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Monday, Feb. 12, 2001

'INUGAMI'

Into the heart of darkness


What is it about deeply rural places and deeply strange religion and sex? In the United States, one has the stereotype of the hills of Appalachia as refuges for snake-handling preachers and cousin-marrying hillbillies. In Japan, one has the mountains of Shikoku in Masato Harada's "Inugami," where ancient taboos rule, ancient enmities live and the dreams of a middle-aged spinster are disturbed by visions of the child she had with her own brother.

The U.S.-Japan comparison comes to mind so readily because Harada, who has worked in the U.S. film industry (he produced the Japanese versions of the "Star Wars" trilogy) and shot films for the Shochiku studio on U.S. locations ("Painted Desert," "Eiko to Kyoki"), is among the Japanese directors most influenced by Hollywood codes and adept in interpreting them for Japanese audiences. The silk-smooth helicopter shots that begin "Inugami," taking us ever deeper into the wilds of Kochi Prefecture, are similar to the ones that introduce us to the jungles of "Jurassic Park." There's the same impression of visual scale and consummate craft, combined with the thrill of swooping into the heart of darkness. (The film swooped into the hearts of the Berlin Film Festival's programmers, who chose it for their competition this year.)

There is also the same sense that, despite his flair for capturing local color, the director is an outsider looking in, through a romanticizing pop-culture lens. The local film industry comparison is less with Shohei Imamura, who played the glinty-eyed anthropologist in his excursions to Japan's outlands, than with Kon Ichikawa, who unashamedly pumped up the obake yashiki (haunted house) theatrics in his inaka murder mysteries. Harada injects the film with the right creeping sense of dread and delivers shocks with the right goose-pimpling impact, but he is also fond of the overly abrupt transition and the overly loud sound effect. Be prepared for a few jolts on this particular cinematic theme-park ride.

The story is the familiar one of the stranger who enters a small, self-enclosed community, falls in love with a local and discovers, too late, that in doing so he has lifted the lid of a snake pit. The stranger in "Inugami" is Akira Nutahara (Atsuro Watabe), a young, handsome sixth-grade teacher in the mountains of Kochi, who soon after his arrival plunges into an affair with Miki Bonomiya (Yuki Amami), a maker of exquisite washi paper.

Though past 40, and thus considered an old maid by the locals, Miki is a tall, willowy beauty who hides hot-blooded passion beneath a reclusive air. But, as we come to see, she also hides a past. First, her family is hated and feared in the village for a murderous reputation, generations old, as votaries of the dreaded Inugami -- a god with an unholy appetite for blood. Second, she is haunted by dreams of her stillborn baby -- dreams that have kept her from marrying.

Worse still, the brother-rapist-father is, as the boss of the local paper mill, a power in the community and, as the male head of the family, still a sake-swilling, evil-tempered, sexually voracious presence in her life.

Miki's affair with Akira and his announcement that he wants to marry her stir up a hell-broth of resentment and fear. Night terrors invade sleep, while death claims its victims with a terrible suddenness and finality. Akira does not understand why, until he tries to escape with Miki and learns she is tied to her family, village and long-dead ancestors in ways that defy reason and inspire horror.

None of this is going to be new to anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with Japanese horror films, in which ancient curses are old hat, but Harada gives genre fans all the dark, oppressive atmospherics and thinly veiled hysteria they can handle -- and more. "Inugami" may have a Hollywood sheen, but its soul is the Japan in which ghosts walk and dread gods reside in musty old jars.

Does it still exist?

Do you dare find out?

The mountains await, as they always have and no doubt always will.

"Inugami" is playing at Nichigeki Toho and other theaters.


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