by Anthony King
When faced with tragedy or trauma, life seems to be at an end while suffering through the grief. Yet when we look around us, people are laughing, going to work, enjoying the company of others, eating, drinking, and generally being merry. It doesn't seem fair. It doesn't make sense. Here we are suffering through one of, if not the, worst thing we've ever experienced in life, yet life goes on. If we're willing and/or able to take a step back, we might notice that our circumstance is but a speck of sand in the constant ocean of life. Writer and director Kohei Oguri's The Sting of Death (1990) shows such an instance: a microcosm is the continuance of life.
Toshio and Miho are a married couple with two small children that live in a small village outside a bustling Japanese city. It's immediately revealed that Toshio has recently ended a years-long affair after Miho has confronted him about it. For nearly two hours we see the implications Toshio's transgression has had on the family as whole, and the couple's fight to keep their marriage intact. To say this is a dour film would be an understatement. But in order to portray such morose circumstances you need two actors who can lock the viewer in a chokehold and not let go until the credits roll. Keiko Matsuzaka (Miho) and Ittoku Kishibe (Toshio) do just that and deliver two of the most powerful performances I've ever seen.
Oguri also takes the time to set tableaus within his camera's frame. While I wouldn't call The Sting of Death slow, per se, I'd definitely say it's a patient film. Dialogue is sparse at times. Several seconds – upwards of a minute-plus – will pass between lines exchanged between husband and wife. And then Oguri will show us what essentially boils down to living paintings. A moment in particular comes to mind where the camera is set inside the tiny home, looking out the open sliding doors. On either side of the frame are Miho and Toshio, one in profile, the other with their back turned to the camera. The children are also facing away, both barely playing on the earthen floor. The only person facing the camera full on is a man apparently working with a piece of wood set upon sawhorses, yet the man isn't moving; he's standing dead still, as if contemplating the meaning of life because of the tension he's feeling within this home. There is minimal movement in the background. But the thing that catches the viewer's eye is the smoke drifting up from the small fire burning in the middle of all this. Everyone is hardly moving if at all, yet the smoke wafts up in the air and floats into the ether. It's as if us, our problems, and our joys are only temporary. A bleak thought to be sure, but the beauty of the scene as constructed and captured by Oguri is a picture I won't soon forget.
The Sting of Death isn't Miho's story. It isn't Toshio's story. It's a chapter of life. There are moments where Miho seems as if she's losing it; she's cracking up. This is often followed by a moment where Toshio seems to be going through the same. It is so agonizing to see each of these characters fall apart. But as Hideki Maeda says in his analysis of the film, these aren't times when husband or wife is cracking up. These are bursts of energy. Within the Japanese culture these two people have suppressed their emotions so far down for so long the only way for them to express any sort of emotion at this point in their lives and marriage is through these brief and explosive bursts of energy. At this point in their lives we're witnessing energy rather than emotion. This, of course, doesn't excuse Toshio's affair, and this isn't diminishing Miho's valid feelings. These are examples of what happens when one isn't allowed to express oneself for years. These two have gone 30-plus years without being allowed to show or assert how they're feeling. And it's in these moments where Matsuzaka and Kishibe really shine.
As often is the case in life, there doesn't seem to be any resolution in The Sting of Death. I suppose the moral is that life goes on. Grief doesn't go away; it gets buried within the flotsam and jetsam of life. Again, this isn't necessarily a comforting thought, and there isn't really a “but” that follows. This is life, in all its sadness and beauty.
Archival documentary on the Japanese film renaissance of the 1990s featuring interviews with Kohei Oguri, Kyoshi Kurosawa, Kaneto Shindo, and others (52 minutes, 2011)
Interview with film scholar Hideki Maeda (20 minutes, 2023)
Limited edition booklet featuring a newly translated interview with director Kohei Oguri
Limited edition of 3,000 copies
Blu-ray release date: January 30, 2024
115 minutes / 1990
Uncompressed mono PCM audio (Japanese)
Subtitles: English (SDH)
Region: A, B