OP: 「Crack-Crack-Crackle」 by (CLASS:y)
Within the first 30 seconds, I knew this was going to be good. Such a subtle, yet profound way to open the premiere, the attention to sound more than words (though there is plenty of that too). The first thing we hear upon the opening scene is not dialogue, but the cracking of a whip that gets louder and louder as we zoom into the scene. Or the scene where Shinuchi (Yashiro Taku) first encounters Shizuku (Koichi Makoto), we hear merely the clinking of the beer bottle and her reflection in the brown glass. The scene with the starving cat by the riverbed, too- the swish of grass and birdsong piercing through the cries of the disgruntled citizens. Insiduous, a picture set by sounds that puts you on edge. There are a lot of layers to unpack here, a whole bunch of different clouds sailing into the skies of Meiji Tokyo to create the perfect storm we see brewing up.
We’re first assaulted by the purging of Japanese supernatural creatures in the wake of Western modernization. This takes the form of a gladiator ring run by a circus leader trying to make a yen off of erasing the old ways, pitting a mysteriously marked Shinuchi against creature after creature. Much as he works in the system, Shinuchi mocks it, singing under his breath a popular song at the time, Oppekepe Bushi, which commented on the farce of ignoring the realities of the then modern Japan to run after fancy Westernization. As anyone who knows even a little bit about Meiji Japan, tradition vs. modernization and East vs. West were very prevalent struggles of this time period and I am curious to see where they will take it in terms of the story and its message.
The realities are certainly not pleasant- next door to the bright lights, newfangled clothing, and fancy technology sits poverty. It sidles next to us- the shabby crowd demanding food, the destitute villagers, the starving cat. Meanwhile, people pay precious money to indulge their baser instincts at the yokai fights.
Shinuchi himself is living in a personal hell- the flashbacks to what was a traumatic past, the habitual drinking– you get the sense of a haunted man. This was all gloriously done through glimpses and hints rather than explanation, at least initially. He becomes literally haunted- by a headless Immortal, Rindo Aya (Kurosawa Tomoyo), and her tough maid, Shizuku. I love the back and forth parrying between Aya and Shinuchi. That quipping about Aya’s intellect being a cut above the rest and her return serve about being a severed head was gold. Even Shinuchi’s backstory gets told through bouncing the ball back and forth between Shinuchi’s side and Aya’s. Aya throws down the deduction that Shinuchi has oni running strong through his veins, which he then tosses back that it was forced on him by a mysterious gentleman, who, as it turns out, stole Aya’s body.
The East vs. West theme pops up again- the one who destroyed Shinuchi’s humanity and stole Aya’s body a foreigner known only by the “M” on his cane. I see this shaping into the potential for a fascinating discussion on identity caught between two cultures, especially in that era, depending on the direction it takes with that.
Oni come in different types- the one that stole Aya’s body was only half- strong enough to decap(ac)itate her, but not strong enough to finish her off. Mr. M gave Shinuchi a higher concentration of oni- with the side effect that the more he uses the powers the more the oni takes over until he eventually becames all oni. Shinuchi has his own taste for morbid dramatics, rushing to his death in the fighting ring so he can relish killing the crowd in their own indulgences on the day he eventually goes full oni. He’s a pretty embittered man, squandering his own life to get the last laugh at the scum at the bottom of society’s barrel. Despite that, there’s a kindness to him from his interactions with the street cat. A man putting on the facade of trying to play the world at it’s own game, hiding a deeper struggle, deeper feelings.
Though a head in a cage, Aya is no damsel in distress- from her smart deductions and persuasive, almost seductive way of speaking, she’s the one holding the reins. She promises Shinuchi longevity if he kills her- and makes good on her word, trading her life-giving saliva. I will admit, I wasn’t expecting her to offer longevity up so quickly- I kind of thought she would play him along for a while. I guess at 947 years of age, you’re done with playing around.
Despite their apparent differences, Aya and Shinuchi both share a desire for death. Shinuchi wants to be killed by the oni within him and Aya wants that oni to kill her. Yet, both seem to be seeking something more, some sort of goal or meaning- quickly putting their death plans on hold to embark on an adventure in Europe to find her body and the conniving Mr. Top Hat. Not to mention they both have an axe to grind with the same man.
One word sums up this whole premiere- atmospheric. The tension, the moodiness reverberated throughout the episode through the artistic camera shots, the shadows, the carefully timed dialogue. It was brilliant too, how the director switched perspectives- from Shinuchi’s to Aya’s from within the cage. At times, it felt like I could have been watching a classic film noir (minus the black and white- except for the excellent ED which was actually in B&W and completed the feel). I think it’ll be hard for any of the other premieres this season to top this one, it blew everything out of the water.
ED: 「reversal」 by (Anna)