Art Theatre Guild

DENEN NI SHISU

Sterben Auf Dem Land / Tödliches Schäferspiel
Terayama Shûji
Japan 1974
102min
V'03

<i>Denen ni shisu </i>was the second feature film Terayama directed, his second collaboration with ATG, and many consider the film to be his masterpiece. Much of its professional look should be credited to the photography by Suzuki Tatsuo and to the artistic design by Awazu Kiyoshi. It shares its title with two of Terayamas earlier projects, a 30-minute drama made for television in 1962 and a 1965 collection of <i>tanka</i> poems, the 31-syllable genre in which Terayama made his debut at age 18. The obvious question, then, is how are these works related? Terayamas versions of both other peoples works and his own rarely follow the previous narrative closely. Instead, they seem to look for a deeper essence of the original which can be translated either across cultural forms or features of particular media the result is a completely new work along with a study of the act of translation itself.
In this case, the television drama sets up the basic plot for the film version. A young boy from the country makes plans to elope to Tôkyô with an older woman who jilts him at the last moment. The ultimate goal, however, that of getting to Tôkyô, is still reached, only instead of going in order to be with her he goes to get as far away from her as possible. The magnetic vector has reversed direction but he still ends up in the same place. The poetry collection, however, is a completely separate project. Its themes are dread, horror, and death with no reference to an elopement. The <i>tanka</i> collection is also not just <i>tanka.</i> Only about half of the text consists of poems, with the second half comprised of short vignettes in prose. There is a transition, then, within the poetry version between poems and narrative, a shift that will continue in the film.
The most conspicuous element of the film version of <i>Denen ni shisu</i> are the <i>tanka</i> printed on the screen, which appear almost as chapter headings for sections of the film. Thirteen of these poems appear, but several others are represented visually rather than as text on the screen. This is a study, then, in both the transition of text to image as well as of poem to narrative. By using a number of freeze-frame shots, photographs, and film strips on screen throughout the film, Terayama may have been consciously developing a comparison between the relationship of poem to narrative and of photo to film strip. Something similar occurs in the middle of Imamura Shôheis <i>Nippon konchûki</i> (The Insect Woman, 1963)<i> </i>with a <i>tanka</i> read over the top of a still image, but it is a connection far more developed in Terayamas film. Although some argue that Terayamas <i>tanka</i> often contain narrative elements, the fundamental relationship between a photograph and a short poem is that both present an image in a very thin slice of time. Narratives and films, in contrast, are distinguished by their relationship to a flow of time. The arrow of time, then, might be seen as the primary concern of this film.
Yet, that arrow seems to be often pointing the wrong direction in <i>Denen ni shisu</i>. We find clocks that stop (like in photos) or ones that run backwards. Terayama makes a jab at those who live their lives waiting to reach a future goal as being lives analogous to count-down timers to death. The type of horror in both the film and the <i>tanka</i> collection also operates according to this logic. Objects are depicted by the future potential for murder like axes or ropes or others that seem perfectly benign but which are revealed to have horrific pasts. The repeated image of the red comb is one example: It shows up near the beginning of the film in a glass of water, later in a song, and then the origin of its redness is revealed to be blood from between the legs of a schoolgirl who has been raped. The horror of the history of the comb retrofits back onto our memories of it from earlier parts of the film, throwing the benign previous scenes into a malignant realm and horrifying the aura of the whole.
During the intermezzo that splits the film in two, in which we break from the narrative and the director speaks for a while in a smoky bar with an art critic, Terayama makes use of what is called the «Grandmother Paradox», the classic critique of time travel: If you got in a time-machine, traveled back in time to before your parents were born, and killed your own grandmother, would you then disappear as well? This has become a hackneyed narrative for sci-fi films, and everything from <i>Back to the Future</i> to the <i>Terminator</i> series uses it, but it started as a serious critique of Einsteins claims that relativity could make time travel possible. In this case, however, Terayama seems to be implying that retelling history, even that of oneself, is just as impossible as time-travel that memory is not the same as history, so that going back to an accurate history of oneself would require a reversal of the arrow of time, which is logically impossible. But that fact is no reason for despair, rather, it is an opportunity for liberation «the freedom to escape ones own history».
This fictionalization of history may have been hinted at by a small glitch in the very beginning of the film. The first poem is read in a slightly different order than it appears as text on the screen, which presents a quandary for subtitling (which is dominant, the written or spoken word?), but which may have been intended as a puzzle. The first three towns mentioned in the poem Carpenter Town, Temple Town, and Rice Town were actual names of sections of Terayamas hometown, Aomori. In 1968, however, the city underwent redistricting and these three sections were absorbed into much more generic-sounding areas like Central Town and Main Town. What that means is that the question the poem poses: «Are there not such towns, O sparrow?», would have been answered in the affirmative when the poem was first published in 1965, but in the negative by the time of the release of the film nine years later in 1974. One simple statement, constant over time, changes from being a statement of fact to one of falseness, from history to fiction. The arrow of time, then, might naturally fictionalize facts, a process not so much oppressive as filled with opportunity to be true to something other than that which has already truly occurred. (Steve Clarke)

Credits
  • Suga Kantarô - Ich der Gegenwart
  • Takano Hiroyuki - Ich als Junge
  • Yachigusa Kaoru - Bakedori
  • Saitô Masaharu - Momohiki
  • Harukawa Masumi - Luftweib
  • Niitaka Keiko - Kusagoromo
  • Mikami Kan - Ushi
  • Takayama Chigusa - Mutter
  • Hara Sen - Medium
  • Ran Yôko - buckliges Mädchen
  • Harada Yoshio - Arashi
  • Ono Masako - Masei
  • Kimura Isao - Filmkritiker
  • Awazu Kiyoshi - Dichter
  • Nakazawa Kiyoshi - Zirkusdirektor
  • Sarubadôru Tari - Soldat
  • Misutâ Pôn - Zwerg
Produktion Jinriki Hikôkisha, Art Theatre Guild of Japan
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