“In this decadent age, who believes in the gods’ anger?” asks a cynical priest, willingly inviting evil into his home in the hope of brokering a change in his constraining circumstances. A key figure of the avant garde, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, like many of his contemporaries, struggled in the heavily commercialised cinema industry of the 1970s and beyond, finding the international arena more receptive to his arthouse concerns. 1988’s Wuthering Heights (嵐が丘, Arashi ga Oka), a distinctly Japanese take on Emily Brontë’s classic novel, found funding in France where it perhaps neatly sits alongside superficially similar efforts from his similarly constrained contemporaries, but as always Yoshida’s vision is darker, more disturbing than that of the big budget epics which aimed to recapture golden age glories.
Yoshida swaps the desolate Yorkshire moors for a smokey hellscape settled in ash on the side of an unpredictable volcano. The Yamabes are a priestly family in charge of conducting various rituals to keep the serpent god happy, preventing an eruption and ensuring good rains. The house is spilt in two with a feud underway between the East mansion and the West. The East mansion is where we lay our scene as old Yamabe returns from an extended sojourn in the city, bringing back with him a feral child he found starving under a bridge and later names “Onimaru” (Yûsaku Matsuda) in honour of his “demonic” appearance.
“Demonic” maybe an unkind word to use about any child and primed to become a self-fulling prophecy, but as someone later puts it Onimaru “does not belong to this world”. He is “an evil man” whose “cruelty knows no limits”, yet two women are drawn into his orbit and find themselves unable to break free of his passionate intensity. His step-sister, Kinu (Yuko Tanaka), our Cathy stand-in, bonds with him in childhood feeling a kind of elemental connection perhaps forbidden to her as a woman of feudal Japan subject to the whims of male society. Yet she alone sees through him to humanity buried below, “your curse is the proof you will never stop loving me” she offers darkly while seducing him the night before her marriage to another man (Tatsuo Nadaka). Later that man’s sister (Eri Ishida), positioning herself as potential bride, cites the fact that he is “consumed by jealousy” as further proof that he is more man than demon, but Onimaru himself seems uncertain so deep is he in rage and resentment.
That resentment is perhaps as much about class as about anything else. A feral child, living like an animal on the streets of an unforgiving city, he’s an ill fit for the rarefied mansion of a local lord with a spiritual mission, albeit one which imprisons him in his home and forbids him from associating with the world below. Yamabe took him in for his “boldness”, actively seeking his demonic dynamism while his own son, Hidemaru (Nagare Hagiwara), remains disappointingly conservative and wedded to his old-fashioned elite entitlement. Hidemaru’s resentment of Onimaru is not so much born of parental rejection in his father’s abrupt decision to go out and find a more satisfactory son than the one dutifully waiting at home, but irritation in Onimaru’s irregular status. He resents that a mere “peasant”, a man who should be among the servants, is permitted to share his space, and it seems, has usurped his position in his father’s eyes to be groomed as an heir to the illustrious Yamabe name.
Hidemaru eventually leaves in disgust, setting off to make a conventionally successful life for himself in the city, latterly returning with a wife and son to claim his birthright only after his father’s death. Yet Hidemaru suffers too. His wife is raped and murdered by bandits, agents of chaos and yet a product of the system he was so keen to uphold, leaving him a drunken, dissolute figure unable to fulfil his obligations to the god of fire while Onimaru prospers in a violent world and is eventually gifted that which he most wanted – stewardship of the Yamabe clan.
Even so, he cannot fully possess Kinu who remains lost to him, ruined by her own internal conflict between individualism and obedience. After coming of age, her father tells her women of the Yamabe clan must leave the mountain to serve as priestesses in the shrine, but Kinu wants to “live as a true woman”. She cannot have Onimaru, but does not want to leave him so she engineers a marriage with the rival West mansion and the kindly Mitsuhiko who brands his house as one of light as opposed to the gloomy shadows of the East. Kinu has attempted to seize her own future, at least in part, but finds herself conflicted, torn between her affection for Mitsuhiko who is gentleness personified and her need for Onimaru’s brooding intensity.
Yet Yoshida’s Wuthering Heights is less a story of forbidden, transgressive loves than it is of elemental destruction, the anger of the gods manifested as imploded repression and its fiery aftermath. Yamabe, the father figure, brings “evil” into his home, infecting it with dark desire and deep resentments seemingly in the knowledge it will burn it to the ground. The third generation, orphaned and finally independent, are left to make what restitution they can and so the tale begins to reset and repeat with cousins, Hidemaru’s grown and now subjugated son Yoshimaru (Masato Furuoya), and Kinu’s fiesty daughter (Tomoko Takabe), returning their ire to the force of their oppression – Onimaru, still fearsome and implacable though ageing and maddened by his unanswerable love for a dead woman whose corpse he has begun to covet.
Kinu, on her deathbed, promised to drag Onimaru to hell (assuming they weren’t already there) if only to protect her new family and finally does just that as he finds himself expelled by the next generation, dragging a coffin off into the fiery distance. “In every way, our world is accursed” insists an exasperated retainer. Everything here is corrupt, rotten, suppurating under the weight of oppressive traditions which restrict freedom and insist on order at the price of humanity. Yoshida’s noh-inspired aesthetics add to the atmosphere of fable as his embattled protagonists attempt to reconcile their natures with their civility but find there is no answer for repressed desire other than destruction and eventual rebirth.