At some point while examining my stack of DVDs, many of which clearly display my Criterion addiction, I realized something odd. I own nearly fifty movies (not DVDs mind you, some of the DVDs have multiple films on them) from Japan, but also specifically from the sixties. Between a few Eclipse box sets, my lovely Zatoichi box set, my Gamera DVDs, and a smattering of samurai movies. Well, it made sense upon examination. What a fascinating time and place in film, with New Wave inspiration rubbing shoulders with some of the best samurai movies ever, while other studios released nicely effective film noir entries, while some of the most fascinating B-Movies ever were hitting their peak. So upon actually explaining this trend to myself I came to the conclusion that not only did it make sense, but that I kind of liked the idea of having this sort of area of expertise. So screw it! Outside of the obvious kaiju films I’d look for physical copies of at some point (given how striking Matango is that’s jumped to the top of my list too), I took a quick tour through Criterion’s stock and made a note of anything that matched my criteria.
So after deciding to cultivate this particularly recondite film knowledge I figured another Criterion Eclipse set (Criterion’s cheaper box sets) would help get me on the right path. Now among these sets was one that aligned perfectly with my schemes. I had one Oshima film in my collection (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence because David Bowie) but there was an Eclipse set that specifically collected the renowned director’s sixties output. So I bought it! Amazon spent a long time not shipping it while they scoured the earth (currently unsuccessfully) for my copy of Gamera the Brave. Eventually it arrived, and I know I’ve made my Criterion love clear but honestly they’re just the best.
The first film from the set I decided to watch was Nagisa Oshima’s Violence at Noon. Other than my newfound interest in Japanese films from the sixties I have a long-standing interest in psychopathic serial killers, and films that portray them. It’s a fascinating aspect of the human psyche, an extreme with a myriad of gripping details and variations. It’s also almost never portrayed realistically by anything ever. Most movies create a sort of fictionalized, idealized, super serial killer. A killer who is super conscious and aware of his actions, who has these compelling justifications and a supremely calculating mind he applies to his actions. In reality most serial killers are way less glamorous. You just have to watch a few interviews with some of the more iconic killers to get a good sense of this. Jeffery Dahmer calmly saying he should have bought a gold fish instead of killing and eating people is hardly a solid example of megalomaniacal self-awareness. (Although when he cruelly jokes he should have “eaten out more” you do get a tiny glimmer of the fictional image of serial killers.) Most of these killers are grossly driven by uncontrollable compulsions. Dahmer was so far removed from the image of shrewd killing genius that he disturbed his own grandmother with the smell of the “experiments” he was doing in the basement. Still even a nice fictionalized exploration of these killers can be absolutely fascinating and capture part of the complexity of the real world thing.
Look at one of my favourite films, Fritz Lang’s M, a wonderful meeting point of fictionalized killer and real world basis. The killers the film was based on are nuts. Seriously take a trip over to Wikipedia and look at 30’s era German serial killers. They’re pretty weirdly concentrated and horrific. Anyway the film’s more investigative than anything, like a precursor to Zodiac, but Peter Lorre’s killer is hypnotic and brilliant. Another surprisingly accurate depiction of a psychopathic serial killer is The Night of the Hunter, which I’ve already written about at length. Violence at Noon seemed like a solid starting point because it follows a murder-rape spree, while adopting an experimental New Wave style, and taking a decidedly strange point of view.
One of the things Criterion makes a big deal of with this film is the editing and visual style. It makes sense; it’s one of the clearest tangible displays of inventiveness in the film. The DVD case proudly proclaims that the ninety-nine minute film contains over two thousand cuts. Most films seem to contain about two hundred to five hundred cuts (although this information is hard to find and slightly dicey). Even an editing heavy movie like Psycho contains about seven hundred cuts. Again this info is pretty untrustworthy, but it helps illustrate why two thousand cuts is instantly notable. The cuts aren’t just frequent, the composition of the individual shots is varied and strange. It reminds me of the visual style of Chan Wook Park’s movies a little. A lot of aggressive and strange wide-screen compositions utilizing a ton of negative space and unexpected angles.
The story takes an unexpected angle too. The film doesn’t so much follow the killer at the heart of the film as much as it follows the two women most affected by him. The two women worked with the killer on an allegorically democratic farm that was thrown into disarray by a flood. After a long series of events one of the women hangs herself along with her lover. She survives and regains consciousness to the killer raping her. The other woman is the killer’s wife, who is similarly abused. The path the story takes is too interesting to spoil, but suffice it to say it follows these two women, as the savage and unpleasant and unidealized killer continues his rampage. Both women are defending the killer in their own way, which is fascinating and highly unusual. All the while it addresses issues of Japanese politics (in his youth Oshima was heavily involved in political activism). It’s a visually striking, morally complex, and politically rich film.