Reviews

reviews

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The Text of Shelley’s Death

By Alan Halsey

Using a vast range of sources Halsey collages accounts of Shelley’s last days and events surrounding his boat the ‘Ariel’. The accounts waver and flicker, the very name of the boat itself is uncertain (sometimes it’s the ‘Don Juan’) — everything is round the target — and Halsey’s technique of overlapping phrases which leave off in mid-

I found this a totally enchanting book: it feels lovely between the fingers. Lovely off-white creamy paper of a decent weight adds an air of gravitas. It even smells good.

-air give somewhat the feeling of someone’s papers being put in order after their death. And yet there is, one feels, an admission that no final ordering will be possible in a story which in a sense has ripped through the fabric of reality and no longer can be accessed by mere fact. It belongs in a wider framework involving Shelley’s transcendence and his story/myth becoming of a piece with his work. Halsey calls upon both the historical record (so-called) and Shelley’s writings to produce this piece, picking up on the endless bifurcation and re-bifurcation of every name and event surrounding Shelley’s final voyage He skilfully agglomerates all these sources until ‘I half-remembered my forgotten dream’, and as mantra-like repetitions embed in contradictory reports we get a feeling of the tractability of the record and the otherness or alienating nature of the past — that the past is no more real than the story we have to hand and that Shelley’s poems and fictions can in turn embed into the historical record and become no less real than the truth which here (and thus we suspect everywhere) slips away from us all a fractal jazz of tiny discordant details.

That the sinking of the ‘Ariel’ may have been accidental or intended is here all of a piece with the manner of telling. Byron, flitting in and out of the story like a malign spirit and undergoing his own name-change, manages to miss the burning of Shelley’s body on the beach pyre, and further plangency is added. Halsey serves it all up in an extraordinarily heady manner (‘two bodies’ [var. a body] had been washed up by the sea on 16th [var. 17th July’(p 42)] which we have become used to in the text-wrap generation, and yet somehow reinforces the feeling that we are reading by ‘the light of other days’.
‘Reversions on the Text’, Halsey’s coda on his source materials is enlightening albeit idiosyncratic. As opposed to its condensing operation on the ‘text’, Halsey’s poetic sensibility here seems to reduce the value of the writing. It feels as if The Text of Shelley’s Death has leaked through into it and one finds oneself wishing for some more austerely academic appendix giving chapter and verse to his appropriations. But no doubt that would have been a different book and it would be churlish to think it Halsey’s job to produce it. As it Is we have a list of sources and a fabulous blind index (the entries are here but the page numbers are not) which although it inevitably calls to mind Perec’s index to Life A User’s Manual, yet manages to manifest itself heroically as a free-standing work of art.

Having a copy of Shelley’s collected works to hand would add to the pleasures of this wonderful book which serves to remind us that the past is as provisional as the future.

(The Text of Shelley’s Death published by West House Books, 2001, priced at £8.95. Available from West House Books, 40 Crescent Road, Nether Edge, Sheffield S7 IHN)

Your Thinking Tracts or Nations

by Kelvin Corcoran and Alan Halsey

As with all the West House publications I have seen, this volume is extremely well-produced. It contains 14 reproductions of pictures by Halsey, with ‘poems for each of the pictures’ by Corcoran.
I tried to pick up elements from the images that were used as references in the poems, assuming that this was one of the book’s intentions.

Trying to tie together image and poem is okay when a two-page spread contains both. This is not always the case, some poems being too long for such a format, and much page-turning ensued as I tried to be quite sure that picture related to poem.

As the obvious connecting thread in the book is in the references to the images I found myself relating to the poems mainly on that banal level. These attempts sometimes assumed an unwelcome forensic quality. The book as a whole simply lacks that inexorable internal logic which gives The Text of Shelley’s Death its alluring quality.

The pictures (as reproduced in the spidery lines of black and white plates) are flattened, at times hieroglyphic, surface-patterned, cartographic, Basquiat-like, medieval, reminiscent of post-marks idly graffiti-scribbled over, scratching on blotters, scribbling on schoolbooks. Certainly they are images which are easy enough to plunder, all aspire to the condition of text — indeed all contain text; each one can be reasonably quickly broken down to constituent parts which can turn back into text.
skipped up Lascaux Hill south of the village.
You can look at the pictures and see
exactly what they mean and symbolise.
(Picture 14)

Well, I can’t. What is clear however is that the images can be unpacked as a reversal of the way they were packed. That the pictures themselves demand to be reproduced in colour is made clear by referring to the colour cover reproduction of picture eleven while reading the concomitant poem ‘O yellow flower, ace of ambition’ and there, indeed it is.

