An Innocent Witch opens harshly with cymbals, brass and drums. Voices wail in horror or emit low, chant-like moans. As we read the superimposed credits, the camera slowly moves right-to-left over gases and small flames emanating from the earth. A crescendo; dark clouds loom over a sinister seaside mountain, utterly black. The voices shriek and tumble; the music ends. Almost immediately we hear another sound: the rumble of a bus engine. The camera follows the vehicle’s journey left-to-right as we are informed, in the bland manner of a travelogue voiceover, that Mount Osore in Aomori Prefecture is one of the three holiest mountains in Japan. This is where the souls of the dead are supposed to gather; it is also, according to Wikipedia, the reputed entrance to Hell. We watch an old woman hobbling behind the bus, back bent and head covered with a shawl. There is music again – not the foreboding modernist strains of the opening, but something traditional, ritualistic, percussive. It is being played at the annual midsummer festival, during which people worship the dead and communicate with them via mediums. Seeing the temple, the bleak volcanic landscape, the procession of worshipers, the wooden memorial stupas (called sotoba), we could, briefly, be watching an ethnographic documentary. Maintaining his bland tone, the narrator now focuses on the old woman, Kikuno, a lonely widow who has been coming to Osore for more than twenty years to converse with her daughter Ayako. After muttering an affirmation of her belief in Amitabha, she approaches an even older woman, a blind shaman, whom she asks to contact her daughter. The shaman chants, rolls her beads, calls upon the spirit to speak to her. The drumming continues. Brief shots of stone buddhas and bubbling springs, suggesting the presence of the supernatural, are interspersed among close-ups of Kikuno’s hunched shoulders and sad face. We are no longer in ‘documentary’ mode; the voiceover has stopped; there will be no more of it. As Kikuno apologizes to her daughter for her failings as a mother, the camera moves slowly to the left. For one jarring moment there is silence. Then, the cawing of seagulls; they begin to appear on the screen in a dissolve. Over this cawing, we hear a few notes of orchestral music – more ominous modernist stuff. We have moved back into the past (Autumn 1938, a caption tells us), the short silence marking the boundary – a boundary between the living and dead as much as between past and present. Has this transition happened only in Kikuno’s mind, her memories triggered by the occasion? Or has the shaman summoned up the dead Ayako to tell us her story? That the camera movement that leads to this transition starts from a shot of Kikuno’s head might suggest the former, but Kikuno will be a minor character in what follows, most of the story playing out without her. We watch her run out of her hovel on the beach to greet her daughter, who stands knee-deep in water gathering seaweed. We see Ayako’s face, hear her answer her mother; she is young, beautiful, healthy, smiling; we know already that this cannot last.
All this happens within the first six minutes. The detail is perhaps excessive, but I wanted to convey something of the richness, concision and variety of Gosho’s approach. It’s a very different work from the only other Gosho film that I’ve seen, the charming, bittersweet Dancing Girl of Izu, made more than thirty years earlier. There’s little sweetness here, and much bitterness. The story follows Ayako as she is sent to work at a brothel to support her parents, the father having been incapacitated by a back problem and the mother unable to make much money from selling seaweed. Initially, Ayako serves only as a maid, but she is soon introduced to prostitution. Three men will have a significant impact on her short life: the repulsive old timber merchant Yamamura, who becomes her first client; the young, inexperienced Kanjiro; and the somewhat older Kanichi. Her relations with these men lead to her being shunned as a woman possessed by evil spirits (rather than a witch, as the English title might lead you to believe), and it is her response to this ostracism that results in her death.
Above: Ayako (left) and her parents at home. Nice arrangement of the characters’ gazes.
When we meet first meet Yamamura, he is seen gazing lecherously at Ayako as she goes about her cleaning work, unaware of his presence. The brothel’s madam is at his side; they nod conspiratorially; the camera moves in to focus on him licking his lips. Soon afterwards, as she hands out tips, the madam informs the prostitutes that Yamamura has agreed to sleep with Ayako. It’s not clear whether Ayako, who is absent in this scene, has yet been made aware of this.
Above: Yamamura, an obvious rotter.
