29 September 2007

Briar Rose or The Sleeping Beauty (いばら姫またはねむり姫, 1990)

Briar Rose or The Sleeping Beauty (いばら姫または ねむり姫, 1990, 22 min.)

Kihachiro Kawamoto’s account of the well-known fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty will come as a real shock to anyone raised on the Disney version…. or even on the traditional, and slightly disturbing, Perrault or Grimm versions.

Kawamoto lulls us into a true fairy tale setting beginning with the camera moving from a ring of hazy cherry blossoms towards the idyllic castle on the hill in the background. The puppets and sets are beautifully and intricately realized, and the music is lyrical. The first hint that there will be a darker theme comes with the dark lighting of the interior of the castle and with the solemn tone of the narrator, speaking in the role of our heroine: Briar Rose. The camera continues inwards until it reaches a medium shot of Briar Rose, who tilts her head to one side and gazes directly into the camera. As the image fades into an image of her as an infant we realise that the story of the film will mimic inward movement of the film and take us deep into the psyche of our heroine.

Briar Rose begins by recounting her story in the traditional manner, with her birth, the bringing of gifts, and the curse that is put upon her. The twist in Kawamoto’s version, is that the person who brings the curse upon Briar Rose is her mother’s former lover, who went away to war, was believed to have died, and returned to find Briar Rose’s mother married to another man. The year that Briar Rose turns fifteen, she discovers not only a spinning wheel with a spindle for the first time, but also her mother’s diary recounting the tale of her first love.

Briar Rose seeks out her mother’s former lover, and soon the story turns out to be one laden with poetic metaphor. The spindle becomes a phallic image that symbolizes Briar Rose sacrificing her virginity for the sake of her ailing mother, and her long deep sleep is a metaphor for her long feeling of numbness towards suitors after being abandoned by the man. I won’t spoil the film by revealing all of the tale, but needless to say it ends on a defiant note with Briar Rose giving us the happy ending, but making it clear that it is all but a fiction.

I found the film strangely moving. The use of blurring irises gives the film a dream-like quality, and the attention to detail is stunning. Often when Japanese artists take on popular western stories and their settings, many Japanese elements sneak unbidden into the style, costumes, and settings of the piece -- for example, the characters in Takahata’s Heidi, Girl of the Alps (アルプスの少女マイジ, 1974) series are unmistakably Japanese in design. Perhaps due to the time he spent studying under Jiri Trnka in the Czech Republic, the European details are all fairly consistent.

Kawamoto could have just been content to present a visually stunning traditional version of Sleeping Beauty, but instead he presents a feminist retelling of the tale in the voice of the main protagonist herself. The result is a film that not only critiques way in which young women have been victimized by male authors of fairy tales, but also fingers us the viewers as willingly participating in this fictionalizing process that turns heroines quite literally into puppets. The question Briar Rose seems to be asking us at the end of the film really could be interpreted as: who is really pulling the strings in this story?

Kihachiro Kawamoto Selected Filmography

Breaking of Branches Is Forbidden (1968 / 14 min.)
Anthoropo-cynical Farce (1970 / 8 min.)
The Demon (1972 / 8 min.)
The Trip (1973 / 12 min.)
The Poet’s Life (1974, 19 min.)
Dojoji Temple (1976 / 19 min.)
House of Flame (1979 / 19 min.)
To Shoot without Shooting (1988 / 25 min.)
Briar-Rose or The Sleeping Beauty (1990 / 22 min.)
Winter Days (2003 / 105 min. )
The Book of the Dead (2005 / 70 min.)

This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007