And although there are some charming discoveries to be made (such as the ‘mouthless singer’ image and text) in the main we seem to be listening in on a private exposition from Corcoran to Halsey perhaps more than on a dialogue between images and text. As the pictures were all handed over at once, so there are no graphic responses from Halsey to Corcoran.

The poems seem at once secretive and pedagogic; and at first reading left me feeling blocked out — this man doesn’t wear his learning lightly. However further reading began to reveal threads running through a broad sweep of global history, from which I picked up only an occasional reference (that might be an appropriate and intentional metaphor for engaging with the pictures?). Shelley and the ‘Ariel’ pop up again, heroic travel and journeys seem to feature heavily.

Introducing these, however, Corcoran adopts too often the pastiche rhetorical stance of a William Blake cloaked in the prosaic rhythm of a registry office official. Notwithstanding this, his writing throws up individually fascinating moments: ‘will you open a window in my grave? / so we can talk again’ (Picture 9) too frequently to dismiss the need for re-reading.

In the end the formal qualities of the poems are (for me) overtake by constant reference to pictures which on this showing don’t merit such attention, and as he continues, addressing Halsey by name, Corcoran may feel constrained to reveal ‘Actually I’m scratching away at this and feeling fairly fucked by it all’ (Picture 13) but I really don’t want to know that.

By the time I’ve discovered that ‘In the frozen fields of the world / poets die of frostbite or anger / like any other body.’ (Picture 11) I’ve switched off.

(Your Thinking Tracts or Nations published by West House Books, 2001, priced at £7.95. Available from West House Books, 40 Crescent Road, Nether Edge, Sheffield S7 IHN)

 

R. J.

SuperCannes

 

by J. G. Ballard

 

Despite being described as being “The first essential novel of the 21st Century” and the surrounding promise of great expectation, SuperCannes isn’t a bad read at all. Being an unashamed fan of Ballard’s work, it felt as if you were once again walking into that comfort zone of familiar territory. All the reassuring idiosyncrasies were present; late middle-aged pilots with clipped wings, impossibly glamorous and complicated women, urban anthropology, social dissection and character/reader manipulation.

The book runs almost as a compliment to his earlier novel, Cocaine Nights, where the extended Mediterranean coastline provides a playground for (affluent) humankind’s latest evolutionary development.

SuperCannes itself is an enclosed urban utopia — much in the mould of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives — an extended high powered business estate, echoing aspects of High Rise, an area he explored in the mid 1970s, yet is still relevant today.

Told in flashback through the narrative of Paul Sinclair, the recuperating aviator, we are treated to a psychological analysis of the Western human condition, where it appears that if all needs and comforts are met, the voids created by addressing these problems are then filled with the mind games and lunacy of one of Ballard’s stock manipulators.

There’s a superb section where Sinclair’s voice becomes unreliable and his outrage at events on the estate flows seamlessly into apathy as he takes a proscribed cocktail of painkilling drugs to ease his flying injury. It is of course a little later that the narrator realises his medication is actually a lethal sedative mixture . . .

SuperCannes is pacy and succinctly written, in fact, Ballard’s use of understatement is particularly powerful here, as his complex, self-absorbed characters try to find a meaning for existence and purpose in this sanitised environment.

Brought into the Riviera lifestyle by a unique job opportunity, Ballard’s odd couple pick up where a former colleague had apparently run amok with firearms, very much the zeitgeist, that draws obvious parallels, also hinting at aspects of his earlier Running Wild.

Ballard’s protagonist is the odd man out here, recovering from a flying injury whilst his paediatrician wife (her comparative youth is perhaps too frequently mentioned throughout) works in a salubrious medical centre in a place where nobody appears to get ill. With too much time on his hands, our typically unassuming suburban anti-hero begins to act as a clumsy detective, attempting to piece together the real course of events behind the shootings.

Despite the occasional criticisms that have been levelled against Ballard’s writing and subject matter, he still does tell a terrific tale.

(SuperCannes published in paperback by Flamingo, 2001, priced at £6.99)

 

 

Faithless

Directed by Liv Ullmann

Scripted by Ingmar Bergman

Now here’s something interesting, a Bergman veteran actress directing one of the dour one’s screenplays — and doing a commendable job in the process. Based upon a semi-autobiographical period of Bergman’s life, Faithless is slow burning, yet strangely compelling drama about a particularly sordid and eventually disturbing love triangle — running at a lengthy, but wholly necessary, two and a half hours.

