Kohei Oguri’s The Sting of Death (死の棘, Shi no Toge) won the prestigious jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 1990 but has since passed into obscurity. Adapted from the “I Novel” by Toshio Shimao, Sting of Death is an absurdist, caustic look at a collapsing marriage beset by difficulties on all sides as the pair try to navigate the confusing post-war society.
Toshio and Miho are a married couple with two young children. Miho has recently discovered that her husband has been carrying on with a neighbour for quite some time and is uncertain how to deal with this unexpected revelation. The film opens with a serious marital argument which is almost chilling in its calmness. Toshio is sorry, he doesn’t intend to leave his marital home and pledges to stop seeing this other woman – he’ll stay in 24/7 and not even go out without his wife and children if it means he can defend his family. Miho is definitely not happy with this compromise but accepts it and the couple attempt to get back to a kind of normality. However, the peace does not last long as Miho becomes increasingly depressed and paranoid before hurtling headlong into a nervous breakdown.
The “I Novel” is an integral part of Japanese literature and has often provided the basis for many of the country’s prestige films even though its specific style is a necessarily literary one which is hard to dramatise on screen. The genre is centred around the ideas of naturalism and the main tenet is that the writer is recounting real events from the world he sees around him, though perhaps through a thin veil of fictionalisation. That said, it’s never quite “autobiography” and it may sometimes be better to think of them as “hyperreal” rather than just naturalistic.
Oguri attempts to evoke this strange sense of uncanniness by opting for an ethereal, dreamlike tone akin to avant-garde or absurdist theatre. The couple speak to each other in a slightly heightened, deliberate manner, often posed unnaturally facing away from each other literally divided by the film’s framing. Toshio is also haunted by visions from his wartime service somewhere in the pacific where he seems to have received some kind of stomach injury. Emerging from a cave he suddenly sees saluting soldiers, or remembers a passing religious ceremony as if the past is always with him like a Fury tormenting his mind.
The Sting of Death is very close to the experiences of the author who uses his own name for that of the protagonist and that of his own wife for the central female character, Miho. Shimao’s own wife became seriously mentally ill during their marriage eventually having to be admitted to a hospital where Shimao took the unusual step of living with her. Though this uncommon gesture is widely praised as displaying his deep love for his wife, it was in part born of guilt as he believed he had caused her distress through his frequent infidelities, just as Toshio does in the film.
The couple live together in a perpetual nightmare world. Though Miho exclaims at one point that they both need to do their best now for their children they both consider suicide more than once, alternately saving or frustrating one another. They both suffer, they both try to go on but Miho’s position becomes increasingly difficult leading to a period of mental decline which climaxes in a strangely humorous yet violent episode in which she tries to exact revenge on her husband’s mistress only to be offered a lesson in civility – “I don’t know what’s going on here but none of us have the right to act like savages”, says the perfectly genial other woman (the silent casualty in all of this).
Oguri shoots the majority of the film in near darkness, as if the couple are enveloped in a night without end. They haunt each other like living ghosts, emerging from shadows moving slowly like those without hope or purpose. Oguri adds to the surreal, dreamlike atmosphere by sticking to static camera shots filled with strange tableaux and little discernible action. The film paints a bleak picture of marriage and the family unit as the central couple remain locked in an odd game-like battle of suffering while their two innocent children look on helplessly. A strange and beguiling film, The Sting of Death pulls no punches when it comes to describing the way in which adults wound each other with childish games but is also filled with quite beautiful, if sometimes unsettling, iconography.
The Sting of Death is available with English subtitles on R3 Hong Kong DVD as part of Panorama’s Century of Japanese cinema collection.
Opening scene of the film (unsubtitled)