One thing worth noting is that although Ayako, in the early scenes, is glowingly happy and full of youth, and although her mother worries, before sending her away, that she knows nothing of the world, she is not the pure, naïve ingénue one might expect in a conventional Western story of a girl corrupted by prostitution. Both Ayako and her mother seem to know that, at some point, the duties expected of her will move beyond mere cleaning, and there is no great surprise when the moment comes, no anguished plea to retain her virtue, no melodramatic wallowing in the loss of innocence. Which is not to say that Ayako is unperturbed; as she kneels, elaborately dressed and coiffured, in front of a mirror, listening to the madam’s advice to be patient and submissive with Yamamura, we see her plunged into a crisis of silent uncertainty. The composition is remarkable, with the side-view of the madam’s head, the back of Ayako’s head, and Ayako’s downcast reflected face forming a descending diagonal (there’s more to come on Gosho’s use of mirrors and reflections). The whole scene is a horrible parody of a mother’s pep-talk to a daughter on her wedding day – indeed, the madam makes the comparison herself, observing that all women must go through the same thing, going so far as to congratulate Ayako on her ‘luck’ in having Yamamura as a ‘husband’. Soon afterwards, when the madam presents the far-from-eager Ayako to the client, she says, jokingly, “I apologize, sir, but the ‘bride’ usually likes to tease the ‘groom’.” When he insists that Ayako drink saké with him, Yamamura remarks on the ceremonial nature of the situation, comparing it to a wedding. Ceremonial niceties are abandoned, however, when Yamamura holds Ayako down and rapes her, laughing off her protests. The arrogant, entitled exercise of male authority – one of the film’s main themes – is here at its most brutal, and the repeated nuptial references imply that such brutality is not to be found only in brothels.
After this ordeal, Ayako is comforted by Iroha, another prostitute, who advises her to sell her body, not her heart – that is, to treat sex as a business transaction devoid of any emotional entanglements or possibilities for love. When we skip forward by a year (to 1939), Ayako seems to have followed her friend’s advice perfectly, to the extent that she has become the brothel’s biggest money-maker. When Kanjiro makes his uncomfortable entrance, he says that he is only tagging along with his friends and that he is not there as a customer. He says that he might come in if Ayako begs him, which she does – mockingly, however, and with easy success. We can see the power relation in this scene in the blocking and composition; Ayako is at one point standing on the steps looking down on Kanjiro, their heads forming a diagonal. Our first glimpse of Kanjiro is as a tiny face reflected in a mirror (the same mirror Ayako has used to check herself after seeing off a previous customer) squeezed between two Ayako heads, her actual one and her reflected one. When the two of them are together in Ayako’s room, it’s a reversal of her earlier scene with Yamamura; this time, it is the man who is nervous, reluctant and virginal, while the woman is the confident, worldly seducer (Ayako being rather more graceful about it than Yamamura, of course). Kanjiro responds to this humiliating state of affairs by pouncing on Ayako, violently trying to kiss her; after she easily fends him off, he attempts to justify his action by claiming that, as a paying customer, he has the right to do whatever he wants. Not so, replies Ayako; he is not allowed to kiss her. As Kanjiro becomes a regular customer, however, the interdiction is forgotten, and the two fall in love.
That love is made fragile by historical circumstance: Kanjiro is preparing to pass his military exams before being sent off to war. Japan’s wartime activities are never very far in the background. Just before Ayako’s arrival at the brothel, we see navy sailors marching in the street outside; a few minutes later, a group of sailors (who were perhaps among those seen marching) enter, singing a patriotic tune (military music is often heard in the film). Sailors and soldiers are depicted as frequent customers; in one scene, a prostitute hopes for the return of a battleship when business is slow. The friends Kanjiro accompanies to the brothel are celebrating because one of them has just passed his enlistment exam. The women exhort passing sailors and soldiers to become customers as part of their patriotic duty. The reality of the military’s dependence on prostitution for maintaining morale – Ayako even is told at one point that she is serving her country on the home front just as soldiers are serving it in Manchuria – is passed over by a hostile officer, who berates Ayako for inspiring lust and corrupting virtuous soldiers. This officer is another face of repressive, abusive male authority – an authority that is pervasive throughout the country, one that weighs down not only on women, but also on men low in the hierarchy. The violent nature in which this authority is exerted, which reaches its apogee in war, constricts and stifles the lives of those condemned to live under it. We see propagandist newspaper headlines and hear gunfire before cutting to Kanjiro reading aloud some militaristic guff from one of his study texts; when Ayako enters, the entire scene is scored with marching music. Later, as Kanjiro bids farewell before going off to fight, he makes love to Ayako under a national flag, with the names of well-wishers signed in the shape of the rising red sun’s rays (before being persuaded to do so, Ayako had refused to sign the flag, citing her unworthiness). Overlaying the orchestral music, we hear guns, bombs and airplanes, which fade away when the lovers affirm their love for one another. They briefly kiss; we hear a bomb go off. Kanjiro promises to return; the gunfire and bombs start up again. It’s a startling scene, vividly capturing all the intolerable pressures of war, sex, love, class and duty.