We are initially treated to an IKEA by numbers pinewood interior scene where an old man (essentially Bergman) recollects an earlier period of his life and begins a monologue directed at an initially absent ‘other’. Very Beckett. The ‘other’ in question (a middle-aged woman) eventually appears and the ensuing conversation drifts into reminiscence and flashback. Then the story unfolds: Markus is a respected conductor who is happily married to actress Marianne. Their best friend David is a frequent visitor, who often tells their daughter bedtime stories. One evening, whilst Markus is away, David turns up and the evidently latent sexual chemistry between them increases in intensity . . . and so the affair begins.

Faithless unpacks and explores the nature of attraction and infidelity whilst cleverly moving your sympathies around the trio as deception, manipulation and recrimination take hold . . . Needless to say, the end isn’t a happy one.

(available from Tartan DVD, priced at £19.99)

 

Pashazade

by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

 

It’s not difficult to see the attraction of a novel that uses an alternate history as one of its fundamental narrative constructs. Although this conceit has for the greater part remained entrenched in science / speculative fiction, the occasional foray into mainstream literature – and therefore literary acceptability – has occurred under the protective auspices of championing name authors and fashionable post-modernist writing.

Undeniably, these novels allow the reader to enter worlds that resonate with a sense of the familiar, providing accessibility through shared cultural references up to the point of historic divergence, where the various what ifs raised can create some interesting effects, producing – if well crafted – moments of great poignancy and significance.

With such a concept employed at the novel’s heart, it would be all too easy to simply stitch a few patches of characterisation and plot over the skewed temporal framework and stand back in admiration.

Not so with Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s latest novel.

Set forty years from now in the North African city El Iskandryia, Pashazade uses this device as the canvas for the narrative – not the narrative itself.

As the novel progresses, it is made apparent that counter to our history, the Axis powers of the First World War were victorious and the Ottoman Empire, the one-time ‘sick man of Europe’ remains in an uneasy alliance with a Neo-Prussian Germany.

These events are cleverly ghosted into the background, surfacing occasionally and seamlessly into the narrative, integrating historical and cultural aspects for the reader’s benefit.

Pashazade is actually a detective novel, and a fine example at that. Intelligently written and compulsive, the writing is at times beautifully concise – especially as it establishes scenes with an almost cinematic appreciation of visualisation; at others the prose is cut with a hardboiled edge that is redolent of an amphetamine fuelled Raymond Chandler, judging by its explosive pace and deceptively throw-away lines.

The story’s key protagonist, ZeeZee Welham, is led to believe that he is the product of a tryst between his nature photographer mother and a Swedish hitchhiker whilst she was working in Morocco. Throughout a dysfunctional childhood comprised mainly of different boarding schools and sporadic interactions with his absentee progenitor, Welham begins to habitually reinvent himself, assisted and advised by Tiriganaq, the fox, who is either an augmented ceramic brain implant or a delusion of the imaginary friend variety.

Later, having been helped to escape from a Seattle prison for a murder he didn’t commit, ZeeZee is led to El Iskandryia where he discovers his true identity: Pashazade Ashraf al-Mansur, the illegitimate son of the Emir of Tunis.

Whilst in the process of settling in with his new family, Raf suddenly finds himself embroiled in the complexities of an unwanted arranged marriage and framed for the murder of his aunt, Lady Nafisa.

True to the leitmotif of detective fiction, he unravels the mystery at the same pace as the reader, acting and reacting to engineered situations as he slowly pieces together the truth. A handful of main characters are introduced – Zara, his cousin Hani, Police Chief Felix Abrinsky, Lady Jalila – who, like Raf cannot be easily defined or categorised: like most people in extremis they inhabit the all too human grey areas of inconsistency and unpredictability, which these days is a refreshing attribute and admission in fiction.

Grimwood’s future world is completely plausible. Practically everything is labelled in a nomenclature not all that far removed from our own. The science aspects are well researched – gene manipulation and smart technologies abound – and his appreciation of possible cultural mores are totally convincing.

This is as much a quest for identity as it is about detection. Through the medium of flashback and clever plot structure, layers of information are revealed until all narrative threads converge in true Chandleresque style for the revelation at the book’s end.

Pashazade is a delightful hybrid of detective fiction, Science Fiction and alternate history, dusted with the street lyricism of Jeff Noon and a hint of Angela Carter-like magic realism as men do indeed, in the eyes of young girls, briefly flicker and blur into apparitions of silver foxes.

