Saturday 3 August 2013

Nippon Horrors:
The Woman From The Sea
(Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1959)

VIEWING NOTE: At present I do not own a copy of this film, and the review below is written on the basis of a screening that I attended as part of the BFI’s Nikkatsu centennial season in June. As such, no proper screengrabs I’m afraid, and my hazy memory may have injected some slight inaccuracies into the plot info summarised below. I’ve also been unable to locate an accurate / understandable cast list for the film, so character and actor names are scarcer than I might have preferred.

One of the key figures in the rebirth of Nikkatsu studios as a powerhouse of contemporary youth and crime films during the late 1950s was novelist and scriptwriter Shintarô Ishihara. Probably better-known in Japan today for his subsequent political career, which saw him championing a raft of disappointingly right wing policies during his thirteen year tenure as Governor of Tokyo, the ‘new wave’ sensibility of his early writing proved a great boon for Nikkatsu as they sought to engage with younger audiences, and Ishihara-scripted films such as ‘Season of the Sun’ (1956), ‘Crazed Fruit’ (1956) and ‘Rusty Knife’ (1958) (all starring the writer’s brother, teen heartthrob Yûjirô) proved to be huge critical and popular successes for the studio. A somewhat less celebrated work from the pen of Shintarô however comes in the shape of 1959’s ‘The Woman From The Sea’, a decidedly peculiar borderline horror / coming of age tale with an ethereal, seaside atmosphere that seems uncannily similar to that of Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide, released two years later. (1)

Unobtrusively directed by one of Nikkatsu’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers, Koreyoshi Kurahara (‘Black Sun’, ‘The Warped Ones’), ‘The Woman From The Sea’ begins in a similar milieu to Ishihara’s “sun tribe” stories – an idyllic coastal retreat where idle rich kids while away their summer holidays, mamboing to swing records and engaging in sundry horseplay, whilst the adult world looks elsewhere. One of these youngsters seems a little more serious-minded than most however. Young Toshio (Tamio Kawachi) rejects the empty hedonism of his peers (and particularly his jock/sex pest brother), instead dedicating his time to strumming his ukulele, staring wistfully out to sea and pottering about in his modestly equipped sailing boat. It is implied that the two boys are adopted orphans whose rich new parents don’t really care for them – or I think that’s the case anyway, the dialogue is somewhat unclear. But whatever the case, affection of any kind seems very distant for poor Toshio, his only real emotional connection being with the kindly Nanny (Keiko Sumida) who is charged with looking after the boys in their beach house, and his only real ‘friend’ (well, sort of) a ‘touched’ beatnik writer whose not-quite-all-there babblings he blankly tolerates when the two bump into each other on the cliffs.

It is this writer character who provides us with our first inkling that something unusual is afoot on this stretch of coast, exhibiting the kind of foresight often attributed to artistic types and the mentally ill (so a double score for this guy) as he drags Toshio down to the shore one morning, insisting that he has seen a terrifying apparition – some kind of ghostly woman had who previously appeared to him many years earlier, trying to lure him siren-like into the ocean… or something. Understandably, Toshio ignores the writer’s ravings, just as he pays little attention to the surly local fishermen who subsequently accost him, complaining that some maniac has destroyed their fish-farms, slaughtering their stock.

Slightly harder to ignore however is the sight that greets Toshio when he heads back down to his boat at dawn the next morning: a voluptuous, muscular young woman (Hisako Tsukuba) clad in a skimpy, makeshift swimsuit, sitting on the deck, bloodily devouring a raw fish. As you might well imagine, Toshio’s initial reaction to this discovery is a combination of confusion, outrage and disbelief, especially when the girl casually tells him that she caught the fish with her bare hands, that she swam to the harbour from her home ‘nearby’, and that she lives alone, sustaining herself solely via the food she catches from the ocean.

