure (917-977), consults the scroll of the Golden Crow and determines that the Emperor’s successor has been cursed. Locking away the scroll (which requires two keys to access, held by his wife and adopted daughter Sakaki), he sets off to visit the Emperor but is ambushed and killed shortly after leaving by the wicked Akuemon (Yamamoto Rinichi). Sakaki (Saga Michiko) travels to visit the Emperor in his place, but she can only convey news of the curse mentioned by her father and not its remedy, as only the designated heir can have access to the scroll and Yasunori died without formally naming a successor.

The two potential heirs are Abe no Yasuna (Ōkawa Hashizō) and Ashiya Dōman (Amano Shinji). Although Yasuna is engaged to Sakaki and was to be named as Yasunori’s successor, they are no match for the scheming of Yasunori’s wife (Hidaka Sumiko) who arranged for his death in order to install the more unscrupulous (and more easily manipulable) Dōman as heir and toyboy. She frames Sakaki for the theft of the scroll and has her tortured to death (supposedly to find out where she hid the scroll) in front of Yasuna. Although Yasuna manages to escape, retrieve the scroll and enact his revenge on the guilty parties, the death of Sakaki leaves him insane with grief – and suddenly we’re no longer in the world of courtly intrigue.

The screen is filled with yellow as Yasuna peforms a kabuki dance to a sung accompaniment, moving across a stage rotating in multiple sections to depict the grass shifting in the wind, before the bright gauze curtain at the back of stage is suddenly yanked away to reveal he’s not inside on a sound stage but on a grassy hill. He’s somehow found his way back to Sakaki’s family, encountering her younger identical twin sister Kuzunoha (Saga Michiko) and becoming unshakably convinced that she is Sakaki returned to life. He also happens to be in a part of the country populated by kitsune (shape-shifting fox spirits), saving the life of an old woman who has been shot by hunters seeking a white fox for ritual purposes. Yasuna escorts the old woman back to her home, incurring the gratitude of her family – including their granddaughter Okon (Saga Michiko), who takes a shine to him. After the foxes rescue him from Akuemon, who has come looking for the scroll, Okon changes her shape to that of Sakaki/Kuzunoha and tends to his wounds.

The last section of the film jumps ahead six years. The stylisation has advanced another notch – a curtain is drawn back from a stage containing a single set, the shared house of Yasuna and Okon where they have been raising a child. Kuzunoha and her family turn up looking for Yasuna so they can formalise his marriage to Kuzunoha (in love with him despite constantly being mistaken for her sister), where they are understandably confused to find another woman who looks just like her. When Yasuna sees them altogether, he finally has a sanity breakthrough and Okon returns to her own world, leaving their child (and the scroll) with him. Uchida Tomu uses the stage particularly cleverly in this final section, maintaining its position relative to the audience but using rotating stage sections to allow for different perspectives on the inhabitants of the house, before the artifice of their entire setting is exposed and the set falls apart, sections of the house collapsing to the ground and being replaced by grass, other parts of the set being whisked away into the sky, and a sculptured white fox flying away.

Although hints of the political turbulence in the rest of Japan are threaded through the last half of the movie, this part of the story is abandoned and left unresolved, presumably to be dealt with in the future by Yasuna’s child. This child, who would become Abe no Seimei, is apparently a far more prominent character in Japanese folklore than his father and was also a historical figure (921-1005) although, as alluded to before, this does present some chronological issues – rather than being born after Yasunori’s death, the historical figure was only his junior by four years! Still, despite being set in an identifiable historical period, the film (and the original story) are clearly not intended to be strictly historical, and it apparently wasn’t at all unusual for this era to be treated as a mutable fantasy setting which could be adjusted to suit the author’s requirements. The choice of title for the English language market, however, is an odd one – it’s not the foxes who are mad, but rather Yasuna himself. The alternative title Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow is far more appropriate, but admittedly more generic and less likely to draw the attention of western audiences (at least in my case, I know that the title of The Mad Fox was part of what drew my interest).

Leading actor Ōkawa Hashizō had an extensive background in kabuki theatre and his skills in that area are clearly on display throughout the film. Saga Michiko also stands out in her tripartite role, which thankfully allowed more scope for her to lead the action (in two out of three roles) than the more passive female romantic lead roles of some other films in the genre. Contrary to the impression given by some reviews, which characterise the film as a madcap bag of hard-to-follow craziness, this is a slowly paced movie which is not at all difficult to follow if you are paying any attention. True, the kabuki interludes can be confusing if you have no cultural context for them, and the film draws attention to its own artificial nature, but these are conscious artistic choices which have a purpose and follow their own cultural logic – they are not random unmotivated weirdness. If you’re open to different story-telling techniques, it’s definitely worth a look.

And now to bring the festival to an end with a selection from Day 9, The Girl from the Other Side: Siúil, a Rún [Totsukuni no Shōjo] (2019). In the case of The Mad Fox, I was able to learn about a lot of the context I lacked through the commentary and essays included with Arrow’s Blu Ray release. In this instance, I’m similarly lacking in the context to be able to assess this piece properly – but this time I don’t have a handy package of special features to educate me. I suspect that this short film will make more sense to those who are familiar with Nagabe’s original manga series (2015-present) – I certainly can’t tell you why it has been named after an Irish folk tune about a woman whose lover who has joined the military.

Young girl Shiva is found alone in a forest which is inhabited by dark animalistic spirits whose touch has some sort of deleterious effect. One of these creatures, a tall antlered figure identified as Teacher, takes her into its home and looks after her but remains careful not to touch her. There’s another creature which seems more like a manifestation of death which haunts her dreams and appears to want to corrupt her. And that’s about it really – it just stops without an apparent ending. It felt like a small chunk of a larger whole which would make more sense to somebody who’s read the comic – and even then, I doubt a more informed reader would see it as reaching a conventional ending. The animation appears to reproduce the art style accurately, which resembles the illustrations you might find in a dark children’s fantasy storybook, but any budding young goths are probably better off seeking out the original manga rather than starting with this film.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s