“Without people, a forest of cherries in full bloom is not pretty, just something to be afraid of.”
– Ango Sakaguchi
Although typically described as a horror film, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975) defies simple categorization. This grisly adult fairy tale, currently streaming on FilmStruck, is a strange amalgam of traditional Japanese theater, folktales, ghost stories, social commentary, anti-war sentiment, dark humor and existential philosophy based on a story by Ango Sakaguchi (In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom). Sakaguchi was a bold libertine and like many postwar Japanese writers and artists, he was also a proponent of the European decadent movement that found beauty in death and death in beauty. His wartime experiences deeply impacted him and the writer’s thought-provoking essays and stories expressed his distaste for authority while embracing and eroticizing the destruction that had consumed his country.
It’s not surprising that director Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower , Samurai Spy , Double Suicide ) was motivated to adapt one of Sakaguchi’s subversive stories for the screen. Much like the author, Shinoda was also a devotee of the decadent movement and his best films incorporate similar ideas and themes. Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees may not be a conventional horror movie but like the transgressive literature and art that inspired it, this violent tale of carnal desire and obsession contains plenty of horrifying moments.
Echoing a storytelling technique he used in Double Suicide, Shinoda begins Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees with a knowing nod to the audience by taking us to a modern-day hanami (flower viewing) festival. As we watch the festivities a voice-over tells us that cherry blossoms were once feared and thought to be harbingers of madness. This theatrical introduction makes us keenly aware of the artifice of cinema before we’re transported to ancient Japan.
It’s there that we meet a mountain bandit (Tomisaburô Wakayama) who kidnaps a beautiful woman (Shima Iwashita) after murdering her husband during a robbery. When they arrive at the bandit’s hilltop home, the nameless woman immediately begins to manipulate him and he cannot resist her sensual charms. She first orders him to kill his other wives then complains endlessly about the rough conditions of mountain life. As her demands increase, she orders the bandit to bring her the severed heads of his robbery victims, which become her doll-like playthings. The debauched pair eventually move to the capital city where they continue their murder spree but as the rotting skulls begin to pile up the bandit grows restless. He decides that he and his blood-thirsty lover should return to the mountains but during their travels, the couple passes through the ominous cherry blossom forest and their picturesque detour has dire consequences for them both.
The film’s two stars are both remarkable in their unflattering roles. Neither is particularly likable but Tomisaburô Wakayama (Lone Wolf and Cub series) brings an earthy humanity to his portrayal of the obsessed mountain bandit. In stark contrast, the lovely Shima Iwashita (An Autumn Afternoon , Double Suicide , The Demon ) is bone-chilling as the cadaver craving seductress. The actress (she is also the director’s wife), was adept at playing “spider woman” characters who possessed an uncanny power over men but this role seems tailor-made for the femme fatale.
On its surface, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees can be appreciated as an erotic fable inspired by classic Noh and Kabuki plays as well as Japanese legends about greedy demons and ghosts that feed on human flesh. But the film is even more interesting as a social critique. Both the director and author of the original story were highly critical of Japan’s participation in WWII and the country’s commitment to imperialism due to the general belief that the Emperor and his ancestors were descendants of gods. According to film scholar and translator Sean C. Koble, in Shinoda’s 2003 autobiography, Watashi ga ikita futatsu no Nihon (Two Japan’s I Have Lived In), the director explained:
“The ningen sengen (Humanity Declaration of 1946) and the photograph of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General MacArthur, lined up next to the Showa Emperor had the result of forcing the people to painfully confront the new circumstances of Japan. I thought of the people who would have discarded their lives in a heartbeat for the Emperor. A horrible notion arose in me – Hadn’t we all become monsters to serve the Emperor and defend the sacred homeland? This resentment persists somewhere deep within my breast, even to this day.”
In Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees the mountain bandit’s blind devotion to the beautiful woman he serves mirrors a soldier’s dedication to empire. He commits himself fully to satisfying her debased desires and in turn, he squanders his humanity and begins to resemble a monster. These ideas are further enforced by the cherry tree blossoms that are commonly associated with the death of samurai and soldiers. The cherry flowers brief existence, which consists of a cluster of bright blooms that only survive for a few months before they fall to the ground and die, resemble the transitory nature of young men at war who die in mass while fighting for their life.
Shinoda’s film avoids typical horror movie tropes in favor of psychological dread and startling imagery that unnerves and arouses the senses. The cascading cherry blossoms create moments of breath-taking beauty, including an unforgettable scene involving traveling priests who appear to go mad while the bandit watches in disbelief, but they are short-lived. Replaced by acts of sadism and grotesque shots of decapitated heads as they rot on the bone. Despite these macabre flourishes, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees is probably best enjoyed as an evocative mood piece instead of a traditional horror film.
Along with other directors who emerged from the Japanese New Wave, Shinoda was interested in challenging the status quo. His films reject familiar narratives in favor of shocking his audience with a combination of violence, sexual deviance, and radical politics. By deconstructing his predecessor’s practices, subverting viewer expectations and employing unorthodox editing strategies along with atypical plot devices, his films created their own unique language.
Today we may take this language for granted but Shinoda, along with his peers such as Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships , The Insect Woman , Vengeance is Mine ), Hiroshi Teshigahara (Pitfall , Woman in the Dunes , The Face of Another ) and Seijun Suzuki (who I spotlighted a few weeks ago) were adventurous film pioneers who dared to transform Japanese cinema in profound ways.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published on June 1, 2017 on FilmStruck.com