Not all homecomings are happy affairs and, if you want to experience one that makes a good argument against family reunions, consider Yatsuhaka-mura (Japanese title, Village of Eight Gravestones, 1977), which presents the ancestral homestead as a cursed place with a dark history. Tatsuya (played by former pop singer Ken’ichi Hagiwara), the film’s protagonist, was taken away from his mountain village by his mother when he was just a child but when he returns after many years, he feels like the ultimate outsider as he reconnects with family he never really knew. Not only is his village isolated and mired in the past but it sits upon a network of underground caves and tunnels, which hold the key to a family secret.
Based on a popular 1951 mystery thriller by Japanese novelist Seishi Yokomizo entitled The Village of Eight Graves, director Yoshitaro Nomura’s film adaptation is in the tradition of a classic Agatha Christie whodunit but there are other genre influences in the mix. Village of Eight Gravestones begins as a convoluted family soap opera introducing all of the problems and tangled histories of the clan but soon incorporates elements of a murder mystery, a police procedural drama, a supernatural revenge fantasy and a tentative but ill-fated romance into the narrative. It might sound like an indigestible stew but the leisurely-paced, two hour and thirty-one minute saga is unusually compelling for slowly immersing the viewer in a remote mountain community where you gradually become familiar with the key players, their back stories and the terrible event that occurred in the village in 1566.
Nomura’s film opens in the past but transitions to the present after the opening credits as Tatsuya is summoned to a lawyer’s office to prove he is an heir to the Tajimi family. His grandfather validates his identity but almost immediately drops dead and soon Tatsuya is on his way to his birthplace for his relative’s funeral accompanied by Miyako (Mayumi Ogawa), a young widow from the village, who has been working for her family’s PR film in the city. Miyako serves as the ideal guide for Tatsuya’s homecoming as well as a local historian who eventually reveals the village’s bloody past.
Told in flashback, the origins of the ancestral curse that hangs over the village is depicted in horrific detail as eight surviving members of the Amako clan arrive in the mountain community 400 years earlier after fleeing their enemy, the Morri. At first the villagers are fearful of the eight samurai but after the strangers demonstrate their good intentions by helping to farm the land, they are accepted. The harmony is short lived once Shozaemon (Isao Hashimoto), a village leader, learns that the samurai have a bounty on their heads and he orchestrates a plot to have them murdered at an annual celebration. In the midst of a kabuki show, the eight men are given poisoned sake and attacked with spears, axes and swords before being beheaded. Yoshitaka Amako (Isao Natsuyagi), the head samurai, is the last to die and places a curse on the village and the Shozaemon family line.
Tatsuya’s birthplace is indeed a strange place with superstitious villagers and eccentric relatives like his two aunts who make midnight visits to a mysterious shed. Much more disturbing is a rash of new murders that seem tied to Tatsuya’s arrival in town as heirs to the Tajimi family are killed off. Kindaichi (Kiyoshi Atsumi), an undercover detective posing as an itinerant worker, launches an investigation with Tatsuya’s assistance and begins to identify possible suspects behind the murders.
In the original novel, Kindaichi was the main character and was also the detective hero of more than 70 mystery novels by Seishi Yokomizo but in Nomura’s Village of Eight Gravestones he is reduced to a supporting character who gets bogged down in details and misses the big picture of what is really happening. The focus instead becomes Tatsuya, a reticent and cerebral hero, who is eventually confronted with the mysteries surrounding his own childhood, a missing father and a second village massacre that occurred in recent years and resulted in 32 deaths.
Village of Eight Gravestones does a good job of showing the cultural divide between city and rural life as well as juxtaposing the bucolic setting of the mountain village against the dank, forbidding tunnels and caves that run beneath it. The movie was partially filmed on real locations in the Yamaguchi Prefecture in Japan using Kagekiyo Cave and other caverns as well as studio sets that served as reproductions of actual sites like the luminescent Elf Fire pools. This subterranean setting is particularly creepy throughout the film, especially in the suspenseful final minutes when Tatsuya is pursued in the darkness by some seemingly demonic entity.
When Village of Eight Gravestones opened in Japan in 1977, it was a big box office hit and it would later be remade as a TV movie in 1991 entitled The Village of the Eight Tomb and as a feature film by director Kon Ichikawa at the end of his career known as The 8-Tomb Village in 1996. Other film adaptations of Seishi Yokomizo’s work include Sanbon Yubi no Otoko (1947), which is based on The Honjin Murder Case, the first novel to feature detective Kindaichi, Yurei Otoko aka Ghost Man (1954), a lurid B-movie thriller about a homicidal maniac who kills models and photographs their corpses; Kyutetsu-Ga aka The Vampire Moth (1956), The Inugami Family (1976), which is probably the most famous and popular of all Yokomizo novel-to-screen adaptations, and The House of Hanging (1979), a tale of a once noble family ruined by their own decadent behavior.
Yoshitaro Nomura, director of Village of Eight Gravestones, is not that well known in the U.S. but he is well regarded in Japan where he has carved out an impressive career in the mystery and melodrama genres. Kichiku aka The Demon, his 1978 film, won Best Actor (Ken Ogata) and Best Director from The Japan Academy, their equivalent of the Oscar ceremony. Other critically praised work includes Stakeout (1958), Zero Focus (1961), The Scarlet Camellia (1964), and The Castle of Sand (1974).
Hardcore horror and Asian action fans will probably be disappointed or bored by Village of Eight Gravestones because it is more focused on character development and unraveling a complicated plot in an unrushed and almost stately manner. That doesn’t mean the film shies away from explicit violence and gore such as a genuinely disturbing sequence when a madman murders a couple and their little baby (the sound effect of a sword piercing the crying infant’s body is particularly gruesome). There are also surreal supernatural touches like the severed head of Yoshitaka Amako smiling insanely at the camera after his treacherous murder. Still, the two and a half hour running time may be daunting to the average viewer so my recommendation is to watch Village of Eight Gravestones in two sitting and take a break at the midway point when Tatsuya first discovers the underground caves.
So where can you see the film? There’s the rub. It is not available on any authorized format in the U.S. although you may be able to purchase an import version from Japan if you own an all-region player. European Trash Cinema may also still carry a decent DVD-R letterboxed copy of it in Japanese with English subtitles. Strangely enough, it is much easier to purchase a copy of the movie’s romantic score by the legendary Japanese film composer Yasushi Akutagawa.
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