Friday, May 25, 2018

The Sleep of the Beast

Tangling-Up Toward Inevitability

(All images are iPhone photos taken of frames of the film playing off the Arrow Blu-ray of the film.)


The title The Sleep of the Beast [Kemono no nemuri, 1960] resonates in two ways distinct from one another depending on whether you read the title of Suzuki's 1963 breakthrough in English — Youth of the Beast — or in its original Japanese — Yajū no seishun. The titles don't have much in common with one another at first glance — the movies themselves don't, full-stop — but the internal emancipation of fueled rage and concentrated vengeance mark both pictures, and indeed all of Suzuki's films. The sleight of hand here is the difference between kemono (beast) and yajū (beast). According to the online Jisho dictionary, kemono connotes "beast, brute, animal," with a throw to "the Number of the Beast." Yajū suggests "wild beast, wild animal." Perhaps a difference in degree? Of savagery? The Sleep of the Beast vs. Youth of the Savage Beast? The latter's the wilder picture with the wilder motivations...

The Sleep of the Beast in short involves a businessman father Junpei Ueki (Shunsuke Ashida) who, embittered by his company years without a respectful compensation, takes the leap risk of smuggling heroin out of Hong Kong on a cruise-liner back to Japan on the eve of his retirement. After disappearing from his family for a spell after docking, he pops back into their lives brushing his absence off as the requirements of more business. His daughter Keiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and, more astutely, her newspaperman love-interest Shōtarō Kasai (Hiroyuki Nagato) smell some flood aloft in the situation. So the suspicions, and the policier aspect of the plot, kick into place, and Shōtarō sticks his bloodhound compulsion onto the trail, not for glory, and maybe not even for the sake of love.

This will shift now into pure plot synopsis. Why? Because the tangling of the threads define the essence of The Sleep of the Beast. This is early Suzuki working off a script which just goes on and on; he finds a little bit to really flash in the few moments where he can get some air. But look at this:

After Junpei's re-emergence, he takes a job as a ship's chandler for the Kōei Trading Company. His network associate Komatsu (Kōjirō Kusanagi) bears a scar on his right hand that Shōtarō had warned Keiko about once, given his leads on the crime trail, and she witnesses it herself when she and her mother are visiting their father at his new place of employment, Kōei, so that the family might go out to lunch together. At the lunch, Junpei spots his boss sitting at a nearby table, and Junpei takes the requisite bow, with one Reverend Nagamine (Tsutomo Shimamoto) joining the boss: the latter is the head of the "Sun God Cult." He's a good cult guy, Junpei remonstrates. Following their lunch he takes the family to see a house he's interested in buying there in Yokohama which will eliminate his commute from Tokyo to get to Kōei.

Heroin-thief Satō (played by I don't know whom) collapses in the Hama Hall jazz bar. The newspaper people say they're calling it a sleeping pill OD, but the autopsy comes back saying he's been dosed with something called Luminal, a powder that dissolves in liquid...

Dead Satō's wife is a member of the Sun God Cult. She has a link with Wong (player zero_sub1). Also dead. Both he and Satō are wound up in this heroin deal of Junpei's on the way back from Hong Kong... when all the junk was stolen from his bag. A woman there at the sect's main HQ also identifies one Maki (player zero_sub2) who works in a Yokohama dry-cleaners. Shōtarō tracks him down — the launderers is a drug-front. Maki escapes out the back with the drugs and Shōtarō's in pursuit; the former visits Hama Hall. He passes off the drugs to Komatsu. Shōtarō corners Maki outside the club, and Maki attacks him with a razor concealed inside his shirt-cuff. The crook escapes, but a pair of cops on the same trail choke Shōtarō out figuring he was Maki's associate in the pell-mell hubbub; they were monitoring the heroin deal.

Shōtarō explains to Keiko that her father brought the heroin from Hong Kong. "Wild beasts sleep in the hearts of all of us," he reflects. "Sometimes the beast awakens."

This brings us to what I see as the key dilemma of the film:

Keiko implores: "Why couldn't you have just left [my father] alone??"

Shōtarō responds: "I don't know.... Because I'm a newspaper reporter."

She asks him to keep all this dirt to himself till she says he can release it. Shōtarō in typical journalist/Japanese-movie fashion counters: "I'm a reporter! I can't ignore a scoop!"

Reverend Nagamine gets a call from the Kōei boss informing him the cops caught Maki. They suggest sending Komatsu (BTW: the two policemen who were trailing him after he got the drugs have wound up dead) to the sect's private island off Kure till the heat cools down.

Maki, now in custody, uses the toilet at the police barracks to take the opportunity to slash his carotid with that same hidden razor and commit suicide.

Keiko confronts her father Junpei with all his crimes. "No-one forced me," he responds. "All those years of hard work were in vain." When the drugs were stolen from him on the ship back from Hong Kong, he offered his full retirement payment as compensation to the Kōei buyers — but that 3 million yen added up to barely one-tenth of the value of the stolen drugs. Satō and Wong were the thieves, and once they were dead, and the drugs came back, Junpei had little choice but to join the Kōei syndicate; he was afraid he'd be killed if he didn't.

Now, there's some bar-hostess named Hiroko (player y_sub1) who was friends with an earlier hostess Akemi (player y_sub2) from Hama Hall, but the former's moved on to the Blue Moon Bar. This all gets a little hazy for me. Shōtarō tracks down Hiroko, gets shit-faced with her at the Blue Moon, then let's himself get taken to her pad. She drops Luminal in his drink. Hours pass and she admits she drugged and killed Satō and Wong in the aftermath of their steal. Problem for her is Shōtarō fake-drank his whiskey while pouring it on his left breast, all while recording her confession via a pen-microphone that the whole time radio'ed-out to his associate in the hallway with a reel-to-reel. Shōtarō calls Junpei and plays it back for him.

Junpei visits the Sun God temple and alters the propane set-up so there's no flame, but still gas output. After an argument with his Kōei associates he flicks a lighter and blows the place sky-high. It's like the end of Underworld Beauty [Ankokukgai no bijo, 1958]. Finally Junpei blasts himself with pistol to the heart.

This isn't Suzuki at his best, it's early in his game and he's struggling with the assigned material, but he uses an expressionist trick twice when he superimposes a narrator zoomed-out over the play-out of some flashback material. Just enough gunpowder and drug-powder to land home the Nikkatsu essentials.



More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Seijun Suzuki:

Ankokugai no bijo [Underworld Beauty, 1958]

Fumi hazushita hara [Trampled Springtime, 1958]

Kage naki koe [Voice Without a Shadow, 1958]

"Jûsan-gô taihisen," yori: Sono gosôsha (w)o nerae ["Sidetrack No. Thirteen," or: Take Aim at That Police Van, 1960]

Kemono no nemuri [The Sleep of the Beast, 1960]

Subete ga kurutteru [Everything Goes Wrong, 1960]

Tōge (w)o wataru wakai kaze [Youthful Wind Crossing the Mountain Pass, 1961]

High-teen yakuza [Late-Teen Yakuza, 1962]

Yajû no seishun [Youth of the Beast, 1963]

Akutarō [The Bastard / The Badboy, 1963]

Akutarō-den: Warui hoshi no shita demo [Stories of Bastards: Even Under a Bad Star / Stories of Badboys: Even Under a Bad Star, 1965]