Midori: Shoujo Tsubaki
Midori, a young girl, is orphaned with the death of her mother, then deceived and forced into slavery by the proprietor of a travelling freak show. After suffering all manner of bizarre abuse at the hands of the performers, Midori falls into the arms of the troupe's newest member, the dwarf magician Wonder Masamitsu.
The kamishibai, or paper drama, is one of those uniquely Japanese theatrical forms which while easily understood lacks any direct equivalent in the West. Put simply, a man pulls into town, usually on a bicycle or some other simple mode of transportation, carrying with him a small stage. On arrival, in a temple sanctuary or some other public space, he produces a pair of hyoushigi—clappers, connected by ornamental rope, often heard in kabuki theatre; if you have seen anything directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, you are probably familiar with this sound—and announces that a show is about to start. Small concessions are sold, seats are taken, and the show begins. In his little theatre box, the man places a series of illustrated panels, and with them and his voice alone does he weave his tale.
Although the form began didactically, the tool of mediaeval monks to explain the tenets of Buddhism to mostly illiterate peasants, modern performances are more secular, more dramatic. Melodramatic, even: Lurid tales of intrigue, betrayal, ardour, vengeance. The Japanese superhero tradition is born here, in the dog days of the Depression; here, too, is born a very different sort of protagonist: A young ingenue selling camellias by the dockside.
Let's call her Midori.
Midori has had very poor luck thus far. Her father left the family when she was very young, and her mother is bedridden, too ill to provide for or protect her child. A strange man approaches her with a mysterious offer, and she runs home, only to find her mother's body being eaten by rats. Grief-stricken, she returns to the docks, only to run into the same strange man. This time, she follows him.
Mister Arashi is, for lack of a better term, the ringmaster of a small circus, where he is in need of a gofer to attend to his performers during their travels. Said performers, most subject to grotesque physical deformities, take an interest in Midori. An interest, but not a liking: Their lives have hardened them to the point that their only inclination on finding an innocent within their power is to make her suffer. And that they do.
Violence defines this film, in all of its many forms. The most overt displays are often brief and extremely ugly. For instance, on discovering that Midori has secretly been keeping a litter of puppies, the carnival's fire-eater savagely kills the animals with her bare hands and feet. The gore on display is exaggerated past the point of absurdity into the realm of pure discomfort, yet is not lingered upon. The shocks are swift and sharp. Rather, what unnerves most is what is not seen. In an early scene, Uchisute, an armless man covered in bandaged sores, forces himself on Midori while the others sleep. We see very little of this, although what we hear over the howling of the wind outside is more than enough.
Interestingly, the film's most brutal turns only come with the arrival of its closest approximation to a hero. Wonder Masumitsu is, in this time and place, something of a novelty: A practitioner of Western-style stage magic in a Japan less than twenty years out of the Meiji Restoration, replete with coattails and goatee. That he is a dwarf whose main act consists of slipping in and out of a large glass bottle is somewhat less out-of-place. Masumitsu is the first person to show Midori genuine kindness in the film; to whit, he is also the first to challenge Arashi's dubious accounting practices, demanding that all performers receive a fair share. We watch Midori fall in love with him, and we can believe it.
But Masumitsu is not without his dark side, and what a dark side it is, providing the film with its most extravagant and protracted display of visceral excess. Providing full context would, perhaps, spoil some of its potency for those brave few who have read this far and still have half a mind to see this, so I will be circumspect: In a fit of rage fuelled by frustration and jealousy, the magician turns on his audience and demonstrates his true powers at full force. Like the final scene of Harada's previous film, Lullaby for the Big Sleep, it must be seen to be believed; suffice it to say, Cronenberg would be proud.
This is not to say that the film is wall-to-wall cruelty. While violence does indeed define Midori, there are touches of more conventional pathos, and even a wry sense of humour lurking at the edges. Rather, it is the contrasts that make the film's totality so nightmarish. An apology for an unforgivable act delivered earnestly is far more chilling and disorienting than villainy without excuse or remorse; an antagonist that provokes an occasional sour laugh or uncomfortable flash of sympathy in the midst of utter hatefulness, far more troubling. The ending which defines this film as a consummately brutal experience does so precisely because it is preceded by a stretch of relative calm and an odd sense of resolution. Of course, by this point we are primed to expect the worst, and the shift in tone to wistfulness seems slightly absurd even in context, but that queasy absurdity, that sense that this world's kinder turns can only be the stage dressing of horror, somehow only drives that last nail in even harder.
Hiroshi Harada has stated that in adapting Maruo's novel, he put a greater emphasis on the themes of bullying and marginalisation than in the original text, and indeed, there is a sense that the performers themselves are less the villains of the piece than the cycle of brutality itself. Living through hell inspires them to perpetuate this hell. Or perhaps there is some darker force operating through such means. One might call if fate, but given the subjective nature of the film's reality and the inexorable poisoned fairy tale logic by which it proceeds, the suggestion that this is all simply a nightmare cannot be ignored—although who is dreaming is up to personal interpretation.
The vision, in any case, is as much the director's own as the author's, for while Maruo's lavish modern ukiyo-e are often reproduced to the line, it was Harada who drew and painted every frame of this film, having dedicated five years and most of his savings to the project. It is a credit to both that the film looks as good as it does despite its often limited animation and general lo-fi vibe. Likewise, while it was Maruo who established the theatre connection, it was through Harada's ties to the Tenjo Sajiki troupe that experimental rocker J.A. Seazer was recruited to soundtrack the film. Although Seazer has done little other anime work, his name should be familiar to those who have seen Revolutionary Girl Utena, particularly those who have admired the battle themes. Say what one might, this film is not without talent behind it.
But whether that talent was put to good use is not a question that can be answered in isolation. Rather, it must be asked in conjunction with a far simpler one.
How much are you willing to take?
In terms of raw power, anything less than a four would be insulting; in terms of conventional enjoyment, the reverse is probably true. Subtract as many as two stars if unrelenting misery and dubious production values are not your idea of fun. Conversely, add as many as two stars if experimental indie animation and deeply personal explorations of human depravity are exactly what floats your boat. — Julian Malerman
Recommended Audience: I don't think that I should have to explain this one at length. Even setting aside some of the scenes I have already detailed, there is plenty to object to here. Need I mention the sex scene where a man licks dust off a crossdresser's eyeball? No, context is not necessary.
Version(s) Viewed: Official English subtitles from the French R2 DVD release.
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Midori: Shoujo Tsubaki © 1992 Hiroshi Harada / Mippei Eigeki Kiryukan / Suehiro Maruo / Seirindō
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