(director/writer: Hiroshi Teshigahara; screenwriter: Kobo Abe; cinematographer: Hiroshi Segawa; editor: Fusako Shuzui; music: Toru Takemitsu, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yuji Takahashi ; cast: Hisashi Igawa (Otsuka/Miner), Sumie Sasaki (Shopkeeper), Sen Yano (Toyama), Hideo Kanze (Policeman), Kunie Tanaka (Man in White Suit), Kei Sato (Reporter), Kazuo Miyahara (The Miner’s Son; Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Tadashi Oono; Criterion Collection; 1962-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles-B/W)
“An outstanding allegorical ghost story.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara (“The Face of Another”/”Woman in the Dunes”), in his feature debut, shoots in stylized realism an example of the Japanese New Wave. His film is an outstanding allegorical ghost story that’s adapted from the play by Kobo Abe and is also written by him (Hiroshi’s first of four collaborations with the great novelist). It’s filmed like a fantasy documentary that tells the story of poor working conditions in the mines, the struggles of trade unions and the tragic tale of a starving miner looking for work. The surreal horror pic was filmed in the area where many mines had disasters in Japan. The filmmaker will also bring up the problem of identity, isolation and alienation that many of the hard-pressed workers have to confront daily in postwar Japan.
An unemployed miner (Hisashi Igawa) and his young son (Kazuo Miyahara), after escaping from a mining camp where they were imprisoned, go to a mining village in Kyushu where the miner has been told he’ll find work. But he finds himself in a ghost town that is populated only by a strange candy seller woman (Sunmie Sasaki), who informs him the mine was condemned because it might collapse. She directs him to go over the hill where maybe he can find work in another mining village. But he’s followed in the desert by a mysterious man in a white suit (Kunie Tanaka), who had been previously taking photographs of him. For an unknown reason the miner is knifed to death and robbed by this gloved man, who lured him to this isolated spot by telling the supervisor in a mining camp where the miner just relocated that a bigger job awaits the worker in the bigger mine in Kyushu. The candy woman, the only witness to the murder, is bribed to keep silent with the stolen money taken by the killer.
The dead miner re-appears as a ghost (through the trick photography of reverse-motion) to witness the police investigation of the crime and ask rhetorical questions about the meaning of his life. The brash journalist (Kei Sato) covering the crime story wonders if it’s a frame-up, as the miner killed could be a double for the Old Pit union chief Otsuka (also Igawa) who is in a battle for worker support with the new unscrupulous union head (Sen Yano).
The subplot about how the devious mine bosses pit the workers against each other and make sure there is friction among the workers so the union can’t become too strong and the doomed fate of the candy seller, adds to the horror story of the deplorable living conditions for the miners in the shanty towns they must live in.
The cult film is an unsettling one, exploring the moral decay in postwar Japan; and even if the drama is uneven, this is still a powerful film that blends together real social issues with a haunting surreal narrative.
REVIEWED ON 7/21/2019 GRADE: B+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/