Tatsuya is coming home – to see the birthplace of his mother, to attend the funeral of his maternal grandfather, and perhaps something more. The current head of the wealthy Tajima family (barons as it were of the rural town of Yatsuhaka-mura) is ailing and near death, and with no other heir apparent seems intent on granting that honor to Tatsuya – his step-brother, estranged from the family since infancy.
Unfortunately for Tatsuya that honor seems to grow more dubious with each passing day. In addition to the predictable greed of relations both distant and otherwise (all itching to take a slice of the Tajima pie to further their own personal agendas), the downright oddball behavior of the household’s overseers (a pair of spinster great-aunts who chortle, insult, and prowl at night), and the less-than-kindly townsfolk (disgruntled farmers, inept policeman, gossips, and an old crazy obsessed with “The curse, the curse!”), Tatsuya also finds himself confronted with the slight issue of murder. Someone or something is targeting the villagers for destruction, a modern crime which many believe had its beginnings in the distant past.
How distant, you ask? Why 400 years! Deep in the warring states period eight wayward samurai from the Amako clan descended upon the village in hope of escaping their conquerors, the Mori clan. Though at first welcomed by the villagers for their hard work and kindness, the promise of incredible rewards from the Mori clan inspired a swift and drastic change of heart. A plot was hatched among the villagers – as they attended a local festival the unsuspecting samurai were to be ambushed and murdered, and their heads taken as prizes for the Mori clan. The fateful night arrived and the plan was grimly executed, but the betrayed Amako swore retribution, cursing the village with their dying breaths.
From that night onward the village is plagued by recurrent spates of seemingly irrational violence, each connected somehow to its most prominent family, the Tajimas, who were formalized in the immediate aftermath of the samurai slaughter by chief conspirator Shozaemon. It’s a fortuitous beginning for the Tajima family, who were granted extensive land rights (and with them near total local power) by the Mori clan for their traitorous work, but one which is short-lived. Not long thereafter founding father Shozaemon goes positively insane, murdering seven of his fellow townsfolk before gruesomely decapitating himself. The numerical connection, eight for eight, proved too much for villagers to ignore, and the fear of the curse began. Suitably scared for their own skins, the surviving townspeople gathered the scattered remains of the samurai for proper burial and erected a mountain shrine in their honor. Soon the town came to be known for the eight graves which overlooked it – Yatsuhaka-mura, the Village of 8 Gravestones.
And thus peace returned to the village, for a few generations at least. But twenty-eight years prior to the events of the film, shortly after Tatsuya’s mother fled Yatsuhaka-mura with her infant child in tow, misfortune struck the village once more from the troubled house of Tajima. Driven to madness by forces unknown, head of house Yozo murdered his young wife with a samurai sword before donning grotesque make-up and descending upon Yatsuhaka-mura with a shotgun in one hand and a sword in the other. Thirty two were massacred in total and some families obliterated entirely before Yozo escaped into the labyrinth of caves beneath Yatsuhaka-mura, never to be seen again. Despite reparations paid in cash and land the Tajima reputation was forever tarnished, and the tale of the curse of the slaughtered eight began to circulate afresh.
