Note:This movie is not related to the manga Ōoku.
When I talk to other fans of movies from Asia, they praise the ambition and fearlessness of the best such films — how they aim higher and shoot farther than their pusillanimous Hollywood counterparts. Ōoku, however, is proof that filmmaking in Japan can be just as middlebrow and unambitious as, oh, the last four Russell Crowe movies you sat through.
It’s a crowd-pleasing soap opera adapted from an equally soapy TV series, and it’s been filmed with orders of magnitude more attention to the costuming and authenticity of the props than to the psychology of the characters. And it’s frustrating, enormously so, because a far more interesting story lurks under the skin of this sleeve-wringing tear-jerker. To bring that out would have required a screenwriter and a director with some tangible curiosity about human nature. The director here, Toru Hayashi, came straight out of television — and boy, does it ever show.
Ejima, right-hand woman to the mother of the new Shogun,
faces internecine warfare within the palace's inner chambers.
The film’s a period samurai drama, set some hundred years after the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan (the early 1700s). “Ōoku” refers not to a person but a place: the inner chambers of the Shogunate’s palace, where the boy Shogun lives surrounded by women and the occasional male advisor. Among those ladies-in-waiting is Lady Gekkoin, the Shogun’s biological mother, concubine to the previous Shogun and protectorate of sorts to the dauphin.
Gekkoin has few allies and many enemies. Among the enemies is Lady Teneiin, the former Shogun’s widow, and all the women in her entourage. Among the allies is one of the few men in this inner circle: Lord Akifusa, functioning as a sort of Shogun pro tem until the boy comes of age. The women have little more to do than tend to the few men in their life, divide themselves into factions, and stab at each other in highly cultured ways — e.g., a poetry recital early in the film that turns into a venom-spitting competition. This stuff feels like it sets the tone for the film as a clash of wills and personalities, but it’s a red herring. The movie’s real ambitions are a great deal lower and more mundane.
The plot: Send a kabuki actor to seduce Ejima, and get her to spill
the beans about an illict affair between the Shogun's guardian and his mother.
Gekkoin’s most valuable ally, and the movie’s protagonist, is Ejima, the “young and able Mistress of the Inner Palace”, as the movie’s lugubrious narration describes her. All her devotion is focused on her mistress, but she longs for a man even if she can’t come out and ask for it. Things are further complicated by Akifusa and Gekkoin having a torrid affair, which Ejima can only do so much work to cover up. (Refinement demands that in mixed company they can only allude to what is going on by saying that the hair at the name of Akifusa’s neck is always in disarray after meeting her.) Teneiin and the others in her corner decide to take Ejima out of the picture by hiring a popular kabuki actor, Shingoro, to seduce her and reveal crucial secrets. Shingoro and Ejima end up falling for each other for real, though, a plot twist which should surprise only people who have never seen a movie before in their lives.
The real problem is not the plot, anyway, which is just a way to give characters in any story something to reflect on and respond to. It’s how none of this stuff seems to be inhabited by people who are more than conveniences of the script. This doesn’t just go for the protagonist, who are flat enough, but the villains: they’re never developed beyond the sort of hissable cardboard cut-outs you’d find in a silent film. They sneer, they preen, they smoke (in secret), they laugh up their sleeves as they plot against Gekkoin and Ejima, and so on. What they never, ever do is think a single thought or speak a single word that doesn’t sound like something a screenwriter put there.
An array of monochromatic villains and heroes alike make the movie
more interesting to watch for the costuming and sets than the people in them.
What’s even more irritating is the directorial style, which for all the movie’s visual glamour is thumpingly mundane. Plot point follows plot point like exit signs on a freeway. The bevy of locations both inside and outside the castle are used with all the imagination of those pretty backdrops you see in dating sim games. It’s direction that’s as incurious and unenlightening as the rest of the film. I also got annoyed with the acting, which is unsubtle in all the wrong ways — everyone has one note, and they hammer on it with all the charm of someone repeatedly bashing their forehead into the same cluster of keys on a piano.
For contrast I put in Samurai Rebellion, another film about love being destroyed by the cold-bloodedness of the samurai era. The two movies couldn’t be more dissimilar, and not just because one is good and the other is mediocre. Rebellion is as fierce, spare and angry as Ōoku is languid and florid, was directed and assembled with imagination and vigor, and has far more to say about its subject — and in a far more visually arresting way — than Ōoku is able to even approach. (It’s also funny how a movie in black-and-white can be more striking to look at than one in color — proof once again that it’s the man behind the camera and not the film in it that makes the difference.)
The movie's shameless descent into soap-opera plotting is just manifest destiny,
given how little curiosity it exhibits about its characters to begin with.
I’ve written before about how Japanese period productions from the last decade or so have become troughs of sodden sentiment and meek, inoffensive direction. Little, if anything, exists along the lines of the Art Theatre Guild’s support of period filmmaking that ventured outside the comfort zone: e.g., Double Suicide. Some of that is, I guess, commercial in nature. Period pieces are expensive to make, audiences today flock to the sentimental stuff, and so the only productions that get greenlit are the ones that perpetuate the cycle, and lower the bar even further.