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Tomu Uchida: Part 2

April 13th, 2008 (01:39 pm)

Movie #2: The Mad Fox (Koi ya koi nasuna koi).

Another Uchida spin on a traditional tale...

© 2008 D. Gordon

The Mad Fox is a combination of bunraku and kabuki plays*, with a screenplay written by Kenji Mizoguchi's writer, Yoshikata Yoda. It's a story of an ominous portent in an eruption of Mount Fuji, leading to treachery in a noble's household; murder and madness; a missing scroll; a kindness and an attack; and the redeeming power of love, forbidden though it might be. In addition, these events are presented as the beginning of the end of Heian Japan during the 12th century - one of the most significant political and historical periods in Japanese history (and one I have every intention of learning more about).

Like Chikamatsu, the details are in the viewing more than the story. This time there is no narrator to act as deus ex machina, but there is that unique use of colors (unfortunately this film also could use some restoration work) and storytelling traditions such as kabuki. This film is a successor to Chikamatsu in this regard and in some senses is a more ambitious effort, although it's difficult to say that either movie uses these techniques more successfully. Chikamatsu seems to have a more solid tale underlying it, while The Mad Fox has a more intensive use of Uchida's visual experiments.

Be that as it may, it's still a very striking film. There are two specific instances of Uchida's experimentation that especially stand out.

The first comes at what is probably the first major story transition, right after Sakaki's death has driven Abe no Yasuna, the late court astronomer Kamo no Yasunori's loyal apprentice (and Sakaki's adopted father) mad. There has been extensive use of color before this point, in the set and especially in clothing: Sakaki, for example, has been arrayed in a vivid orange kimono with flowers strewn over it; she has an additional train of white bleeding into deep purple for her audience with the Emperor. But it's at the at point that the insane Abe, dressed in torn, filthy, bland clothing, is begging the gods to reunite him with Sakaki or at least someone with her spirit (and watch what you ask for), that things get... trippy, for lack of a better word. He arises with a topknot, his tattered white kimono now white one blending into purple, arrayed with flowers (much like Sakaki's audience train). Sakaki's orange kimono, which he has clutched since her murder, is still draped over one shoulder. But the place where he arises is no longer a field; it's now an intense mustard yellow landscape of flowers, yellow screens providing a wall of yellow, with yellow streamers from above just visible. Everything is the same yellow yellow yellow, except for Abe standing in the middle. He then performs a kabuki dance expressing his grief and wish to find Sakaki again in some form. And with his devotion in his grief, who's to say that the gods don't hear and take pity on him?

There aren't many pictures of Uchida's films on the web; perhaps the one posted at Paul Rowley's blog - a black and white still tinted yellow - is about the best you can do (although that yellow isn't quite the right shade). But that does express the effect of that scene: yellow hangs in the air.

The second instance would be during the "kabuki" segment as Sakaki's parents and twin sister Kuzunoha (yes, identical twin) locate Abe and his fox-wife's mountain hut. The set is on a stage, as it would be for a play, with props and painted effects. (In fact, as Abe realizes that his wife is neither Sakaki, her sister, or most likely human, the set revolves around him to allow him to look into the window of the hut at his wife. Very neat, and unexpected.) The fox-woman, who loves him but knows that the deception of their love must now end, magically grabs their infant son and shuts Abe out of the hut. As he bangs at the door, she - cradling the baby - clutches a brush in her teeth and writes a message on the rice paper of the door. Difficult enough to write legibly with her teeth and write backwards for Abe and Sakaki's family to read from the other side; but there's an unearthly quality to how the ink soaks through the paper, as the almost ghostly message appears before the humans. A very unique way for a fox spirit to declare her love to Abe.


Many of Uchida's effects would be done with CGI today, so the ones that don't quite work (the fox spirits running across the fields, for example) can be forgiven. It reminds me of how the Beatles wanted to do things with Yellow Submarine a few years later that weren't possible at the time - and yes, trippy is the way to describe it. However, other effects - such as the animation sequence of the red from Mount Fuji, a white rainbow cutting through it - work quite well. But all of this is a sign of someone not afraid to take standard techniques and combine them in nonstandard ways to tell a story. Maybe sometimes it edges into form over substance; but it's more than worthwhile seeing his work.

But - there is no way I can adequately describe what happens on the screen. Where are the English-language DVDs??? Oh please please please...


* Midnight Eye states that the narrative is "[t]ackling a story drawn from Japanese folklore, detailed in An Account of Ashiya Domon (Ashiya Domon Ouchi Kagami), a ningyo-joruri puppet play written by Izumo Takeda," although I can't find any other English-language information about that (and I know one character in Japanese %^<). Interestingly enough, Ashiya Domon is the disloyal apprentice of court astronomer Kamo no Yasunori in the story.