With memories of that tragedy still well in mind the new round of murders are enough to send Yatsuhaka-mura spiraling towards panic. As the body count rises newcomer Tatsuya finds himself a prime suspect to the villagers, whose long-repressed grievances against the Tajimas have finally boiled over. With the local police powerless to maintain order and a lynch-mob growing just beyond the walls of the Tajima household Tatsuya makes his escape into the caves below, following in the ignoble footsteps of his supposed father Yozo and desperately searching for answers. Meanwhile a certain detective is prowling, intent on piecing together the puzzle for himself even if its ultimate solution is almost too fantastic to be believed…
While it remains relatively unknown in the West (there is a French translation, at least), YOKOMIZO Seishi’s postwar mystery novel Village of 8 Gravestones remains one of the most popular of its type in its native Japan. The fourth full-length work to feature the author’s beloved detective KINDAICHI Kosuke, Village of 8 Gravestones was initially serialized over a whopping two years (March of ’49 to March of ’51) in Kodansha’s Weekly Shonen and has since been adapted three times for film (including a missing-in-action 1951 version from Toei and a 1995 effort from director ICHIKAWA Kon), six times for television, at least once for the theater, and, courtesy of From Software (Demon’s Souls), has even made the leap to the realm of video games (and this is ignoring the numerous print variants, including a wealth of manga iterations). Of all these adaptations Shochiku Co.’s 1977 effort was one of the most ambitious, a ¥700 million (roughly $3 million at the time) mega-production designed to go head-to-head with rival major Toho’s blockbuster product at the box office. The bid was well calculated. Village of 8 Gravestones turned a small fortune for Shochiku – ¥1.986 billion, roughly $8 million and more than twice the studio’s investment, making it the third highest grossing film of the year (a good one for the studio, with the dependable Tora-san‘s 18th and 19th entries adding a combined ¥1.935 billion to Shochiku’s box office take for 1977, and netting the 6th and 10th top-grossing spots respectively).
It’s well worth noting that big production values don’t always lead to great or even good films, but Shochiku were quite astute in their efforts, drawing together some of the best talent active in the industry at the time to make their big-deal feature a reality. The duty of adapting Yokomizo’s novel for the screen fell to HASHIMOTO Shinobu, arguably one of the most important screenwriters in postwar Japanese film history and a man whose credits read like a checklist of popular blockbusters and essential masterworks (Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, Kobayashi’s Harakiri, and Moritani’s Submersion of Japan, to name a very few). More pertinent to the film at hand are his frequent collaborations with NOMURA Yoshitaro (including Zero Focus, The Shadow Within and Castle of Sand), the venerable and prolific Shochiku director tasked with bringing Village of 8 Gravestones to the screen.
In its structure Village of 8 Gravestones reminds heavily of the screenwriter’s other collaborations with the director (particularly the then-recent Castle of Sand), and of many of the latter’s other films besides. Nomura’s penchant for flashbacks (well in evidence even in the earliest of his work that I have seen, 1958’s Stakeout) may have found its perfect outlet with this production, in which the material allows him to traverse not just hours or days but whole hundreds of years with a single cut. Indeed, the film begins with the fated samurai looking down upon the village that will be their doom before transitioning, with a hard cut and the roar of a jet engine, from a close-up of an Amako clansman in 1566 to a wide shot of a JAL airliner landing in 1977. In an instant the pastoral images of rural life and warm hues of an autumn sunrise give way to hazy smog, the glint of aluminum, and a pale concrete runway shimmering with summer heat – an abrupt collision of past and present that aptly sets the tone for what is to follow. Nomura may well be the master of the flashback technique, which by this point in his career was as essential an aspect of his storytelling as the moving image itself. More than just a tool for major revelation, Nomura uses flashbacks where other directors might settle for more traditional exposition, and goes so far as to eschew expository dialogue all together where the images alone will suffice. It’s a less obtrusive device than one might suspect, even used so often as it is here, and the atypical narrative flow that results is a big reason this Village of 8 Gravestones feels so uniquely of Nomura’s making.
The device also results in what are arguably Village of 8 Gravestones‘ two most memorable scenes – the ambush of the eight Amako samurai in 1566 and later massacre of 32 by the demented Tajima. The former is brilliant old-school horror stuffs, punctuated as it is with unexpectedly graphic violence (the suffering visited upon these unsuspecting samurai is ghastly indeed) and a curse delivered as an electrical storm rages overhead. The latter plays like a bona fide art-house nightmare, with the demonic Tajima hacking, slashing, and blasting his way through the hapless population of Yatsuhaka-mura as cherry blossoms drift down from above. There’s a sense of vengeful justice to the scene, with its almost heroic scoring and elegant slow-motion takes of Tajima charging through the cherry blossoms. The accompanying music is rousing and propulsive, calling to mind the golden age of the American western, and is one of the most evocative of acclaimed classical and prolific cinema composer AKUTAGAWA Yasushi’s contributions to the film. The contrast of Akutagawa’s heroic overtones with the horrific violence onscreen (Tajima cutting down tens of men, women and children in cruel and gory fashion) is a big part of what makes the scene so unforgettable and disturbing. More so still the fact that many of its details were founded in the real-life Tsuyama massacre (right down to Tajima’s bizarre choice of headgear – a pair of military-issue flashlights), a grim historical grounding that lends the scene an exploitative tabloid appeal that’s every bit as delicious as it is difficult to justify.