(Pashazade is published in hardback, priced at £12.99 by Earthlight)

 

J. R.

 

House of Leaves

 

by Mark Danielewski

 

In this feat of precocity and playful erudition — ten years in the writing — Mark Danielewski attempts the definitive post-modern novel: about a house whose internal measurements exceed the external and where a visit to the closet can become a bewildering expedition of some months duration into a terrifying and seemingly animistic interior. His interleaved narratives cover some 528 pages of text, screwball typography and footnotes with a further 180 pages of assorted appendices including art-work and poetry. In addition to some compelling stories he provides a metaphor about the limitations of text, some of which comes from the tediousness of devices intended to transcend it, and its antithesis — the illimitable power of the imagination as reflected in the fathomlessness of this house.

In spite of the complexity there is fine writing here. Navidson, photo-journalist and documentary film maker, decides to record his family in their new home. The film does not exist but the story of its manufacture — The Navidson Record — has been written out by an old, possibly mad, blind and dying scholar whose jumbled papers are discovered after his death by an equally unlikely editor, Johnny Truant: erstwhile problem child and trainee tattooist who lives in Los Angeles, the extravagant heartland of cinema, playing out a version of the (male) American dream/nightmare: drugs, booze and sexually voracious but unfulfilling women. Johnny Truant also has editors and, wrapped around each interleaved narrative, is a take on academic literary and film criticism comprising reams of footnote exegesis , plates and erudite quotations as well as gems of imaginative writing. The correspondence in Appendix E charts a psychosis that could take its place alongside Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.

Danielewski draws heavily on Borges with an unacknowledged nod to Eco’s Name of the Rose. Myriad other associations crowd in: the final scene is resonant of The Tempest and the “House” itself — on Ash Tree Lane, sited on Virginia’s fateful Jamestown settlement, has more than a passing resemblance to Nightmare on Elm Street. However, it was not until I saw Michael Curran and Imogen Stidworthy’s video presentations Closing/Close By (Spacex Gallery, Exeter, October/November 2000) that the profundity of Danielewski’s textual imagery fully struck me. They have two video monitors facing each other in what could be an adaptation of a Beckett play. From the darkness of the screens matchlight illuminates the faces of two readers who read aloud, as if to each other, from a collection of film synopses, their words edited by the time between the flare of a match and its extinction. In House of Leaves, Navidson perches precariously, as if on a ledge above the abyss of time, and strikes his remaining matches to illuminate the text of the only book left to him, reading each page and warming himself as he sets it alight.

(House of Leaves is published in paperback by Anchor (GB), priced at £13.00)

 

G. A. R.

 

Gnawing Medusa’s Flesh: The Science Fiction Poetry of Robert Calvert

 

by Steve Sneyd and David Jones

 

One of the biggest regrets of my late teens was not being able to see Robert Calvert perform live. At the time of his last tour, performing under the guise of Captain Lockeed and the Starfighters, I was too ill to attend any of the gigs. He died of a sudden heart attack a few months later; the short obituary in Melody Maker accompanied by an unflattering archive circa 1970s photograph. It seemed so inappropriate, an almost meaningless after-thought before his memory was discarded into the land-fill of music history.

I first encountered Calvert’s work through his involvement with the rock group Hawkwind (one-time collaborators with Michael Moorcock), and was impressed with his articulate vocal style, noting that the better lyrics had either been written or co-written by him. This awareness naturally progressed to a plundering of his back catalogue material and solo projects where Calvert’s interest in Science Fiction and poetic form became increasingly apparent.

On his concept album recordings (which included a host of collaborators ranging from Brian Eno to Viv Stanshall), a sharp intelligence is evident, accompanied by a heady mix of wit and eloquence fused with a smattering of post-modernism.

It is these qualities that have made a lasting impression: the poignant mix of semi-surreal lyric and eerily ambient music in ‘Hero With One Wing’ (Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters) and the playful parody of the Beach Boys in ‘The Lay of the Surfers’ from Lucky Leif and the Longships —

 

. . . antedated and anti-deluvian

I guess you could call us Barbarians

Bar-bar-ians

Bar-Bar

Barbarians . . .

 

best exemplify the diversity of his work.

As part of Hawkwind he introduced elements of the bizarre, Science Fiction and literary references — very much the zeitgeist — into rock song lyrics (‘Steppenwolf’, ‘High Rise’, ‘Robot’) and incorporated performance poetry at concerts over a backdrop of experimental noise.