Gosho visualizes the confinement felt by Ayako and her fellow prostitutes, their sense of being trapped, by frequently filming them through vertical wooden beams that look like prison bars. At one point, we see these bars reflected in a mirror; the camera slowly moves round to reveal Ayako’s reflected face, her hand at her throat (suggesting a condemned woman about to be hanged, and echoing an earlier scene in which Ayako grasps her neck in anguish on hearing some unwelcome news). It’s a brilliant moment, trapping Ayako inside bars that exist not in ‘real’ space, but in the otherworldly mirror-space in which Ayako also finds herself. There are at least three levels of visual confinement here: the small dimensions of the real-space room, the suggested mirror-space prison cell, and the flat-space mirror frame that surrounds Ayako’s reflected face (not to mention the cinema screen itself… but let’s not go down that rabbit hole). Mirrors can often make a room seem larger than it really is, but in this film, they seem to diminish it, increasing only the sense of confinement. As I say, brilliant.
The brothel is a compellingly realized space: cramped and claustrophobic, much of it plunged by the cinematography (great work by Shinomura Sozaburo) into an oppressive darkness that can occupy much of the frame. Within these confines, Gosho’s camera moves with an elegant mobility that seems almost perverse in its contrast to the constricted characters whose movements it captures, as if it were adopting the perspective of a hidden peeping tom somehow able to move about freely in this quasi-prison. Among the most memorable scenes are those in which the prostitutes sit in a small, cage-like (thanks again to the vertical wooden bars) display area facing the street, flattering and enticing the men who pass by, and insulting those who reject or ignore them. In one of these scenes, a prostitute calls a man a pervert because he isn’t interested in her advances. Aside from the comedy of calling someone a pervert because he refuses to have sex, there’s also the bitter joke of having the camera placed squarely in front the display area so that we view the action from the perspective of a potential customer.
Above: Ayako’s co-workers. This image displays one of the film’s visual motifs: a small white lamp surrounded by blackness.
There’s something else in this scene I want to draw attention to. Not only do the bars suggest a prison, they also suggest a cage for animals, as if we were viewing kittens in a pet shop window. The behavior, or performance, of the women is itself notably feline – not only in its quick altering from playful flirtation to snarling invective, but also in the gesture of the raised arm, which resembles the beckoning paw of the maniki-neko, that familiar welcoming talisman and symbol of good luck and wealth. Actually, the maniki-neko is thought to have been popularized in Japan via its use in brothels. Before the Meiji Restoration, the traditional display item used to indicate a place where sex was sold was a phallus, but these were outlawed in 1877, making way for the now-famous cat figurines. There are three scenes in the movie that feature maniki-neko. The first comes near the beginning, when we see Omine, an older maid at the brothel who looks kindly on Ayako, adjusting a rather large cat in a display area. Immediately before this, we see the madam walking through the street, passing the marching sailors (and glancing back at them as if noting the custom their presence is likely to bring), and conversing happily with an acquaintance. This is the only time we see any of the brothel characters (apart from Ayako) outside the brothel. Her freedom as business owner contrasts with the confined drudgery faced by Omine, whom we see cleaning the ‘prison’ bars and moving the cat into place. The cat looks out at us through the bars, confirming to us that this is indeed a brothel, but also beckoning us inside even as we see that what lies within is a place of incarceration and servitude. Later, we see a whole row of small maniki-neko; the phone rings; the camera moves down to observe the madam answering a phone. The caller is Yamamura, as if summoned by the figurines. Finally, there’s a brief shot of a maniki-neko beckoning its own reflection in the window (or perhaps it’s the reflection that’s beckoning). The image is both poignant (calling to mind the isolation of the prostitutes, the fact that, having entered the brothel as employees, it is now their only refuge against an outside world that hypocritically shuns them) and eerie (due to the reflection’s ghostly appearance). I know that Japanese folklore is full of stories of cat-spirits (benign, malign, both and neither) with the ability to assume human form, and who often deceive men by appearing as beautiful women. Cats themselves were regarded with a mixture of suspicion and veneration; sailors, in particular, regarded them as bringers of good fortune and protectors against evil spirits. These supernatural associations become relevant when rumors begin to spread that Ayako is possessed by spirits.
