Nonagenarian Nipponese helmer Kaneto Shindo bounces back with “The Owl,” a sharp, lively and beautifully played black comedy that would be a feather in the cap of a director half his age. Reminiscent in theme, though not look, of his 1964 classic “Onibaba,” tale of an impoverished mother and daughter in a dead-end community who seduce unsuspecting men to their death plays like a delightful, almost legit-style rondo of sex and death, underpinned by a tart commentary on Japan’s postwar aspirations. If Japanese cinema were more in vogue, this would stand a chance at specialized arthouse distribution.
Shindo’s script is a fictional construct inspired by true events. In 1980, the bones of nine bodies were found amid the ruins of Hope Peaks, a pioneer village in remote northern Japan. The hamlet had originally housed 20 peasant families who had returned, post-WWII, from a failed ’30s settlement experiment in Manchuria, northeast China. The last family in Hope Peaks had been a woman and her teenage daughter, but both had vanished when the skeletons were found.
From these bare facts, Shindo has constructed a screenplay that’s a rococo, almost theatrical character piece. Practically the entire action takes place within the mother and daughter’s traditional-style wooden house, with a bare, rectangular living area (forming a kind of stage) and a bedroom in back. No knowledge of the real events by which pic was triggered is necessary.
Opening is a kind of grotesque mime as wild-eyed, bedraggled 37-year-old Yumie Taniguchi (Shinobu Otake) and her daughter, Emiko (Ayumi Ito), 17, are seen slowly starving to death in the house. They decide to go out in style, cutting up some flags (including the Pioneer Village one) to make clean clothes, putting on makeup and spending their last two coins on sustenance. They then invite laborers from a nearby dam project to come round. The taciturn Emiko wears sunglasses and pretends to be blind.
With no explanation, the women calmly launch their scheme to get rich and escape the village, where they’re the last surviving family. First guy to drop by is a migrant worker (Katsumi Kiba), whom they charge 20,000 yen upfront for conversation, a drink and a quick sesh in the back room with Yumie. Afterward, he’s offered a free glass of the women’s “special drink,” which causes frothing at the mouth, weird animal noises and delirious death.
Now that the women have enough money to pay their electricity bill, around comes a power company man (Naomasa Musaka) to connect them up again. And so the murderous rondo continues, with a macabre logic. After the power worker snuffs it, along comes the dam’s assistant foreman (Daijiro Harada), who inquires after guy #1; and after him, the power worker’s boss (Santaro Sakigake), and so on. As the women’s stash grows, so their lifestyle improves; but then complications start to break the rhythm of their scheme.
There’s a ritualistic quality to each encounter, with mother, daughter and victim all sitting round a central hearth, with Yumie doing most of the talking and Emiko staring mutely at the man. Each conversation fills in a bit more background to the characters and Japan’s postwar economic development, and any sense of repetition is averted by the terrific, blackly comic performances. (Dying dam foreman: “Roses … have … thorns.” Yumie: “Ah, a literary type!”)
As the mother, Otake dominates the movie, sliding back and forth between a seductive, sophisticated geisha type and — as she spits out her anger at the government’s betrayal — a raging, gurgling harpy. As the daughter, Ito comes more into her own in the second half, when she calmly takes over sexual duties from her mom (“Just like you said, I counted the ceiling joints and said, ‘A, B, C …’ “). These backroom seshes are never shown and, comically, seem to be over in the blink of an eye.
Pic starts to lose its focused sharpness in the third act, as characters proliferate and are bundled into rooms, farce-style, with the arrival of a cop. The bloody finale also doesn’t quite ring true. However, some radical change of pace was clearly necessary after the more formal goings-on to that point.
Technically, pic is clean and stylish, with Hikari Hayashi’s string quartet score providing a brittle, lively commentary on the ironic danse macabre. All in all, “The Owl” is a remarkable bounceback by veteran Shindo after his over-long, more reverential biopic “By Player” three years ago.