Gnawing Medusa’s Flesh: The Science Fiction Poetry of Robert Calvert is a comprehensive and informative text comprised of two pieces — Steve Sneyd’s critical essay ‘A Post Review of the Science Fiction Poetry of Robert Calvert’ and David Jones’ thumbnail of Calvert’s musical/poetic output and life ‘Working down a Diamond Mine’ — as well as a discography, bibliography and other references.

‘A Post Review . . . ’ provides an interesting analysis of Calvert’s poems, which although sympathetic, remains objective throughout. Tightly written, well researched and organised, Sneyd does much to justify Calvert’s reputation as being an influential Science Fiction genre poet, reclaiming him from the rubbish-tip of obscurity.

Jones provides good reading too: although concise, this synopsis of Calvert’s background and creative life helps present aspects of the poet’s character and his varied influences. Interlaced with Calvert’s memories and the reminiscences of others, an insightful portrait is presented of a man whose ongoing battle with the demons of creativity would occasionally lead into bouts of mental illness and institutionalisation.

Catch a Falling Starfighter.

(Gnawing Medusa’s Flesh: The Science Fiction Poetry of Robert Calvert is published by Hilltop Press, 4 Nowell Place, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, HD5 8PB, England, priced at £2.99 / $7.00)

 

J. R.

 

Man Bites Dog

 

(1992, Belgium, Directed by Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel & Benoit Poelvoorde, released through Metro Tartan 2000)

 

Imagine this fairy tale scene of post-modernity: one day — or night — some friends get talking about cinema. Perhaps a liberal amount of alcohol has been imbibed — illicit drugs could have been taken . . . who knows? Maybe these friends sat soberly in a café, fuelled only by caffeine and earnest debate. Conceivably much in the way of chin-pulling and gesticulation ensues (an unconscious echo of the turtlenecks and shades of the Satre generation), followed by the happy analysis and deconstruction of the rich cinematic vein of the last 80-odd years. All of which is unlikely and completely immaterial.

But isn’t that the point? I was merely looking for a means of opening and here it is:

- Wouldn’t it be great (says one) to actually make a film that encapsulates these things that we’ve discussed, examines the nature of excess, parodies scenes from certain films and pays homage to others?

- Yes, that would be fantastic, says the second. What a great idea.

- How about fusing together two cinematic disciplines — say comedy and violence — and create a hybridised film that cuts from black humoured hilarity to scenes of graphic violence — imagine laughing at one scene and then being suddenly repulsed by the next. Now, that would be disturbing.

- Yes, that would certainly be ironic agrees one of the others. Ah, well.

- Well, it just so happens that I’ve been working on a rough script, says the third . . . and so it goes.

Time passes and the film in question is made over a lengthy two year period, with many of the trappings and prerequisites of a cult classic are already in existence (a tiny budget of approximately $15, 000, unpaid cameos by friends and family, and of course, the controversial subject matter). It goes on to win three Cannes film festival awards and break box-office records across Europe.

Described as being a ‘spoof verite documentary’, Man Bites Dog , takes the audience upon an unpleasant, albeit visually compelling journey, recording the day-to-day existence of the affable Benoit, a pseudo-intellectual serial killer — with artistic pretensions.

From its opening scene where a vaguely oriental woman is savagely garrotted in a train carriage, through to the graphically naturalistic montage of almost snuff-like murders, the concepts of ‘excess’ and ‘irony’ become uncomfortably close, blurring the boundaries of humour and revulsion. As director Andre Bonzel stated : “We wanted to make the audience laugh, then have them think about what they’ve just laughed at. The whole point is to say to the viewer — look, how can you accept this?”

The documentary soon moves from ill at ease objectivity to complicit subjectivity as the cost of film stock forces the crew to be part-funded by the murder’s stolen cash. This leads up to a brilliant sequence where Benoit is reviewing the film’s rushes of the next scene — as it would appear in sequence to the viewer — and begins to not only deconstruct the footage, but also his ‘performance’ as a murderer!

The film’s conclusion is also interesting — at least you now know where the scariest part of the Blair Witch Project was lifted from . . .

This DVD release also includes a previously unreleased short film Pase de C4 Pour Daniel Daniel by the directorial trio, a stills gallery, filmographies, film review and scene selection.