The opening scenes described at the start of this article give a flavor of the twin approaches Gosho adopts towards the story’s supernatural elements: objective detachment and a subjective atmospheric heightening. A scornfully rational attitude towards superstition is embodied in the character of Kanichi, while Omine represents pious, fearful belief in folk tradition. The madam chides Omine after she sees her praying to a pair of white dolls, calling them creepy (the madam seems largely indifferent to superstition, rather than hostile, like Kanichi; according to her materialistic view, business is what matters, and it is financial considerations that nudge her towards a belief in spirits). The dolls are given chiaroscuro lighting that would not look out of place in a horror film; Omine is later seen praying to them again after Ayako rejects her warning not to pursue a course of action that she fears will have evil consequences. We then cut from a shot of these sinister white dolls to the next scene (as if the dolls were looking down upon it from their perch), which opens with a shot of a bright white ceiling lamp swaying sinisterly in the darkness (these bright white lights often appear in the film, providing intense but small areas of illumination in the cinematic blackness). Except that it’s not the actual lamp we see here, but its reflection, increasing its otherworldly quality. In the scene that follows, Ayako lies on the floor, in discussion with a customer; we see the swinging lamp cast eerie shadows over the two characters, while Ayako makes animal shadow-shapes with her hand – a reference, perhaps, to the shape-shifting stories I mentioned earlier.
What, then, does the film make of the superstitious beliefs that ultimately lead to Ayako’s miserable death? At one end, stylistically it often seems to embrace them, while at the other end it presents Ayako as a victim of cruel, petty rumor and backward attitudes. A scene in which Ayako and her mother consult a priest may provide a clue. The priest, another arrogant male authority figure, is lit in such a way (his face rippled with light reflected in the water beneath him) that it is he, rather than Ayako, who appears demonic. I think it’s the film’s antipathy towards authority that’s key here, how that authority makes use of folk belief for its own ends. At the end of the film, the shaman consulted by Kikuno intones that there’s no escaping fate, that punishment finds you wherever you go. I don’t think that we need accept this as the film’s ‘take’ on the story. It is not fate, but the crushing weight of hidebound tradition acting in concert with a rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal society that destroys Ayako. So durable and potent is this alliance, which can take a naturally vivacious character like Ayako and turn her into a fear- and doubt-filled masochist with a perilously low sense of self-worth, that it may as well be fate or the malignancy of demons or divine punishment or whatever, for individuals cannot hope to prevail against it. Thinking back to the opening, I wonder if perhaps the soon-abandoned documentary mode serves as a kind of tuning note, cautioning us to maintain a scepticism that can see through the heightened horror movie stylings that follow (or that, briefly, have begun the film). The scenes that appear at first glance to endorse a superstitious world-view show us, subjectively, its ability to terrify and control; viewed with a sceptical, ‘objective’ eye, they promote a resentment against the oppressive, unjust power system that such a world-view sustains – a power systems that thinks nothing of callously extinguishing life. I won’t reveal the manner of Ayako’s death (it’s hardly a spoiler to say that she dies), but I will say that the scene in which it occurs is one of shocking brutality, a tour de force of dynamic editing. The hardness and bitterness of this film is really bracing.
Above: Ayako with Kanichi. This still conveys something of the excellence of Shinomura Sozaburo’s chiaroscuro lighting.
Three brief last observations. 1) This is a richly and intricately patterned work with numerous clever and suggestive instances of foreshadowing and echoing, some of which I have mentioned. There are more I wish I could mention, but won’t for fear of giving away too much of the plot. One that is safe to draw attention to is the final shot of Kikuno walking away from Osore in distance, a group of sotoba looming in the foreground at screen left. This a direct reversal of an earlier shot in which a character in the distance walks towards the mountain while the sotoba are on the right of the screen. 2) I could be wrong, but there seems to be an anomaly in the narrative. Early in the film, Kikuno says goodbye to her daughter as she makes her way to the brothel, but a little later, she is present at her daughter’s introductory meeting with the madam and her husband. 3) Finally, high praise for the score by Ikeno Sei, which blends modernist, melodic, and traditional styles to spine-tingling effect; it makes for some of the best film music I’ve heard.