The frequent flashbacks aside Village of 8 Gravestones offered Nomura an opportunity to dabble in his other directorial idiosyncrasies as well, including a fondness for long takes of characters strolling down rural roads (a staple image of Castle of Sand with comparative examples to be found throughout his work) and a fascination with the depiction of rail travel that borders on the obsessive (his 1958 feature Stakeout offers perhaps the most ostentatious example of this, a 7 and a half minute pre-credits jaunt on an express train from Yokohama to Hakata). Nomura’s persistent establishment of location shifts with superimposed text is present and accounted for, and taken to an almost parodic extreme during detective Kindaichi’s mid-film investigative travelogue – seven changes in location across two minutes, with most accompanied by superfluous degrees of superimposed time and location data. Indeed, Kindaichi’s involvment in the proceedings can itself seem quite perfunctory, and rather than being the focus of the piece (a Kindaichi mystery!) is instead used by Nomura as a device to explore yet another of his perennial interests – that of adults haunted by troubling childhood events (a theme echoed in Castle of Sand, The Shadow Within, Writhing Tongue and others). To that end Tatsuya, whose hazy past comes into focus through the events around him, is a quintessential Nomura protagonist (though contrary to Castle of Sand et al, here it’s a haunting from the past doing the revealing as opposed to a haunting past being revealed). Village of 8 Gravestones remains a mystery film regardless, but as is typical of Nomura, the mystery it’s most interested and engaged with isn’t likely to be the one the audience expects.
While some of this may seem exceedingly minor (and some of it really is), it all adds up to a style as distinctive as that of any of the more lauded auteurs, one which Nomura established early and exhibited with surprising consistency throughout his thirty year tenure as a director for Shochiku. Beyond his own curious proclivities, a lot of that consistency doubtless lies with the professionals Nomura so regularly surrounded himself with. Perhaps most notable among them is director of photography KAWAMATA Takashi, a frequent Nomura collaborator from 1961’s Zero Focus onward. His photography here is much in line with that of the earlier Castle of Sand, eschewing a more heavily stylized genre approach in favor of a more neutral and restrained one, and punctuated with more dramatic flourishes where justified (a few intense and angular setups contrast heavily with Kawamata’s otherwise level and distanced compositions). Aforementioned composer Akutagawa was a frequent accomplice as well, first paired with the director as Nomura was establishing himself in the late 1950s – for Village of 8 Gravestones he followed up the symphonic tour de force of Castle of Sand with another of his very best scores. The styles on display are appropriately eclectic for a film so concerned with the clash of distant past and modern present, and set so unusual a tone in some sequences that it borders on the absurd. A late film wander through Yatsuhaka-mura’s caves by Tatsuya and and a Tajima family confidant quickly develops into a veritable travelogue of death (the caves are strewn with the recently deceased, all victims of murder), but Akutagawa willfully contradicts its abject ghoulishness with a slow waltz that’s practically dripping with romance. The five minute cue may well be the highlight of Akutagawa’s entire score, and for the cumulatively oddball Village of 8 Gravestones it strikes just the right (if rather strange) chord, ultimately pulling viewers in precisely the unexpected direction Nomura intended. Shochiku was so certain of Akutagawa’s talents that they actively sold the picture on them; one of their five (!) theatrical trailers for the film is devoted to his involvement, and puts his waltz front and center.
