October 05, 2005


In the final analysis, Inugami looks better than it actually is, the parts adding up to more than the whole. The first of those parts is the gorgeous cinematography, beginning with a sweeping aerial shot of Shikoku, a part of Japan where the boondocks are still out in the middle of nowhere. So everything is effused with, on one hand, an incredibly luxuriant verdant green, and on the other, spooky old stuff that creates most of the mood of the film.

The title translates literally as "The Dog Gods," a reference to Shinto deities that can possess and make tools for vengeance of their human subjects. To be sure, no actual dogs show up (they seem to be symbolized by gusts of wind). Rather, this particular family carries the curse of the Inugami who, when provoked, strike out with tragic consequences.

And it is about halfway through the movie when I said to myself, Hey, Oedipus Rex! With a few cultural deviations--Shinto mysticism and a Hatfield/McCoy feud as the dramatic engine--it follows the plot if not to every letter then to enough of them to spell things out. One thing that becomes obvious is how sudsy and shaggy Sophocles' classic really is. No wonder Freud couldn't resist picking up the ball and running all over the field with it.

Once art achieves "classic" status, the cultural morticians drain it of the sinful pleasures packed them into the seats in the good old days. I saw Antigone at Brigham Young University many years ago, one of those productions that tried oh-so-seriously to be "authentic." It was boring as hell. When the play was originally staged it wasn't packed in formaldehyde, it was the talk of the town. Faux "authenticity" turned it into a moldy old museum display.

Inugami, in contrast, crescendos with the kind of over-the-top melodramatic turns that make it hard to take too seriously. Maybe that's the point. When you've got a story about a guy marrying his mother and killing his father and people getting hanged and poisoned--at least no eyes get gouged out--what do you expect? It's Jerry Springer for the cultured classes. A lot of respectable Greeks probably thought the same about Sophocles.

Though unlike the Greek version, while the necessity of proper worship (to prevent the curse from manifesting itself) pervades the story, the conflict is never brought onto an explicitly moral plane. The gun in act one goes off in act three, but more for reasons of self-preservation than the demands of cosmic justice. If there is an object lesson to be learned, it's that it's not a good idea to mess with people with "issues," especially of the ancient family curse variety.

A counter argument is that, from a Confucian perspective, adherence to ritual by itself demonstrates the requisite moral integrity. Indeed, according to the Inugami legends, it is the respect for ritual (or lack thereof) that brings fortune or disaster upon those possessed by the gods.

In any case, apart from religious and ethical implications, Inugami can be viewed as an (rather sordid) documentary about the growing rupture between tradition and the suffocating constrictions of small town life. In this post-industrial age, it is a theme with an almost universal, intensely nostalgic resonance. And considering Japan's plummeting rural population, like America's failing Midwest farming towns, one of no small social importance.

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