(Man Bites Dog is currently available on DVD for £19.99 & on VHS for around £15.00)

 

 

“The red shift of history”

 

Wittgenstein’s Devil

 

By Alan Halsey

 

This is one of the most attractively produced books I have seen from Exeter’s Stride. A collection of work produced over twenty years, the earlier pieces work a severe language trying to communicate in a post cataclysmic framework. Just as the Victorian Romantic idea encompassed the broken column in the graveyard, and the picturesque ruin in landscape, so Halsey seems to romantically pitch himself into the ruins of language itself where the mortar between blocks of words has long since rotted away. Language — like the physical infrastructure of this civilisation — has become disjointed. Yet language, we are given to understand, can be refracted, and using his prism on a variety of forms, Halsey aims to output at (or in) an unspecified ‘target’ language.

There are interplanetary remarks, which may be input language (sci-fi), target language (Aetherius Society membership application) or both. At any rate, he seems to be setting his cap at Outer Space. His name-checking within the pieces however, points at the early 20th Century avant-garde canon (plus Cut n’ Paste Billie Burroughs), and it is this rather than any wish to return to a pre-lapsarian golden age of unambiguous communications which suggests a somewhat didactic intent. That said, the feel is more for sculptor Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of its own Making (1961) than any of Schwitter’s scissor-ups.

Name-checking to mark territory is a frequent concern, but to invoke Wyndham Lewis (for goodness sake) is to place a wayward waymarker on a road to nowhere. In these structures when we arrive at them meaning seems to lurk just beyond reach, but like spoil heaps at a goldmine glitter with the possibility of more in future.

Later we find an acceptance of the inability of language to pin down anything, the abandonment of pious sign-posted desperation and its replacement with open-armed playfulness. Such word-play is delightful, endless transformations of one word into the next:

 

pink

pins

skin

(Lizard Abstract)

 

What a great game! Absurdly amusing aphorisms tumble over one another, and one-liners to kill for are the rule, as Halsey finally crashes into the buffers with the title poem, sub-headed with e-mail transmission data, interleaved more mildly now with the old woes (‘Symptoms of the language virus’), ready to go on anyway (‘If I know it then it’s true’), fuelled by cigarettes and extra-strong mints. I don’t understand any of it. Highly recommended.

(Wittgenstein’s Devil is published in paperback, available from Stride, priced at £9.95)

 

 

R. J.

 

Kuroneko

 

(1968, Japan, Directed by Kaneto Shindo, re-released through Fox/Tartan 1995)

 

Set in feudal medieval Japan, Kuroneko is as much a study of the Samurai ethical code – Bushido – as it is an interpretation of a supernatural revenge motif folk tale. Like most Japanese cinema of this period, the film’s reflective pace is accentuated by its clever use of tableau and short scenes of explosive action.

The wild percussive score (Hikaru Hiyashi) of the opening credits and the odd, fixed camera long shot of the first scene relays the bleak – and at times disturbing – tone of this film. Everything is understated and underplayed to great effect. Where western cinema tends to revel in (supposedly) taboo breaking gratuity, Kureneko is all the more powerful for what is implicit, but not shown. This is perhaps best exemplified by the multiple rape and murder scene at the beginning of the film, where a mother and daughter suffer at the hands of a band of roving Samurai. Throughout the whole of this brief and disturbing montage there is no dialogue whatsoever, which when coupled with the image of the fired house, highlights the bestial nature of the atrocity.

True to folkloric tradition, the spirits of the murdered women are resurrected by a scavenging black cat who, by licking and (presumably) partially devouring their charred remains, transforms them into retribution seeking were-women who ‘suck the blood of all Samurai’. The plot then focuses upon an enlisted farmer, Gintoki – the key protagonist – who is introduced in a short, fragmented yet cinematically brilliant duel scene with an Ainu (aboriginal) leader in reedy marshland. Hailed as a hero upon his return (the head of his enemy wrapped in cloth), Gintoki is awarded the rank of Samurai by his scheming liege-lord Raiko, who then honour-binds him to destroy the bloodthirsty monsters killing his men.

Needless to say, when Gintoki discovers his wife and mother missing and his home burnt down, he begins to get somewhat suspicious (not surprising considering the proximity of the murders), especially when he later finds out that vengeful spirits are also bound by dutiful obligation . . .

Shindo, a contemporary of Akira Kurosawa, presents a tragedy that is indicative of the influence of indigenous culture upon cinema, which in this instance is perhaps too marginal for general interest. Although there has been a great tradition of Western cinema translating ideas from the Japanese and vice versa, Kuroneko does not fit easily into this mould because of its conclusion. However, if you do enjoy films such as Ran, Throne of Blood, and Kagemusha, then this should appeal.

 

J. R.

 

 

 

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