Despite Toshio’s bewilderment though, his new acquaintance seems to have taken a bit of a shine to him, perhaps appreciating the gentle earnestness that sets him apart from his more obnoxious land-dwelling peers. Following their first meeting, she soon begins making unannounced visits to his bedroom at night, clambering up the rocks outside and sneaking through the window, prompting several laugh-out-loud moments as poor old Nanny intrudes on the pair, suddenly finding her shy and introverted charge in the company of a brazen, half-naked amazon.

Soon of course, Toshio’s initial reluctance dissipates, and he finds himself following the same path as any other lonely young heterosexual fellow suddenly confronted with such a fortuitous turn of events: namely, he falls head over heels for the nameless girl, cherishing their time together as he temporarily puts aside the vagueness of her explanations of who she is and where she comes from, and discounts any possible connection between her sudden appearance and the various rum goings-on that are now dominating conversation in the local village.

More fish have been slaughtered, and boats have been damaged. Sightings of a large and predatory shark have been reported, and a fisherman has gone missing (in fact, Toshio and the girl find his severed arm whilst out diving). Before long, we learn about how, twenty years previously, the men of the village hunted down and killed a giant shark that had been plaguing the harbour. It is whispered that this particular shark had the power to take on human form, and that it had taken a human woman as its lover, spiriting her away to the sea, from whence she has never returned, and…. well you can probably guess where all this is heading, especially once the superstitious villagers catch a glimpse of Toshio parading around with his mysterious new girlfriend.

Much like ‘Night Tide’ though, ‘The Woman From The Sea’ presents a far more ambiguous take on things than a standard “vengeful femme fatale from the ocean” narrative, down-playing the story’s potential supernatural aspects and instead focusing on the ontological uncertainties the previously apathetic Toshio is suddenly confronted with, and on the blink-of-an-eye ease with which the frankly insane beliefs of the villagers suddenly take precedence as the dominant belief system on this quiet corner of the Japanese coast - an explanation for their troubles that, for the lack of any alternative, is deemed solid enough to justify violent action against a flesh & blood woman.

And even if we – like seemingly everyone else around - accept the villagers’ supernatural hypothesis, Tsukuba’s shark-woman remains a very sympathetic figure, in spite of the destruction she may have caused. Her concerns are simple, and she acts impulsively, like a proud animal spirit, just going about her business. Certainly, she shows no sign of embodying any of the evil desires which the villagers project upon her. In all likelihood, she has simply returned to the harbour for much the same reasons a normal shark would - to find food and warm water, rather than to pursue any agenda of ghostly vengeance. And her affection for Toshio seems very genuine too – a source of companionship that connects her to her former human self, rather than some attempt to lure him to his doom.

Seemingly shot almost entirely in the very early morning or late at night, ‘The Woman From The Sea’ has a fresh, blinking-in-the-sun-at-dawn kind of quality to it that very much adds to the slightly unreal, daydream-like nature of proceedings. Led by the reserved Kawachi and the matter-of-fact Tsukuba, the drama of the film is handled in very ‘light’ fashion, managing to exercise a strange grip on the viewer whilst rarely resorting to melodrama or explicit displays of emotion. But what hasn’t come across thus far in this review is that, in spite of some potentially dark subject matter, ‘The Woman From The Sea’ is above all an extremely funny film. Rather than chest-beating emotion, the keynote of pretty much every inter-personal encounter here is an endearing sense of polite awkwardness. From Toshio’s disinterested tolerance of his writer friend’s outbursts, to Nanny’s utter bemusement at the unconventional behaviour of the scantily-clad new arrival in her household, the film achieves a kind of deadpan, goofball surreality that it’s hard not to love.

