A friend and I saw Sting of Death recently and were bewildered by it. An ex-soldier in 1955 or so confesses his infidelity to his wife. For two hours, they alternate between robotic interactions drained of inflection (Bresson on Haldol) and histrionic fits of attempted suicide, murder, etc. There is little of psychological depth actually said, and little plot. I did not enjoy the movie and I think the film unsuccessful and unnecessarily opaque. Normally this means I wouldn’t write about it, but since (a) there is almost no English reference to this movie on the web, and (b) I have already written a letter to my friend describing my eventual interpretation of the movie in response to his, I am posting on it. Because I am lazy, at least when it comes to things I don’t like, I am going to post the letter mostly unaltered, without explanation for some of the scenes that I refer to. I think it still gives a decent impression of the movie to someone who hasn’t seen it. And anyhow, isn’t it good to undercut occasionally the hegemony the reviewer holds over a reader who has not read the book or seen the movie under consideration?
What keyed me into the psychology of the film were the regressive aspects of parts of the film: at one point, the wife calls the husband Lieutenant and he throws water on her, while at others she calls him Papa. Both regress to the state of children several times over the course of the movie. Likewise, there are role reversals where one partner compensates for the others, such as the scene where the husband runs to the train tracks and lays his arm on it, and the wife has to hold him back.
From what I know of Japanese view of psychology based on the novels of Soseki, Kawabata, Mishima, and Tanizaki, it’s one that puts the focus squarely on interpersonal trauma and disability: things such as infidelity, violence, sexual inadequacy, and jealousy. It does not play out in the form of repression (ironically, given the repressed aspects of Japanese society) but in various pathological forms of “insanity,” such as those seen in the film. There is, as you say, very rarely any “cure”–the process is one-way. The traumas in this film seem to be twofold: first, the infidelity, and second, the husband’s military past, which presumably ended in ignominious defeat. Connections between these two are speculative, since the movie is cryptic about his military career, but based on the water/Lieutenant scene, it seems that he also has some past demons based on his military experience.
The husband suggests at one point that they leave so that they can “create a new past”–most of their actions over the course of the movie seem to indicate that they are trying to erase the trauma of the past (the husband’s infidelity) and fail to do so, though how they fail is usually left quite vague. The wife will be acting normal and sedate in one scene, then inexplicably insane in the next. I don’t see this as repression per se, but rather a reaction to the removal of the previous context in which they existed. The “island,” and of course the hospital at the end, underscores their isolation from the world (i.e., the past), and the kids seem to function as a chorus for them.
The neighbor said, when interrupting the wife and mistress trying to kill each other, that she didn’t know who was right or wrong and that it wasn’t her business. I took this to imply that the couple’s business is indeed too private and they have succeeded in isolating themselves from the rest of humanity. Whether they are aiming for death or avoiding it–they alternate between the two–I think the movie is supposed to display this sort of quasi-death state as they isolate themselves from everyone else. They can’t achieve actual death because they still retain the desire/hope that they can erase the past, yet by attempting to do so they erase themselves. I see the movie as more a portrait of a culture that, having not recovered from a terminal loss of dignity, can no longer embrace death as a purifying force (a la seppuku or kamikaze). In the larger sense, Oguri seems to say that Japanese culture desires to erase itself by trying to ignore the past. But this only produces increased anomie and ultimately stasis.
As for the success of the movie, I simply found it too repetitive and too stiff. The fact that the movie is open to such wildly differing interpretations is not a factor in its favor. The artificial hyper-exaggerated acting of the two leads did not “work” for me in any noticeable way. It is perhaps the director’s homage to butoh and noh theater traditions, and possibly if I was more familiar with them I would appreciate the film more, but as it is, the film drifts fatally and the lack of realism undercuts the point he is trying to make. Since they aren’t believable as everyday people, they have to function as abstract extremes, but their artificially limited emotional vocabulary left the film feeling didactic, overdetermined, and ultimately tiresome, as though the director were completely unwilling to let the material breathe or offer a single sign that there might be more beyond his thesis.
In contrast, I would say, a film such as Vengeance is Mine (or any Imamura film) teems with the raw material of life and does not have a rigid, claustrophobic agenda to pursue, and for me this above all makes Imamura a far greater artist. “Sting of Death” doesn’t even seem open to the possibility that things could be otherwise. I find this absurd and arrogant.