Monday, November 11, 2019

Shlock from Shintoho

I’ve now seen two movies by the Japanese director Nobuo Nakagawa, whose reputation, thanks to Criterion and Turner Classic Movies, has reached ridiculous overinflation. I usually love films that are so ambitious dramatically or visually that you can appreciate their barmy edges; in the very best of these films, such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) or Napoléon (1927), it’s like watching Jacob wrestle with God’s angel. (The director busts his hip bone, too.)

Gelatinous blob. Jigoku.
In some movies made by brilliant eccentrics such as Raoul Walsh or Abel Gance, enchanted ideas come spilling out, overflowing the ordinary constraints of production design, camerawork, and narrative. Ideas are executed with an almost religious fervor, an impresario’s spirit—as if the director were driven to express something so deep within him that it was as if he needed to make the grandest summing up of all, the Alpha and the Omega of cinematic statements. Because the plots are incoherent or the themes jumbled or the point of view ambivalent or self-contradictory (as it sometimes is in Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock or G. W. Pabst), audiences may be befuddled about details or flow, but they watch these movies in a state of heightened excitement. Their senses are alert to possibilities they didn’t even know existed, and the experience can be overwhelming.

But Nakagawa’s movies aren’t barmy and creative in this way; they’re just freakishly melodramatic and puerile, with screams and shrieks filling the soundtrack at random. (Remember those “Sounds of Halloween Haunted Houses” records you bought as a kid?) They’re low-budget bores—thirty minutes in, you’ve had it with the penny-effects and the inanity. You feel as if you’ve been dragging toddlers around the neighborhood on Halloween, enduring garage “funhouses” and stick witches from those converted costume stores. His two most esteemed movies, Jigoku (1960) and Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1959), both made at Shintoho, have none of the elegance, brilliance, or genuine terror of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965) or Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (The Black Cat) (1968). Jigoku, particularly, is a medieval morality play overlaid with giallo shlock (with none of Mario Bava’s skill with camera angles or basic narrative ploys), ketchup blood from Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations (the kind that appears to have been thickened with cornstarch until it resembles a gelatinous blob of pomegranate juice), and a script that Ed Wood probably turned down. It’s a testament to Nakagawa’s inexpertise, I suppose, that he generates tedium even out of such promising ingredients.

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