There might be a temptation for one to identify the “evil spirits” mentioned in the title of Kazuo Kuroki’s 1970 film. Such a viewer might too easily be playing into the filmmaker’s hands. As a “experimental” riff on the yakuza genre, Kuroki’s film immediately sets up a conversation between state violence and the violence of organized crime. Suggesting cops themselves are not any different from the yakuza seems like a rather banal “revelation” one that might only seem profound to the most naive of audience members. However, he builds from this setup into something far more enriching: sure the parallel lives of the criminal and cop are engrossing, but the success of Kuroki’s film does not lie in the argument he’s positioning, but in the details of the images. In other words, there’s enough stylistic flair here to save a film that would be nothing more than platitudinous otherwise.
Longtime yakuza bodyguard, Murase, is visiting an old flame when he stumbles upon something bizarre. She’s spent the night with a man that looks exactly like him. The man is Ochiai, a cop with a past as a revolutionary. Murase suggests a mutually beneficial switch. Ochiai is apprehensive, but eventually accepts the offer. Being able to infiltrate the criminal underworld seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, but the information he can obtain eventually takes a backseat to the experience. He begins to take comfort in the criminal lifestyle, where as Murase focuses all his efforts on researching an old case in which he was involved.
Despite the literary origins, the fact that Evil Spirits of Japan was an Art Theater Guild production, would have been enough for many to register it as a film that isn’t bound to text. While this is accurate, I’m not sure such a statement is enough to prepare an audience for visual and audio trickery that Kuroki gets away with here. I use “trickery” not to sound dismissive, but instead because it feels like an exaggeration to label Kuroki’s aesthetic as an innovative one. Even in Japan, this kind of kinetic, tactile experience had already been accomplished in the work of a filmmaker of a Hiroshi Teshigahara, whose Woman of the Dunes seems to have a particular influence on Kuroki. Kuroki composes even the simplest shot/reverse shot scenes of conversation with hyper closeups, which seems to capture something that feels both sensual and tense. This is a mystery film, albeit an intentionally obtuse one, yet it visually functions in a way that would make sense for a more conventional narrative. This is not to say that Kuroki’s film looks boring. Quite the opposite, it is a complete joy to look at, but his grammar, is simple enough to follow.
Again, this sounds like a Kuroki, but it isn’t. The fact that his film still feels and moves like a conventional thriller, works in its favor. He hasn’t made a particularly deep one. As it is, his film stands as an entertaining narrative executed in a dazzling way. I am not particularly fond of the critical practice in which one separates the form from the content. I do intend to stress how impressive the form is here. I am not suggesting the content is both something that can be separated and not worthy of such a visually beautiful film. This is a difficult terrain to navigate, but essentially the narrative here is snappy and fun, but not the most fascinating thing to endure. Often, scenes seem to work better when they’re decontextualized. Kuroki seems to understand this himself. Maybe the film’s sex scenes were just a selling point, but they’re so tender and tactile that they don’t translate as an easy way to give an audience sex, but instead a break from the narrative that aches in a way that the rest of the film unfortunately resists.
The problem is less that Kuroki has made a genre film, and more that he hasn’t devoted himself to saying anything new about the yakuza film. If every genre is a discourse, then every new genre film is a new conversation, yet Kuroki seems to find no problem with simply reheating old works and refashioning them with new (visual) rhetoric. Again, he’s made a fine film, but one that doesn’t feel vital. Murase and Ochiai’s doppelganger scenario has the potential for something about the connection between state violence and criminal violence, as I already suggested earlier in this post. However, Kuroki’s attention seems to wander to the “cool” details of his characters once he gets past his “cops are bad” statement. Allegedly, he wanted to make a film that looked and sounded like Funeral Parade of Roses but told a story that was far more familiar to a mainstream audience. If that’s truly case, he absolutely succeeded.