Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (Masahiro Shinoda, 1976)


The title of Masahiro Shinoda’s Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees seems to promise a largely soothing experience, and even after the warning in an opening voice over that such trees were historically more to be feared than relished, it still often seems possible that the film might ultimately find its way into such a register. But that’s just one aspect of its continual capacity to surprise and misdirect, being at various other times blackly comic, cartoonishly violent, mythically possessed, or (in the extended relish with which it plunges into urban hustle and bustle) an amused study of the gap between city and country. Ultimately this might all be tied together as an extreme parable on the perils of getting what you wish for, built around a mountain-dwelling bandit in ancient Japan who slaughters a group of travelers from the city, sparing a woman he finds uniquely beautiful and decreeing she’s to be his wife. The captive accepts her fate with strange equanimity, while harassing him from the start and testing him with extreme demands, including that he kill most of the multiple women he already has on hand; eventually she persuades him to move to the city, where he slaughters dozens of victims for the sake of feeding her growing obsession with disembodied heads. But it’s hardly a sustainable way of life, and in the end they set off back to the country, his excitement at going home causing him to disregard his usual caution regarding the cherry trees, and their fate accordingly awaits them. It’s a visually striking ending, but also an evasive one, potentially leaving the viewer feeling rather abandoned. But then there’s a final shot of the trees, certainly looping back to that opening warning, and perhaps commenting more generally on how our modern-day traditions and rituals lack a sense of the past complexity and turbulence from which they arose.

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