The Demon (1978)

Yoshitaro Nomura’s The Demon (a.k.a. Kichiku, 1978) is a dark Japanese drama that some reviewers seem to enjoy calling “Hitchcockian” and they often use words like “mystery” or “thriller” to describe it. After watching this deeply disturbing film recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have watched a very different movie because I personally wouldn’t call The Demon “Hitchcockian” at all and I definitely wouldn’t refer to it as a mystery or a thriller. I suppose one could use the word “horror” when describing the film because it features some truly horrific events, but all the horrors presented in The Demon are based on real-life situations and the desperate and demonic acts of one very human man.

The film stars the talented Japanese actor Ken Ogata (The Castle of Sand, Vengeance Is Mine, Virus, Makai Tensho, The Ballad of Narayama, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, The Pillow Book, Izo, etc.) as a cheating husband named Sokichi who’s married to an infertile woman. He secretly keeps a mistress who’s given birth to three of his children, but when a fire ruins his printing business he stops visiting his second family and neglects to give them any kind of financial support.

When his mistress unexpectedly arrives at his doorstep with his three children one hot summer day and abandons the kids there, Sokichi’s world comes crashing down around him. His legal wife refuses to help care for the children and constantly nags him about his deceit and indiscretions. She also begins to horribly abuse the children and questions if Sokichi is even their real father.

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Sokichi is desperate to make his miserable wife happy and he soon starts neglecting his children as well. Growing financial problems and the disturbing co-dependent relationship he has with his wife create a toxic home environment that is incredibly dangerous for the three innocent kids who are at the mercy of these deeply troubled adults. Things go from the bad to unbelievably worse as the film progresses, until the real-world horrors it presents become almost unbearable to watch.

It’s impossible to turn on the nightly news these days without coming across some horrific story about neglected, abused or murdered children. Like most sane people, I’m constantly shocked by news stories about parents who are capable of abandoning and abusing their own kids, and I often wonder how they could be so incredibly cruel. The Demon is one of the best films I’ve seen that deals with the complicated and difficult topic of child abuse and it does a truly impressive job of trying to present the reasons why children might end up abused by the adults in their lives. It also cautiously explores the reasons why children may become abusers themselves.

Thankfully the movie doesn’t attempt to offer any easy answers, but it effectively shows the events and troubling mindset that might create a truly demonic person who is willing to abuse and even kill their own flesh and blood. There is a brief moment of conservative Japanese thinking on display towards the end of the film where it seems to suggest that the ills of modern society could be partly to blame for the children’s suffering, but the events that it portrays have sadly been occurring ever since irresponsible human beings started having children.

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I’ve watched countless horror films and thrillers in my lifetime and I rarely get the urge to look away from the movie screen or turn a film off before I’m finished watching it, but the events depicted in The Demon are so realistically presented and relentlessly horrific that the film became incredibly hard for me to watch all the way through. The demon in this film does not have horns or a tail and the movie contains no shocking special effects. The demonic force presented in The Demon is simply a desperate and despicable father who has forsaken his humanity and commits unbelievable acts of cruelty.

The acting by everyone involved in the film is top-notch and Ken Ogata gives one of the greatest performances of his career here as Sokichi. Ogata is a fine actor who has the uncanny ability to make the most monstrous characters incredibly sympathetic and his talents are used to full effect in The Demon. He won numerous awards in Japan for his performance in the film and it’s easy to see why. I can’t think of many actors who would be willing and able to give the complex role of Sokichi the kind of depth that Ken Ogata brings to it.

The script by Masato Ide (based on a Seicho Matsumoto novel) is really well-written and director Yoshitaro Nomura manages to turn what could have easily become a melodramatic mess into a truly nuanced and extraordinary film. The talented cinematographer Takashi Kawamata should also be applauded for adding to the films impressive look.

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The Demon is currently available on DVD from Homevision.

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10 thoughts on “The Demon (1978)

  1. Jonathan Lapper says:

    This movie sounds extraordinary. I immediately put it in my queue after reading your review but it will be some time before I can see it and get back to you about it because as you might imagine there are quite a few movies ahead of it.

    I gave it a quick look around the net (IMDB, Netflix of course) and you’re right, everyone describes it as a thriller or mystery but from your description it sounds more like horror. I think the term “horror” doesn’t get applied enough to the right movies. Certainly it is correctly applied in cases of movies about mad killers and vampires and such but a film that deals with horrific situations like the one you describe here should also be categorized, at least partly, as horror.

    I myself have encountered films from time to time that make me squeamish or just give me a knot in my stomach while watching them. This has never occurred while watching something gory but rather when watching something that because of the casual or naturalistic way it was filmed felt real enough to me that I found it disturbing. Two case would be the family torture scene shown through the lens of a video camera in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and the final scene between father and son in Happiness which upset me greatly. Not only was it difficult to watch and listen to their discussion but it was difficult just to think of that young actor having to do the scene in the first place and what he must have been thinking saying those lines and hearing the lines given back.

    I have a feeling I may be encountering some of those same feelings again when I watch The Demon. But sometimes that’s a good thing. I still remember (in fact I’ll never forget) watching Crumb and of course feeling a bit disturbed by some of Crumb’s imagery but what really had me wanting to turn away was his brother, who you could see descending into deeper madness before your very eyes and absolutely knowing what the outcome was going to be. I knew how it would end, any halfway perceptive viewer would, but I wanted to be wrong. When I wasn’t and the blurb pops up about his demise I remember feeling like someone had just punched me in the gut. The whole documentary was an emotionally draining experience but one that I will never forget. Like Happiness. And soon, I predict, like The Demon.

