The Lonely Way of Head-Lopping

Exploring the evil nature of obsession in Sakaguchi Ango’s sadistic short story and its film adaptation “In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom.”

Sakaguchi Ango was one of Japan’s most notable authors of the early twentieth century. His thrilling short story “In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom” explores the decrepitude of mankind’s loneliness, and the corruptive power of indulgence. Masahiro Shinoda’s 1975 film Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees is an extremely true-to-text adaptation of this work. Through a sharp cynic eye turned toward the weakness of mankind, both Ango and Shinoda show that the most devastating crimes are not of the flesh, but of character, and that man has created his own hell through obsession.

For his film adaptation of Under Cherries, Shinoda pulled the dialogue, characters, and scene structure directly from the source text with little alteration (though, for the non-Japanese speaker, it is impossible to tell just how precisely, as each work has been translated into English separately.) Protagonists in both Ango’s original and Shinoda’s adaptation are decidedly left anonymous, which detaches them from reality and submerges the audience in the story’s fable-like atmosphere.

Under Cherries is a beguiling tale of dangerous beauty. Both short story and film begin in modern day Japan, showing groups of carefree friends enjoying the annual hanami[1]. A narrator begins with a word of caution: “Nowadays, when the cherries bloom, people think it’s time for a party. They go under the trees and eat and drink and mouth the old sayings about spring and pretty blossoms, but it’s all one big lie” (OBJSS). He harkens back to Edo period; the story which follows surmises the false innocence of the glorious spring cherry blossoms, and suggests that the fluttering petals hold a dark and mysterious secret. The blooms are hence transformed into harbingers of horror—those who pass through their groves will go mad (unknown).

Ango’s narrative style is brash, cheeky and to the point. The story’s main protagonist, a bumbling and brutish mountain bandit, is portrayed in the text as simplistic, animalistic, and impulsive. Neither does he dwell on his thoughts nor weight his pros and cons. His inner motivations are matter-of-factly laid out for the reader. For example, while out for his usual pillage, the mountain man “hadn’t planned to kill the man at first. He thought he’d strip him like the others and send him off with a good kick, but the woman was too beautiful. He had to kill her man” (OBJSS 188.) This straight forward tactic reflects the simple nature of the character’s logic and reasoning, and allows the audience to comprehend his actions and connect to the story on a primal level.

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The film’s lack of an omniscient narrative text places the difficult task of conveying such blunt simplicity into the actor’s hands. The vibrant descriptions are thus transformed from text to screen by superlative acting. In the film, the mountain man (played by the acclaimed Tomisaburō Wakayama) conveys the wild necessity he feels when he meets the stunning woman with just one look. After stealing the traveler’s goods, his eyes become possessed by the woman’s beauty. His intense and confused stare moves from her face to that of her husband, and the audience understands that his desire is uncontrollable; his animalistic impulses require him to murder her husband.

The bandit then steals the alluring woman into the mountains, where her indulgent neediness and commandeering nature are quickly revealed. She commands him to murder his previous seven wives, yet spares the homeliest cripple to serve as her attendant. The man’s obsession with her beauty renders him powerless to refuse her heinous requests, and the pair moves to the city where they spiral into a deep state of evil.

Because the film is so closely tied to the written work, its added visual dynamic serves to enhance the feelings evoked from the original story. As an unexpected perk, those who view it with subtitles experience the film almost as if it were a living story book; each beautifully crafted frame acts as a moving illustration for the rich dialogue (Beauregard). In a scene taken directly from Ango’s work, the bandit piggy-backs his new, nagging wife through the forest, “‘See these mountains? Every single one of them belongs to me,’ he said, but she paid him no heed. Disappointed, he said, ‘Do you hear what I’m telling you? Every mountain you see here, every tree, every valley, every cloud rising out of every valley – they all belong to me’” (OBJSS 189). The film couples this dialogue with a slow pan across the stunning landscape, and as he speaks these words, the vastness of space and time is amplified for the viewer.

The film also utilizes auditory cues to heighten the feeling of utter fear and loneliness explored in the text. Ango writes of a phantom wind which descends upon those who pass beneath the cherry blossoms: “Underneath the blossoms, the wind wouldn’t blow, but [the mountain man] still seemed to hear it howling. No, there was no wind, no sound of anything, just himself and his footsteps, wrapped in cold, silent wind that never moved. He’d feel the life inside him scattering like so many soft, silent cherry blossoms…” (OBJSS 188). In order to translate this feeling to film, Shinoda combined haunting voices, eerie string instruments, and a clapping ki[2] to elicit the same mysterious fright as brought on by the text.

