I first experienced Hisayasu Sato almost a decade ago, with a bootleg of his 1995 gore film, Naked Blood. Not knowing that Sato also made movies with titles like Rape: For Real and Lolita Vibrator Torture, I expected a silly exploitation flick in the same vein as all those cheesy b-movies Central Park Media released as part of their “Asian Pulp Cinema” line. Naked Blood is something else: something much nastier and less kistchy fun.
Thus, when I first became aware of it, the thought of a Sato directed adaptation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove,” the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, (read it plz) held little appeal. And yet, after several assurances that Yabu no Naka was not the movie I feared it to be, I actually watched it. Yabu no Naka would actually make less sense if a more “respectable” film maker had produced it. That’s something.
Adapting something like “In a Grove” puts the film maker at odds not only with the author -- whose original work will inevitably lose when conflicting with the director’s vision -- but with all of the other film makers who have made their own versions of the story. And Akutagawa’s story invites conflicting readings by its very nature, in spite of the story’s real point being that definitive, objective truth cannot be obtained in certain situations, if it can be said to exist at all. Sato’s telling fills in some of the intentionally unexplained vagaries with what seem to me the least likely explanations, like incestuous love and occult worship of fox demons that require human sacrifice.
Does it sound weird? It would actually be more bizarre if you didn’t know it was based on “In a Grove,” and it only slowly dawned that you were watching a nineties pinku/v-cinema version of Rashomon replete with existential angst and Freudian sexual deviancy. Such descriptions of the film seem at odds with the original story, but Sato’s version actually conveys that absolute truth is, in this situation, hopelessly elusive. Where Akutagawa’s story stressed perspective and possibly lies, Sato stresses ulterior motives, psychological trauma and denial. The end result is the same. There are a few things that can be known for sure -- and many things that can be inferred from those presumed certainties -- but full explanations of what happened, and why, cannot be answered. Sato, perhaps less than subtly, actually makes a point of that.
Of course, Yabu no Naka also works as period-fantasy, although it shows its age in a most ungraceful manner. Particularly with regards to its special effects, but also with its few choreographed fight scenes, Yabu no Naka looks very much the mid-nineties, low budget Japanese movie that it is. Otherwise, the kistchy horror sequences with the silly gore effects and garishly colored lighting are very effective for what they are. If a Takashi Miike fan didn’t know or care about the literary background of this movie, they’d probably still enjoy it for the bleak and violent story it tells, along with the nudity and sexual perversion. Incidentally, Koji Endo, a frequent collaborator with Miike, wrote his first motion picture score for Yabu no Naka.
Hisayasu Sato took a nearly decade long break from film after this movie, eventually coming back to film with a segment in 2005’s Rampo Noir. I didn’t like Naked Blood, but it would be unfair to denigrate it as being completely devoid of artistic worth. Yabu no Naka really is the goofy exploitation version of its source material, but it isn’t just that. It isn’t just about the naked breasts, blood geysers and axe-murdering fox cultists; it asks questions about the roots of motivations and actions, and whether anyone could dissect any situation to the point that such things become clear. Artists ponder such questions. Pornographers generally don’t. Sato is better than I first gave him credit for.