  2. Keith says:

    I’ve never seen this one before. I’ll definitely have to add it to my Netflix queue. It sounds amazing. I’ve never understood those people who abuse any children, but especially your own flesh and blood. I just don’t see how a parent could neglect, abuse in whatever way, etc. their own children. Kids are precious and deserve the best care possible. I’m never really disgusted, etc. by monsters, etc. in movies. I think seeing human monsters is what gets to me. You know that these other creatures are fictional. Human monsters are very real. There’s so many of them around our world. They are of both genders, every race, every religion, every nationality, all ages, etc. The things that humans can do and have done to each other over the years is so despicable. That’s true horror. I’m glad this film doesn’t give any easy answers. I don’t care for those movies that are like an afterschool special. They tidy up everything with some solution. In reality, many times things don’t end on a positive note. This is a great review. You’ve made me want to see this film which sounds so powerful and heart wrenching. Thanks.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Wow,
    This sounds amazing. I have heard of this film but have never seen it. This review makes me want to seek it out immediately. Great writing and lovely screen caps…thanks Kimberly

  4. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for the feedback guys!

    The movie really is extraordinary, but it’s not easy viewing and so it’s hard to recommend. I rented it because I wanted to see more of Ken Ogata’s early performances since I thought he was terrific in Vengeance is Mine and I’ve also been curious about director Yoshitaro Nomura’s films which are often called “mysteries” and thrillers. Obviously the film wasn’t what I expected.

    I have no idea how those words got attached to this movie since there is nothing mysterious about it, and unless you find it thrilling to watch adults hurt their kids, you won’t find the film “thrilling” at all. The only suspenseful moments in the film come from wondering how the adults will next hurt the kids. It is a strangely compelling film that kept me watching. It’s also beautifully directed at times and the performances in it are terrific, but I often had a hard time with the child abuse scenes. The kids in the film are so young and I can’t imagine that they would be able to fully understand that the adults around them were just acting. I don’t think an American film made today or even back then could ever get away with the stuff I saw happening in The Demon. It’s a really unnerving film.

    Jonathan – That scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer really disturbed me as well and Todd Solondz’s films tend to be all around unnerving experiences. I also agree with you about Crumb, which was a fascinating documentary. I think you’ll find that The Demon has some similar qualities to the work you’re describing or at least it evokes that same kind of uncomfortable mood. Of course this is one of the films strengths, since child abuse is a horrific topic so it should make viewers very uncomfortable.

    Keith – I agree a lot with your thoughts. The Demon is a powerful film and very heart wrenching. If you do watch it you won’t forget it.

    Jeremy – As I mentioned above, it’s a hard film to recommend but it’s really worth a look if you can stomach it.

  5. Richard Harland Smith says:

    I reviewed this a few years ago for VIDEO WATCHDOG and thought very highly of it. Not to diminsh its importance as straight-ahead drama (and how about that grim juxtapositioning of Sokichi and Oume making love with the image of his dead child on the morgue slab!), but I also think THE DEMON sets up the JU-ON films very nicely in terms of showing how desperation and the will to commit violence as a way out of your problems can morph into an undying grudge. Doesn’t somebody actually pull an Xacto knife in this? Maybe Takashi Shimizu did see THE DEMON after all.

  6. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment Richard!

    I would love to read your review of this film. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all so it really surprised me. Your comparison to JU-ON is an interesting one.

    I had a really hard time with the child abuse in The Demon because it was just so brutal at times and the kids were so young. When it ended I started wondering what ever happened to the kids in the movie? Did they suffer emotional scars just from having to act in this film? I can’t believe the director got away with some of the stuff shown. The baby + food scene was just too much!

  7. Dennis Cozzalio says:

    Kimberly: The thing that usually upsets me most in films is rape. I was talking with a female friend of mine last week about why that is. She said for herself it was less difficult to watch on screen because she’s used to identifying or otherwise empathizing with the female as victim in these situations, an observation which led me to speculate as to why it upsets me so. I think one of the main reasons, besides my revulsion at seeing someone so debased, is that on some level I understand that, as a man, that physical power, that primal, grunting instinct to dominate, is buried somewhere down deep, and I don’t like to think that I would be in ANY way capable of such an act.

    Thus, in reading about THE DEMON, I felt the same sickened resistance, even as you present such a compelling case for seeing the movie. I think very highly of Ken Ogata, and on your recommendation alone I would think this movie would be worth seeing. But as the father of two little girls (who happen to be half Japanese, not that that matters a whit), I look at the frame grab of that beautiful child, and I just don’t know if I’ve got the inner strength to endure this movie. I get angry enough thinking about the horrors perpetrated on children in the real world. I’m not saying, therefore I don’t need to see a movie about it. I’m just saying that I don’t think I’m strong enough at this point– I can see a hard-hitting, serious movie about this subject being too much for me to handle.

    But thank you for highlighting it, and for enduring it for me. I will keep it in mind, as I trust your judgment.

  8. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Dennis!

    I don’t personally have any issues with particular topics being shown in any film. I’m an “anything goes” in art sort of gal, but I think what really disturbed me about The Demon was that the child actors were so young and one is basically just a baby. As I mentioned above, I can’t imagine that they were old enough to understand what was going on completely. In turn it sort of seemed like real child abuse at times which unnerved me. I don’t think a modern director in America for example would have ever been able to shoot some of the stuff in this film.

    I don’t have children myself yet, but if I did, I would imagine that this film would probably be even harder to watch. Of course, it could also help some parents who might be struggling with personal problems and child care, so I don’t want to take away from the film’s power. It really is a very powerful film dealing with an often taboo topic, so I hope anyone who is interested in the movie or the issues it deals with will give The Demon a look.

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