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Normally, I dig “My Bloody Valentine” out of mothballs for Valentine’s Day if I get the opportunity. However, as much as I enjoy seeing a woman’s blood-soaked remains spilling out of a Laundromat’s tumble-dryer, I couldn’t pass up the chance to watch something a little more serious, & a lot more disturbing.

Inspired by a true incident previously showcased in such films as “Ecstasy of the Angels” & “Hikari No Ame” (“Rain of Light”), & funded by its college-student creators working on building sites & even volunteering for clinical drug trials, “Kichiku Dai Enkai” (“Banquet of the Beasts” - http://www.mandiapple.com/snowblood/kichikudaienkai.htm) is, perhaps, best known for containing scenes of total madness & unadulterated brutality. It’s a bit difficult to describe the plot of the film; that is to say, at times there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot going on. However, the subtext of certain moments in which action is absent actually speaks volumes to the viewer about just how much is going on, in terms of the unspoken tension brewing beneath the surface. Like the characters in works ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” to George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, isolated from all but each other, this assemblage, too, is destined to implode.

There is a stark sense of realism to “Kichiku” that may not be on a par with “The Blair Witch Project”, but which is thoroughly credible & at the same time nostalgic, an echo of the era in which it is set rather than in which it was made, a 1970s atmosphere not unlike “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Last House on the Left”. The 70s were an apparently tumultuous period in Japan which gave rise to militant student protest groups. One such group is the focus of the film; its leader, a young man named Aizawa, is in jail - for what, it’s never said, though it’s likely something to do with the group’s activities. He tells Fujiwara, a friend he made in prison who has been released, where to find the group, & to go visit them. Fujiwara agrees.

With Aizawa incarcerated, it is left to his girlfriend, Masami, to lead the group until his return. Masami is an unmitigated bitch who uses her feminine wiles to assert herself & to retain control of the all-male group. The first time we see her, in fact, she is engaged in sexual congress with group member Yamane. But soon after, when he bad-mouths Aizawa, & later tries to unite the other group members against Masami, not only does she threaten to tell Aizawa (who, it is said, has “a kind of charisma” that can subdue even edgy types like Yamane), but the others refuse to stand with him, & Yamane leaves.

The members of the group - hippie-looking guitarist Kumagaya (who Masami defended when Yamane got on his case, but on whom she later turns), Kumagaya’s clean-cut roommate, Sugihara (new to the group), a young man named Okazaki, & at least one other whose name I’m hard-pressed to recall - seem for a while to be doing their own thing. At one point, a couple of them are seen hiding evidence of something they’ve done (exactly what the group is protesting is never brought to light, & the crimes they commit for their cause are only vaguely touched on), & when they return, Fujiwara arrives also. Unbeknownst to all but Masami, who’d heard about him in letters from Aizawa, Fujiwara intends to join the group.

Masami decides to hold an “Enkai Party” (‘enkai’ means ’beast’) in honour of their newest member. This consists mainly of dinner & a show - the show being Masami in an Oni (or demon) mask dancing herself into a frenzy. Soon, however, she moves on to asserting her power over Kumagaya, whom she sees as a threat because he begins openly questioning her leadership skills. He is, at first, reluctant, inching his way across the room to avoid her roving hand, but she appears to win him over & they start making out.

Later on, Kumagaya & Sugihara are hanging out in their room, drinking, when Yamane shows up. Conversation leads to violence as Yamane provokes Kumagaya, who lops a bottle of beer across his face. No sooner are Kumagaya & Sugihara out the door in search of Masami - who has now taken up with Okazaki - than she & the rest of the group are standing in the corridor.

This is where the downward spiral of the group begins, as Yamane is taken into the woods, where he is to be tortured & killed. Guilt by association leads Masami to question Kumagaya’s trustworthiness (because he was once Yamane’s friend), & he, too, is condemned. Sugihara must choose between aiding in Kumagaya’s demise or facing the wrath of Masami, & anyone else who opposes her is doomed to suffer a similar fate...until Masami, herself, pushes things too far.

One cannot define the precise moment which ultimately changes the group members. The breakdown of the collective, while anticipated, remains something of a mystery, though the catalyst seems to be the death of their leader, Aizawa. Unable to hack it in prison, he has been slowly going mad throughout the course of the film, & ends up committing seppuku (or 'hara-kiri', Japanese ritual suicide) with a straight-razor. As it is Masami who cracks first, one can only assume that after his death, given her role as an extension of Aizawa, part of her died, too. But she is such a cold, unsympathetic character (at least until her gruesome demise) that nobody notices anything’s wrong until it’s too late. What have been, up to that point, petty internal squabbles, power plays, & manipulation tactics quickly turn into some of the most savage acts ever committed to film, including (but not limited to) beatings, strangulations, shootings, genital mutilations, & someone literally getting their head blown off. It operates almost like a contagion, spreading from one member to the next (contagion being a recurrent theme in Japanese horror).

Amidst all this bloodshed, there are aspects of the film that are both beautiful & terrifying. Long stretches without dialogue prove very powerful in establishing an almost palpable atmosphere. The forest scenes contain some stunning shots of trees, sky, even a small lizard. Other scenes concentrate on something as simple as a breeze dancing with a tinkling wind chime, the sound of birds chirping, or the abandoned building which the group occupies, the latter filmed in such a way as to lead us to almost believe it is as indigenous to the environment as the lush, grassy areas around it. These elements serve to subtly enforce the almost natural ‘beast’ or ‘feral’ side of the tale. The fabulous musical score, with its frenzied tribal drum beats, literally pounds this into one’s head. But the soft strains of traditional Japanese music, & modern folk guitar strumming a sad melody, remind us that we are witnessing a level of brutality that is wholly unnatural, & nowhere is this better or more strikingly demonstrated than in a scene which begins with Masami dancing amidst the ruins, decked out like a demented Geisha.

Which leads me to what I found most chilling: the reactions of the group members to the carnage they perpetrate, beginning with laughter (possibly out of fear, horror, astonishment, or simply insanity), but soon declining into acceptance or even fascination as each person succumbs to lunacy. A moment between Sugihara & Kumagaya near the end of the film suggests some little hint of compassion, & thereby humanity, left in these people, but even this disintegrates by the end of the scene. Most disturbing, however, are the moments in which group members like Fujiwara exhibit no reaction whatsoever.

It is often incredibly difficult to remember that “Kichiku” was not professionally made, but rather the work of college students. One might have expected such a film from the likes of Takashi Miike, Ryuhei “Versus” Kitamura, or the folks behind “Battle Royale”. Though it may not be as finely honed a piece of work as its big-time counterparts, this mix of gore, sociology, & socio-political commentary stands as a testament to ultra-creative film-making on its most personal level, & perhaps as a warning to a supposedly civilised world descending into barbarism even as I write this.

August 2017

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