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With these intelligently placed sound effects, the film is able to enhance the story and engage a captive audience. One cannot help but feel the nagging tinge of loneliness as a crow’s stark cry slices the silence of the mountain. Softly falling rain drops maginfy the boredom felt in an empty house. The saturated sounds of the bustling city drown one’s thoughts in a confusion akin to the alienation felt by an outsider in a foreign land. These subtleties create an auditory narrative in order to connect the audience to the characters, however vulgar and maniacal their actions may be.

The psychological horror in each rendition revolves around the pervasive human sins of obsession and beauty. The woman brandishes her beauty as if it were a sword, using it to persuade her husband to grant her every desire. The wild and intemperate nature of her obsession quickly corrupts her mind, and she soon asks that her husband retrieve the heads of numerous city dwellers to act as her playthings. With the severed heads, she enacts elaborate plots, for which additional heads are constantly required. “The woman loved it when the faces would stick together and fall apart. The sight would send her into peals of uncontrollable laughter” (OBJSS 197). The pure joy of her insatiable head-lust saturates the text in a morbid eroticism. On film, her clear laughter rings ominous and sadistic. In order to intensify this sadism, she in shown parading around the head-strewn house in lavish kimonos and stylish rouge while reenacting an old Noh[3] song and dance.

The film similarly expands its exploration of loneliness, insignificance, and infinitude found in the text. In the original story, the woman never tires of her endless solitary games. When her husband tires of the monotony, she fiercely argues that there is no end to anything, and that he’s just being weak. The film uses nearly the same dialogue in their debate, yet the moment she is alone, the audience watches her expression dull and her posture slump in boredom. This new dimension of character not only humanizes her, but connects the two protagonists through a sense of universal loneliness.

With the addition of sex scenes, of which the text is devoid, the film takes the eroticism to an even darker place. Instead of merely suggesting a sadistic eroticism, the film blatantly connects the woman’s insatiable, grotesque desire with sexual pleasure. Each night, her husband grunts over her soft, smooth skin as she fixedly gazes at the face of a rotting head. Her overt obsession has corroded her mind to the point of an unsettlingly monstrous evil.

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The sole variance of plot from text to film comes with Shinoda’s introduction of “the acquitted” (felons tasked to capture felons.) In Ango’s short story, the mountain man, tired of endless head-lopping and lonely city life, goes back to the mountains to ponder his options for escape. In his confusion, he ponders, “Is she me? Was I the bird that flew straight across the sky without end? If I kill her, will I be killing myself? What am I thinking?” (OBSS 201). His inward battle draws the story toward an existential realm, yet the film draws away from this exploration, and instead shocks the audience back into a reality in which there are consequences for such evil actions. Instead of ruminating on his confused loneliness, the mountain-bandit-turned-serial-killer is arrested and sentenced to serve alongside fellow criminals under corrupt officials.

Shinoda’s adaptation takes this side-route to illustrate the innate evils of the human mind, and the universal, corruptive power of greed only to thrust the audience back into the fable for the grand finale. Through his experiences, the bandit has overcome his fear of the haunting cherry groves. As he and his sadistic wife venture back into the mountains, they pass under the blossoms only to go raving mad with hallucinations, as if their evils have consumed them in the stillness.

“In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom” is a study of the horror of the living. Each exploration of fear, loneliness, obsession and greed in the text is enhanced by Shinoda’s cinematic retelling. The added visual and auditory aspects transform Ango’s original short story into a vibrant and enthralling exploration of the human psyche. Each shows that “glutting on beauty,” blindly following authority, and indulging in decadent obsession are horrible evils which will corrode and trap the mind in utter hell (Grunes).


Works Cited

  • Beauregard, Daniel. “Masahiro Shinoda and his Film.” Fanzine. 4 February 2015. Web. Accessed 6 March 2015.
  • Grunes, Dennis. “Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees.” WordPress. 21 July 2009. Web. Accessed 6 March 2015.
  • Unknown. “In the Woods Beneath Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom” Lines From the Horizon. 4 December 2009. Web. Accessed 6 March 2015.
  • Goossen, Theodore, ed. Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print
  • Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (Sakura no mori no mankai no shita). Dir. Masahiro Shinoda. Perf. Tomisaburō Wakayama, Shima Iwashita. Geiensha Co., Toho Co. 1975. Film.

[1] Hanami (花見), literally: flower viewing, is a Japanese tradition during which friends and family gather to drink and dance beneath the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

[2] The ki, or hyoshigi are wooden clappers used to cue important events in kabuki.

[3] Noh (能) is a staged form of traditional Japanese music drama.

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