Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tribute to Donald Richie: Himatsuri

Tatsuo is a lumberjack, but he’s not okay.  He does not live in harmony with nature or his neighbors.  There will come a reckoning sometime soon from either karma or the village’s patron goddess in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s Himatsuri, which screens during the Japan Society’s tribute to the late great film scholar, critic, and historian Donald Richie.

Tatsuo is the alpha male among the woodsmen working the rocky hills above the village. Openly defiant of propriety, the married man has recently relocated his not so former mistress Kimiko to the village.  He mostly thinks of women in sexual terms, including the mountain goddess. Most villagers are anticipating a windfall from a proposed marine tourist park, but Tatsuo is the fly in their ointment, refusing to sell his land smack dab in the middle of the project.  To make matters worse, he is the prime suspect in a rash of oil spills deliberately targeting the rival fishermen.  Then something significant happens to him during a storm in the woods.

Deeply steeped in Shinto symbolism, Himatsuri represents the Japanese art cinema tradition at its most rarified.  Visually it is absolutely arresting, but the on-screen action, such as it is, can be hard to follow.  Frankly, the celebrated Tōru Takemitsu’s score—characteristically straddling musical composition and soundscape—communicates most directly to viewers the uncanny malevolence afoot.

One of the younger filmmakers championed by Richie (who also helped translate Himatsuri’s subtitles), Yanagimachi is clearly inclined to leave much of the film’s mystery unresolved.  Indeed, that uncertainty makes the shocking climax even more unsettling. However, the process of getting from point A to point not-A will tax many viewers.

Like a manly throwback to Mifune, Kinya Kitaoji gives a loud and lusty tour de force performance as Tatsuo, refusing to be dwarfed by cinematographer Masaki Tamura’s overpowering vistas. Between Kitaoji and the awe-inspiring wrath of nature, nobody else stands much of chance in Himatsuri. Nevertheless, Kiwako Taichi makes quite an entrance as Kimiko.

Do not wait for Yanagimachi to spoon feed meaning to viewers, because it will not happen.  However, those who appreciate the experience having a film wash over them will be enraptured by Himatsuri.  It is a hot or cold proposition, with the hots largely bunched up towards the high end of the bell curve.  Recommended for highly discriminating cineastes, Himatsuri screens Friday night (1/24) in New York, as part of the Japan Society’s Richie tribute.