The Whispering of the Gods
- Original title
- Gerumaniumu no Yoru
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 105 minutes
- 23 June 2006
by Tom Mes
In 1980, producer Genjiro Arato decided to circumvent the archaic theatrical distribution network, still rigidly run by the ailing studios, by screening Zigeunerweisen in a mobile, traveling theatre. The move worked: the film made money and gained great critical favour, restoring Seijun Suzuki's reputation from pariah to unclassifiable genius.
Twenty-five year later, Arato employs a similar strategy for his latest production, Tatsushi Omori's The Whispering of the Gods. Screened only in a self-built construction near Ueno Park in Tokyo, and advertised guerrilla-style in strategic areas of the capital, it ran for months and courted quite a bit of controversy. For it was the film's subject matter that led to Arato's decision this time around. The Whispering of the Gods' scenes of sexual abuse and animal cruelty within a tight-knit Christian community were unlikely to have passed the Eirin censor board intact. By screening it outside of the usual theatrical circuit, no submission to Eirin was necessary. (Arato's idiosyncratic stratagem seems to have paid off once again: after a strong critical reception, the film went into regular theatrical distribution in unexpurgated form after all.)
The tone of the film is set from the start. After a credit sequence of ear-tagged and bound buffalo ploughing their way through a snowy landscape, we move indoors to find Father Kamiya (Ishibashi) reciting prayers, as the panning camera reveals that he is simultaneously receiving a hand job from Rou (Arai), one of his disciples in this isolated, convent-like farming community. The permanently deadpan Rou is among those youths who have fled here to escape from their past - in his case murder - taken in without discrimination or judgement as long as they subject themselves to the hierarchy and discipline - including its many aberrations.
In this community of scarred souls, abuse is found much easier than salvation. Kamiya's behaviour echoes down the ladder, with most members only able to relate to each other by abusing those beneath them. Rou seems to be an exception: he is equally abusive to everyone. He confesses to a crime he hasn't committed and later admits that he lied to the sickly, elder priest that lent him his ear - but that because he has already done penance for the crime he is, all things considered, free to go out and commit it. The shock over the cold-hearted manipulation sends the aged cleric to his grave.
It's hard to tell exactly what debuting director Omori (younger brother of Ichi the Killer's Nao Omori, who also appears in the film, as does their father, former butoh dancer Maro Akaji) is trying to say with the forced hand jobs, fellations, bestiality, and plain old physical abuse. Is it an indictment against the church? An allegory about the human condition? A warning? Pure fiction? There are no clear indications, but what is sure is that it paints a very bleak portrait of contemporary humanity. Its last line of dialogue, "Let's get back to shovelling shit", seems to express its viewpoint on the human condition most clearly.
The Whispering of the Gods is a grim film, in its subject as well as in its look. The farm community is of a rare corrugated, rusty, muddy ugliness that the barren snowscapes only help emphasise. But there are many glimpses of beauty among the sullenness: Omori and his cinematographer Ryo Otsuka create carefully composed images of almost painterly beauty, the washed-out colour palette reminiscent of Hideo Gosha's best work on films like Goyokin and Hitokiri. In the film's sole non-abusive sex scene, Omori manages to make us feel the full physicality, the energy, and the gorgeous fleshy hue of two naked, rhythmically writhing bodies. The cast is right on the money, in particular Arai, who has been a standout in almost everything he has been in during his still short career, from Blue Spring to The Neighbor #13 to Blood and Bones. Some smart director or producer should really pair him with Noriko Eguchi and watch the screen burn up with the seething intensity of the country's two best young actors.
If The Whispering of the Gods is occasionally a bit too eager to wallow in depravity, this youthful indulgence is easy to forgive on the part of a novice director who manages to conjure up such sustained solemnity in the shape of these gorgeous images. This is material that even far more experienced filmmakers would have mercilessly burned their fingers on. Thanks to Omori's focus and his resistance to spelling things out, The Whispering of the Gods will most likely be a film that will continue to haunt Japanese cinema and intrigue those who study it for years to come.