Kousatsu / The Strangling (1979)

20 10 2014

At the risk of greatly simplifying his career, Kaneto Shindo was probably a bit lost by 1979. His world renowned horror pictures like Onibaba and Kuroneko were already a decade gone. He hadn’t kept up with the output of the Japanese New Wave, but his career stayed afloat. Shindo was never claimed by the New Wave, yet he was never regarded as one of the “traditional” filmmakers they stylistically opposed. Like Kinoshita and Kobayashi, he stands in the liminal space. Here he was in 1979, the West over its “honeymoon phase” of critical engagement of Japanese film,  with a “dark” film worthy of the New Wave and one produced by its offshoot company, Art Theater Guild. Fittingly enough, The Strangling tells us a story of generational conflict. He has his perceptive moments, but I’m not sure they manage to justify a film that is so straightforward in its mean spirit.

1

Yasuzo enters the bedroom of his son, Tsutomu, and strangles him. Ryoko, the boy’s mother, cries in horror but does not seem to protest her husband’s actions. What could possess a parent to do such a thing to their own child? We jump ahead to Yasuzo’s trials. The neighborhood has teamed up in support of him, many visit Ryoko with a positive attitude and a hope that her husband will return soon. Ryoko seems unable to express any emotion, yet we see she was a bubbly individual in the past. She was defensive of Tsutomu, even as his behavior continued to become more troubling. Tsutomu himself, perhaps emotionally stunted by his parent’s own bizarre relationship, sees the world rather selfishly and he responds with a violent impulse. A classmate, Hatsuko, warms up to him. She takes his virginity, but confesses that she’ll have to kill herself afterwards, as she is on the run from the murder of her abusive uncle.

2

I find myself struggling to articulate the problems I have with The Strangling without sounding like a concerned parent. Perhaps that is fitting, considering the primary dynamic being explored here. But basically, I do find myself emotionally bruised by Shindo’s onslaught of narrative nastiness. Tsutomu is a “troubled” youth, but my sympathy for him cannot continue following his attempted rape of Hatsuko, an entitlement that eventually resurfaces when his Oedipal desire that has been brewing throughout the film finally boils to the surface. The “morally ambiguous” protagonist may have had novelty in 1979, but it doesn’t know, and Shindo’s own reconstruction of such a character type fails when he actually just produces someone who is despicable. There is no ambiguity, he’s just all bad.

3

Of course, Shindo complicates these matters by shadowing his son figure with a father that is just as difficult to like. However, much of what we come to find out about Yasuzo comes from the time we spend in Tsutomu’s own head. Perhaps then, the film is meditation on the forced performativity of adolescent rebellion, but such an idea is just as rotten, especially coming from an elder like Shindo. The film’s strongest moment come when there is less of a wallowing in this behavior, and more of a meditation on the breakdown in communication. Hatsuko is one of the few characters one can feel sympathy for here, yet the talk of her death is one that repeatedly blames her for her own victimhood. Yasuzo himself responds to the news of her suicide with an unhelpful “This is what the world’s coming to!” This way of digesting the news shows up throughout the film and I see it in the discourse of people today. As opposed to seeing Hatsuko as a tragic victim, he takes the story at its surface and identifies her act as the tragedy.

4

Hatsuko’s story is one that is shortlived, or at least experienced only fleetingly by the audience. Her death is ultimately a narrative tool to provide more “troubled backstory” for Tsutomu. Indeed, much of the film seems to be about how he responds to what the world has dealt him. Once he dies, however, the focus becomes how Ryoko processes this reality and how she grieves. Again, Shindo’s rare moment of situating a woman at the center yields something far more interesting than the brooding and bruising male egos that dominate the screen. The men grab us by our shirts and tell us how to feel on an instinctual level. Perhaps only in enduring their behavior, are we able to understand the frustration of the women around them. Yet, Shindo seems to revel in the assumed “transgressive” behavior of his protagonist, but it ends up being one of those things that’s both hateful and boring.

5

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