Sunday, February 5, 2017

Gosho Heinsosuke | Osorezan no onna (An Innocent Witch / Woman of Mount Osore) / 1965

Inside Out
by Douglas Messerli

Hideo Horie, screenplay (based on a novel by Hajime Ogawa), Gosho Heinsosuke (director) Osorezan no onna (An Innocent Witch / Woman of Mount Osore) / 1965

Why some film industry executives were intent on translating Japanese Ghosho Heinsosuke’s film Osorezan no onna as An Innocent Witch (US distributors called it, more proper, Woman of Mount Osore, although Criterion has reissued it with the more melodramatic title), I don’t comprehend. Certainly, the young woman Ayako (Jitsuk Yoshimura) is forced into a position through the conditions of her familial inheritance that might seem to the small-minded citizens of the town in she works that could make her appear as a femme fetal, but it is never clear that anyone in this film perceives her as a true witch—except perhaps for the punishing shaman at the end of the film, who determines to beat her to death in the process of purging her evil spirits.

  Yet the film does begin—after its briefly travelogue-like explanation of Mount Osore, one of the three holy mountains of Japan, about which, we quickly learn, it is believed the souls of  the dead gather (critic Gwilym Jones also explained that this mountain is also perceived as “the reputed entrance to Hell”)—along with Sei Ikeno’s score of brass, drums, and cymbals—all suggest a very dark view of what is about to happen. With the appearance of Ayako’s aged mother, desperate to once again make contact with her dead daughter, we realize her guilt, and we do perceive that this is going to be a work about some unholy doings.
      At the heart of this wonderful film, however, is not witchcraft, no matter how you might define that, but rather a completely patriarchal society that sends it young sons to war while putting its young daughters into sexual slavery.
       When we first meet Ayako she is a lovely, quite innocent, and free spirit, willing to wade out into the cold waters to help bring home to her poverty-stricken family to obtain seaweed and small fish for their sustenance. But, even before the movie has gotten underway, we realize that she has already been sold into servitude.
      Strangely, the young innocent seems to completely recognize what will be her future, and quite easily accepts it, glad at first to do house cleaning duties before actually performing the act of sex. Unfortunately, her first client is the local timber merchant Yamamura, who leeringly and lecherously rapes the virgin girl, and there is little question that the entire experience for Ayako is a painful one.
     But when we next see her, a few weeks after, she—unlike any possible heroine of an American movie—seems quite adapted to her circumstances. She has already become the highest earning prostitute of her institution, and, like her fellow comfort-workers, sits behind the slated windows trying to draw in young sailors and military students.
      The year is 1938, and Gosho’s film is very much thematically intertwined with the dreadful Japanese politics of pre-World War II. Indeed she and the other women with whom she works are all caught up in fascist politics of the time, being described as home front supporters of war efforts. This time, Ayako herself draws a young innocent, a virginal boy, into her web, gladly giving up her body—if not her kisses—to the military student Kanjiro, who quickly falls in love with her, and to whom Ayako eventually does, despite the advice her of co-worker, Iroha, give up her heart.
      The young boy is soon scheduled to go into military training, but promises, even given his fears for his future, to return to her and rescue Ayako through marriage. But the problem, she and he suddenly discover, is that her elderly regular customer is, in fact, Kanjiro’s father.
      Ayako promises to reject any further connection with Yamamura, but he forces himself upon her and in the process dies, evidently of a heart attack—his son, soon after, dying at the front after, evidently having gone AWOL in order to return to her. Having “destroyed” two males of the same family, Ayako’s reputation as a dangerous woman grows.
     To stop this clearly absurd rumor, Yamamura’s elder son, Kanichi, makes a bargain with her that he will regularly visit her (without demanding any sexual favors) which, after surviving those encounters, will lay rest to the ridiculous rumors. But he too—particularly when they travel to a countryside inn where, having missed the train, they are stranded overnight—falls under her spell, and; as they attempt to return home, he is hit and killed by a military procession, speeding through the countryside. In short, the same forces that have helped to entrap her, the patriarchal system and militarism, destroy the decent Kanichi as well, just as they have destroyed his younger sibling.

     In punishment for now having done away with the male lineage of the Yamamura family, Ayako, incorporated into the system itself, demands that she be beaten by the shaman to rid her of her demons, a visually horrifying scene wherein the he literally beats her to death before reassuring her mother that she will soon awaken. Just as Yamamura has reassured her during his rape of the young girl, so now does this exorcist deny his own actions.
      Gosho’s entire film—with its constant mirroring of events and with the delimited frames in which all the characters, at one time another, seem incarcerated by events—is a beautiful but absolutely terrifying realist tale with supernatural elements. We all can perceive that the innocent Ayako is no witch, nor even a woman with special powers; but given the society in which she is entrapped the very powers of her youth and beauty make it impossible for her existence.

Los Angeles, February 5, 2017

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