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The Forgotten: Spirit Over Substance

In Kinugasa's _Yoso_, a superpowered priest battles corruption and strives to save the Empress from an illness brought on by faulty prayers.

Teinosuke Kinugasa is best-known in the West for Gate of Hell (1953), with its court intrigues in luminous color, and for A Page of Madness (a.k.a. A Page out of Order, 1926), which can be considered as the Japanese Caligari, only with dynamic and disturbing camera movement thrown into the mix, making it seem much more modern and involving that Robert Weine's expressionist classic.

But Kinugasa directed 109 movies by the IMDb's count, and while no doubt many of the silents are now lost, it's a great shame so few of the survivors have had any kind of release outside of their homeland (or even inside their homeland).

Yoso (a.k.a. Bronze Magician, 1963) was Kinugasa's penultimate film, and shows his powers undimmed. In fact, in some sense they could be considered condensed and purified. Japanese cinema takes seriously the principle that each film should exist as a beautiful art object: it's not that form is elevated over content, perhaps more the assumption that no content worth dealing with can be illuminated by a form that is less than beautiful.

Yoso takes this stylisation and aestheticism to fresh heights. Like Gate of Hell, this later film features much conspiracy and politicking in a feudal-era court, and like Kobayashi's samurai films it shows how honorable people eternally struggle against corruption, only to be generally destroyed by it. But these issues are so far from its central concern, which is to stagger the eye and ear with composition, movement, lighting, sound and music, that speaking any more of them risks seriously distorting the experience of the film.

"It sort of has a story, and it's sort of telling it," observed my friend, the writer David Melville, "but that's not what it's about."

The film sort of tells the story of Dōkyō, a monk of the Dharma school who has studied so long and hard that he has acquired mystic powers: the opening shows him transforming a rat into a stop-motion skeleton purely by the power of prayer (but why?). Leaving his secluded retreat (a niche in a rocky wall in a stylised studio set) he becomes healer to a sickly Empress, a kind of benign Rasputin figure, but rival forces plot his destruction.The magic is an excuse for Kinugasa to conjure an uncanny atmosphere using a sliding camera, billowing drapes, and establishing shots so stark and clean they always look like models, until figures scurry onstage and provide a sense of scale. The action consists largely of a series of council debates and a series of near-wordless encounters between Dōkyō and the Empress, which alternate between breathless but subdued love scenes of passionate longing and meaningful glances, and spiritual healings/exorcisms, slashed into ecstatic closeups and intense insert shots of smoldering incense sticks, falling beads, scudding clouds.

This is greatly intensified and weirded-up by an eerie score by Akira Ifukube, composer of Godzilla's theme tune. Just as Godzilla's jaunty march seems altogether too upbeat an accompaniment to the ravages of a giant radioactive dinosaur, so Yoso's score is far more sinister and ominous than it needs to be, a sonorous and insinuating throb punctuated by echoing metalwork and discordant twangs, creating an aura of dread even when Dōkyō is performing healing rituals for entirely benevolent motives. Thus the whole film is sicklied o'er with a cast of dread. Only at the denouement does this finally make sense.

Kinugasa would make a great subject for a giant retrospective, and I can only assume this hasn't happened because programmers think he's already known and appreciated. But what, apart from a few well-known titles, have we actually seen? The clips embedded here may induce watering of the mouth, and a pounding of fists when they end: such is the film's mesmeric impact, any interruption is akin to the breaking of a trance. A friend was once sitting in meditation, self-hypnotized, when the family dog, a friendly deerhound the size of a small horse, trotted in and licked him on the cheek. The utter shock of that sudden onrush of wet, rasping reality is akin to what one feels during Yoso whenever the spell is broken and one's eyes are torn from the engrossing universe onscreen.

***

The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 

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