Japanese comedy, like that of many other countries, often doesn’t translate well when presented to the English-speaking world (2), but in this case I think it’s safe to say that the subtleties of the gags arrive intact, and there is a great deal of honest laughter to be had from ‘The Woman From The Sea’. Perhaps most interesting in this respect though is Kurahara’s knack for directly fusing this humour with the film’s more poignant and troubling aspects in a somewhat challenging fashion that perhaps prefigures the confrontational projects the director was to undertake during the ‘60s, creating odd juxtapositions of laughter and pathos that twist up the viewer’s emotions something rotten. Witness for instance the sight of Toshio earnestly practicing his ukulele after learning that his brother and lover have apparently died in a boating accident, tears running down his cheeks as he incongruously whistles a jaunty, Hawaiian melody; or the almost apologetic, ‘sorry-about-all-this-but-whatcha-gonna-do’ tone taken by the angry mob who turn up at the door to inform him that his girlfriend is a shape-shifting shark monster, their embarrassed buffoonery strangely undercutting the savage violence of their purpose.

Hand in hand with this tonal ambiguity and otherworldly atmosphere is the vague implication that Toshio is to some extent living out a fantasy, perhaps having ‘invented’ or otherwise summoned up the shark-girl to assuage his own loneliness – a notion that even seems to occur to him towards the end of the film, meaning that even in the wake of the crushing, all-too-real bloodshed that closes proceedings, he is still able to reluctantly shrug off what has happened like a lost dream, the supernatural atmosphere which now prevails allowing him to stumble forward into adult life without shedding a tear… but with the shadow of the haunted writer’s solitary existence nonetheless looming large in his future.

Prior to its horrifying conclusion at least, ‘The Woman From The Sea’ plays very much as a consciously light-weight film, but nonetheless it is one that lives long in the memory. Strange, funny, touching and genuinely haunting, it could easily sit alongside ‘Night Tide’, ‘Spider Baby’, ‘A Bucket of Blood’ or – particularly relevant here, perhaps - Val Lewton’s ‘Cat People’ in the loose pantheon of emotionally resonant black & white horror favourites. If only it had been more widely seen, I’m sure it could have gained a measure of the same affection those films receive from their fans; though modest in both style and execution, it is a work that justifies the overused “undiscovered gem” designation as well as any other film I can think of at the moment.

(As a post-script, my Japanese friends tell me that this film’s story was reworked for a notoriously sleazy TV show in the 1980s, revelling in a slightly less subtle title that translates as something like ‘Terrifying Shark Woman: She Eats Human Flesh’. Still proudly bearing a “created by Shintarô Ishihara” credit, it’s easy to speculate that the exalted Governor of Tokyo’s embarrassment at such a connection may have played a role in the near complete invisibility of this apparently well-remembered series online - a circumstance that perhaps also serves to deepen the relative obscurity in which ‘The Woman From The Sea’ languishes..?

Whatever the case, it’s certainly a shame that the film didn’t make it onto Criterion Eclipse’s recent ‘The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara’ box set, despite it clearly being a very distinctive and enjoyable example of the director’s work. But the sub-titled print Nikkatsu provided to the BFI this year looked quite nice, so I suppose we can maybe at least keep our fingers distantly crossed for some kind of release at some point in the future..? Here’s hoping, because I’d certainly like to see it again.)

The pitchfork photo at the top of this post was uploaded to Flickr by PreviewF3C. Many thanks to Satori for helping me track down the other screen-shots used above.

(1) Seeing as how ‘The Woman Form The Sea’ was never released outside Japan and remains largely unseen in the English-speaking world to this day, I think the notion that Harrington took any direct inspiration from this film can probably be discounted; the similarities between the two works are likely more just a happy coinciding of eerie aesthetic sensibilities.

(2) A factor that perhaps serves to reinforce the slightly skewed picture we tend to get of their popular culture… but that’s another story.


Elliot James said...

Is there any way to see this film in the US? Even in Japanese language?

Ben said...

Hi Elliot; sadly I'll have to answer 'no', as I'm not aware of any official release of this film anywhere in the world, and I don't recall ever seeing it on any Japanese film bootleg sites or anything either.

The theatrical print I watched has been traveling the world as part of a touring programme celebrating 100 years of Nikkatsu, but unless someone can tell me otherwise, I think that's the only chance anyone in the West has ever had to see it...

A great shame I think, but seeing as Nikkatsu have obviously struck a new print and sub-titled it, perhaps there's a chance of a release at some point in the future..?