“You’re all mad” the hero of Tokuzo Tanaka’s The Whale God (鯨神, Kujiragami) finally exclaims, perhaps in a sense cured of the overwhelming mania that has defined his life but only at the cost of it. Adapted from the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel by Koichiro Uno which owes a significant debt to Moby Dick, Tanaka’s tokusatsu-adjacent drama is part haunting morality tale cautioning against the destructive absurdity of obsessive vengeance, and a kind of treatise on life in traditional village at a moment of eclipse as the burgeoning modernity of early Meiji washes up on its shores.
Tanaka opens with a brief prologue in which an elderly man is killed attempting to destroy the “Whale God” only for his son to swear vengeance before being killed himself. The man’s mother instructs his sons to vow revenge, 10 years passing before she sends the oldest one out against the whale. He is also killed, instantly. The last of his line, young Shaki (Kojiro Hongo) is burdened with this piece of filial responsibility, forced to bear the weight of his family’s vengeance while the village elder (Takashi Shimura), a samurai, wants to ensure the Whale God’s destruction and offers up his own daughter, Toyo (Kyoko Enami), along with his lands and title to any who can bring him the snout of the whale. Shaki throws himself forward though he has little desire for the prize obsessed only with vengeance, while another challenger soon appears, Kishu (Shintaro Katsu), a uncouth drifter deciding to hang around after confirming that the offer is open to all no matter their origins.
Origins do, however, matter. The village elder instructs Kishu to step back lest he spear his “stinking guts” for failing to know his place, a commoner with the temerity to encroach on a samurai’s personal space. The two men, Shaki and Kishu, in a sense represent two halves one whole, one resigned and contemplative and the other rough and greedy. Kishu attempts to challenge Shaki directly but is rebuffed, later settling for besting him through raping his girlfriend, Ei (Shiho Fujimura), who conceives a child as a consequence of the attack but somehow manages to keep the pregnancy entirely secret. Both the woman and the whale become a surrogate battleground for a contest of masculinity, Kishu symbolically ahead in having violated Ei while Shaki remained too consumed with vengeance to have consummated their union.
Toyo, meanwhile, the samurai’s daughter, insists that she won’t be “the prize for a fisherman’s ambition”, rejecting the idea of becoming the wife of a lowly villager which would of course mean for her great shame. Nevertheless, she is as powerless as Shaki in her inability to shake off patriarchal authority or refuse her duty to obey her father’s orders even as he tells her it’s all a cruel joke, he doesn’t believe that any fisherman could kill the Whale God and survive. Nevertheless she develops a fascination with Shaki and is intensely offended to discover that he wants no part of her father’s bargain and has in fact married Ei claiming her child as his own. He does this in part in order to ensure that someone will exist in order to avenge his own death which he is sure is coming at the fins of the Whale God, resigned with fatalistic nihilism to the ancestral curse which has haunted him for almost all his life living only for vengeance.
Yet he does in fact manage to kill the Whale God and live, if only for a brief time but long enough to hear Toyo echo that she must marry the man who killed the god in accordance with her father’s promise despite knowing he is already married with a child. His curse lifted, he understands that the whole village is affected by a kind of madness no longer understanding why a samurai’s daughter would agree to marry a man she didn’t love who was not her social equal. In a beatific state, he reflects on his rivalry with Kishu whom he comes to believe deliberately sacrificed himself in order to assure Shaki a survival he does not appear to want in order to ensure his own child would have a father. Discomfortingly, he asks Ei to forgive Kishu because of this fact, little acknowledging her suffering and reducing her once again to a token traded between men in their now concluded battle for masculine dominance.
An old man having escaped the village’s madness had encouraged Shaki not to die for nothing, to live his life in rejection of his mother’s fatalistic deathbed instruction only to live until you die. In achieving his vengeance he reaches a kind of apotheosis becoming a Christ-like figure sacrificed on behalf of the village which has been liberated of the tyranny of the Whale God even if the Whale God has been exposed as merely a larger than average sea creature. Meanwhile, we can also see that modernity is hovering on the outskirts, the whale’s arrival is signalled by telegraph while Shaki’s childhood friend Kasuke (Yosuke Takemura) alone is able to see through the village’s “madness” leaving to study medicine in Nagasaki. When he returns a year later, Shaki relents and asks him to take his sister with him away from the maddening village towards a more enlightened land.
The village is also surprisingly enough Christian, though the new religion does not seem to have eclipsed their traditional beliefs or practices. The fishermen still perform a ritual dance before a whale hunt and continue to demand vengeance against the Whale God even when cautioned against it. Shooting in intense gloominess Tanaka emphasises the sense of spiritual dread that accompanies this “ludicrous” vendetta, the village seemingly always cloaked in darkness as if awaiting its own destruction eventually hastened by the elder’s transgressive offering which in itself represents a small revolution that would make a peasant a king and therefore implode a feudal order that is already on its way out. The elder wants vengeance for glory, Kishu wants vengeance for gold, but only Shaki desires vengeance for peace and later wins it only to have nothing left to live for, ominously telling Ei to raise their son to become “a proud whaler”. Making great use of miniatures, Tanaka’s parabolic drama may park itself in the realms of tokusatsu but is in its own way stranger, and darker, yet also poetic in its examination of destructive obsession, traditional masculinity, feudalistic patriarchy, and existential futility through the story of a young man born to die for a father’s transgressive failures.
Original trailer (no subtitles)