Not to be outdone by those involved behind the camera, Village of 8 Gravestones’ cast is a hodge-podge of new stars and established talent that ranks among biggest and best of its time. This is the sort of production in which even the most incidental of roles is filled with a seasoned professional, with such familiar names as HAMAMURA Jun (The Burmese Harp), OTAKI Hijeki (Deathquake) and IGAWA Hisashi (Pitfall) to be found among the supporting players. KATO Yoshi (Profound Desires of the Gods) seems to relish his brief appearance as Tatsuya’s maternal grandfather (who manages to utter only a couple of garbled words before spectacularly snuffing it from strychnine poisoning) while TODA Junko (The Blossom and the Sword) is goofily convincing as an elderly and curse-obsessed local crazy. ATSUMI Kiyoshi (Tora-san himself, and one of the most bankable actors in the history of Japanese cinema) took on the all-important role of detective Kindaichi, and lends the character an easy-going personality that contrasts wonderfully with Yatsuhaka-mura’s increasingly fear-crazy townsfolk. Though Atsumi may have been the de facto star of the picture it’s HAGIWARA Ken’ichi (musician, actor, and lead vocalist of the late ’60s pop group the Tempters) as Tatsuya who takes center stage dramatically, playing the essential straight man around whom Village of 8 Gravestones‘ considerable craziness revolves. OGAWA Mayumi (Vengeance is Mine) and YAMAMOTO Yoko (Gappa the Triphibian Monster) each take hefty supporting turns as rare voices of reason from within the Tajima household, while ICHIHARA Etsuko (The Eel) and YAMAGUCHI Ninako are appropriately insidious and creepily inseparable as the two great aunts. Even with such a bounty of fine performances to be had YAMAZAKI Tsutomu (Tampopo) and NATSUYAGI Isao (Warm Water Under a Red Bridge) can’t help but steal the show, and ghoul it up in iconic fashion as Yatsuhaka-mura’s pair of resident boogeymen – the deranged Tajima Yozo and the betrayed Amako samurai leader respectively.
If it sounds to you as though I’m singing the praises of Village of 8 Gravestones too highly, you’re probably right. But one should know that my enthusiasm lies less with any subjective judgement of its greatness on my part than the fact that I find it so endlessly, and perhaps even obsessively, interesting. I’ve screened it more times for the purpose of this review alone than I can rightly remember (a dozen or so over the past week I’d guess), and as I become ever more intimately acquainted with the idiosyncratic minutiae that form its whole such objective qualifiers as “good” or “bad” seem increasingly inapplicable to my case. I am fascinated by the intellectual experience of the thing, pure and simple, and by the contradictory sense that the more I see it the less it seems like any film I have ever seen before. To some extent I could say the same of the rest of the Nomura film’s I’ve seen, all of which are strikingly similar and yet no two of which seem the same. Among them Village of 8 Gravestones stands as perhaps the quintessential example of what makes Nomura’s cinema so unique. Practically all of the director’s stylistic quirks are present and accounted for, and often in spades, but the film remains highly accessible by virtue of its mainstream genre pedigree. For those curious to explore Nomura’s work there is no better starting point than this and, in case this mountain of words hasn’t already made it obvious, I recommend!
Village of 8 Gravestones is reviewed from the Shochiku blu-ray, which was released on October 3rd and from which the screenshots in this review were gleaned. The disc offers no English subtitle or audio options, but does present the film in a lovely new HD restoration made with the assistance of cinematographer KAWAMATA Takashi. The restored audio is presented in two flavors of 96 kHz / 24-bit LPCM – the film’s original 4.0 stereo and 2.0 monophonic mixes – and is supported by optional Japanese SDH subtitles. Shochiku’s 5-trailer ad campaign is the only supplement – these are also newly transferred in HD with 96 kHz / 24-bit LPCM audio, and total roughly 17 minutes in all. Village of 8 Gravestones is dual layered and appears to be all region compatible (it played without issue on my Region B secondary deck), and retails for a relatively reasonable ¥3,300. As of this writing it can be had for around $30 shipped from Amazon.co.jp.