4 out of 5
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Commissioned by the government of the Kumamoto prefecture for children-geared, educational viewing purposes at a museum, Kumamoto Monogatari collects three short films that were made, each, a couple of years apart – ’98, 2000, and 2002. These are very low budget affairs, the first two entries in particular, but as we know with Miike, that doesn’t directly equate to being a negative thing, and even with a positive writeup in Tom Mes’ Agitator to encourage my viewing, I was surprised at how affecting and enjoyable these were, especially the hour long final entry, which is pretty dang epic, and rather mature for an educational piece.
The first two entries are, to me, staged like plays, which immediately helps to move past the budgetary constraints and computer effects. The latter are employed in a fantastical, audacious manner; they take the place of carboard props and things drawn on strings across a stage, and Miike moves his camera around his small sets to highlight characters as, again, one would use foregrounds and backgrounds in a play. And it’s charming, without being pandering – especially given the rather somber history informing the stories: in the first story, a young girl hides in an enchanted cave while her village is slaughtered, and in the second story, frontier guards are perpetually on duty, senseless taken away from their families to stand ready for a fight that never comes. Death is not the focus, per se, but it is a part of each tale, as is an interesting questioning of hostilities; celebrating the history without championing it as all positives.
The third entry concerns intra-clan fighting in Japan, at a time when a ruling was passed down that would see noblemens’ ranks and statuses somewhat diminished. The “moral” is interesting, as the clans’ rebellion essentially fails, but is considered important for setting something of a precedent regarding the relationship between people and their government. On a more micro level, we see definite notes of Miike themes throughout: there are outsiders, part of one family but fighting for another, and the clash between childhood and adulthood. The acting and shooting are phenomenal; there are no computer effects in this one, further suggesting it’s aimed at an older audience, and some of the story is suggested through edits instead of explained to us. There are several extended battle sequences that are really masterfully choreographed (this is actually true of all three pieces), and, as a bonus, a couple of Miike regulars pop up.
On the copy I have, the subtitling of some of the explanatory text moves wicked fast, so unfortunately, I do not feel I was able to absorb the actual historical grounding for each tale. Even without that, I think it speeds through that connection a bit – we’ll suppose actually viewing them in context at a museum helps with that – and focuses instead on sort of the “feel” of each story. But as long as you go in understanding the nature of what you’re viewing, Kumamoto Monogatari is a very pleasant surprise.