Eastern Premise #72 – The Devil’s Temple

This week Jason Julier takes a look at Kenji Misumi’s The Devil’s Temple.

When considering Japan, an immediate image that comes to mind is that of the samurai. These legendary swordsmen have their own genre known as chanbara and internationally the perception is one of association with Akira Kurosawa. While a recognisable figurehead, there are many more directors who primarily cultivated the genre and ensure a voyage of discovery. There is a surprising range of topics within this realm of swordplay than you would initially expect that go beyond mere clans, violence and revenge. Masters of Cinema’s excellent release of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is a case in point; a wonderfully plotted and executed peace of cinema, which makes for a fascinating introduction to chanbara. 

This week, Eastern Premise is focusing on the work of a fine exponent of the chanbara genre, namely Kenji Misumi, who was known as the ‘little Mizoguchi’ for the extra flourishes he brought to his projects. Only active for 2 decades before his untimely death, he left a fine collection of films that display a constant level of quality and characterisation beyond mere swordplay. Perhaps best known for his Lone Wolf and Cub entries, these popular films are more widely known outside of Japan as Baby Cart, and allowed Misumi to push the violent aspect of the genre to new levels alongside his flamboyant visual style.

Eastern Premise believes there are far greater works within the ranks of Misumi’s filmography than Baby Cart, which filled the tail end of his career. When you consider he amassed around 60 films during his 2 decades, almost exclusively in the chanbara or jidi-geki (period drama) genres, there are some standout examples. Surprisingly Misumi was considered to be one of the more methodical directors at Daiei, favouring a considered approach whilst building his next visual masterpiece. It was only until after his passing that his reputation grew within Japan, with many rivals admitting their appreciation of his work and a new generation becoming inspired by his filmography.

This week it’s the taut, atmospheric and religiously themed Oni no sumu yakata, released in 1969 and known as The Devil’s Temple that is under the spotlight. However there are more films, many wonderfully named, but the most remarkable include Destiny’s Son, Buddha and Misumi’s Sword Trilogy. A fundamental reason for selecting The Devil’s Temple is that thanks to American DVD label, SamuraiDVD, it is one of several Misumi films now available in a series of remastered anamorphic widescreen prints.

The Devil’s Temple is an abandoned place of worship, set in the remote, inhospitable mountains near the city of Kyoto, which is the former Imperial capital city of Japan. Against this picturesque backdrop are the unfolding ramifications of huge social change, the class system is in a state of flux and former proud lords and swordsmen are reduced to the lowest social rank. War, violence and famine are potential themes but Misumi ignores these routes, only using them to embellish the 4 main characters within the film and establish their background.

Katsu Shintaro plays the role of a former nobleman fallen on hard times who has left his wife and abandoned his status. This hulk of a warrior has taken up residence in the temple with his new love, Aizen played by the feisty Michiyo Aratama. He has carved out a new existence as Mumyo no Taro; a professional thief and killer feared across the land. Shintaro is an interesting actor, initially a skilled traditional musician before following money into acting, he ground out a career as a swordsman and is best known for the Zatoichi series. His greatest asset is his physicality and presence that dominates the screen, yet in The Devil’s Temple he is a brooding menace, relegated to the fringes. Instead both women do battle before a Buddha priest appears, in an imposing portrayal from none other than Kei Sato.

When Mumyo no Taro’s wife arrives at the abandoned temple, it is much to Aizen’s delight to claim back her husband. She underestimates the physical and mental dominance this concubine has over Mumyo. Aizen is a manipulator of the highest order, using her obvious physical attributes to snare men in her web. Misumi maintains the mystery about her background throughout the whole film. He plots a carefully laid out path that at times suggests an unearthly, supernatural force or the real-life power of lust and human emotions. Aizen is clearly the devil in a new guise, unable to survive without the comfort of a man for 3 days, she feeds upon their emotions and is victorious.

What transpires is that the struggle is not between the supernatural and the living, as seen in Kaneto Shindō’s Kuroneko. The eternal struggle between good and evil begins to form as Kei Sato’s character draws a line in the sand. Armed with a powerful rhetoric he highlights the errors of the divided couple, their sins and inner demons before moving onto his greatest challenge; Aizen.

The final battle is set in the main chamber; Aizen’s lair represents hell with a defaced shrine, a roaring fire and her sinful sleeping quarters. These detailed touches are representative of what makes Misumi so enjoyable and the chemistry he creates onscreen. This final battle of good and evil is one of spoken words, hidden desires, revenge and guilt. It is a stunning finale with Aizen a formidable foe, engulfed in her own bloodlust in pursuit of victory. 

An engaging element is that Misumi refuses to prolong the story or inject any wastage to extend its short 76 minutes running time. The main themes and messages are clear without any wasteful distractions. In The Devil’s Temple we will all come face to face with our sins and temptations in the ultimate te

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