A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 18): The Demon (1978)

I’m drawn to genre film because I am often terrified by chamber dramas. Nothing is more awkward – and direct – like a room full of people with malice and selfish motivations, fueled by desire, setting to destroy one another in the banalist terms. Polanski’s Carnage, for example, I could barely sit through (but two days ago, I sat through BoardingHouse!). The focused intensity of everyday experience is terrifying for me – it is immediate, yet so within the realm of possibility. So when it comes to horror cinema, there are the everyday subgenres I am completely accustomed to by now, such as the Horror of the Apocalypse (“End of the World”), the Horror of the Mind / Psychological Horror (“End of Oneself”) and the Horror of the Others (“End of Others”). But what of the Horror of the Everyday (“End of Existence”)? I can barely handle it. Without monsters, zombies, occultists, slashers, terrorists, ghosts, spectres, witches, demons, haunts, or aliens, what terrible outside force can we appropriate horror to, and then easily dismiss? The shortest answer is, we have only look to ourselves for evil, and these works force us, as best we can, to transcribe the Hyde we see in the mirror to the Jekylls we are. It is a terrible proposition. So although The Demon is not what could be called a horror film per se, it is one of the undiscovered masterpieces of horror, because it is a masterpiece of everyday horror – a horror on parenthood, and on children not as the object of horror, like a Bad Seed or an Omen, but its subject. It is the kind of horror you see in the park or at Disneyland, at a restaurant or on the bus or (heaven forbid) with your friends, when you witness the release of Id onto the impressionable psyche of children, and pretend you don’t see. Because social propriety says that’s none of your business. It was once said it takes a village to raise a child, but The Demon makes the saying fade deep into impossible mythology.

The Demon begins with Kikuyo, a clearly exasperated single parent with three young children – an older, rambunctious boy Riichi, a young daughter, and small toddler. She is on the search for something in a strange, unknown village. We come to find her at the steps of the Takeshita Printing company – a small mom and pop operation in the shadows of a burned building. Under the cover of night, she storms the place with the three kids in tow. Soon, we get the backstory: she is the mistress of the owner of the place, Sokichi (Ogata Ken). Sokichi and Kikuyo have a row outside, but Oume, Sokichi’s wife, invites her inside. To Oume we get the backstory – Sokichi has been meeting Kikuyo on the side for seven years, the three children are probably his, the hush money / child support stopped flowing her direction, and she can’t take care of their kids any longer. As they stay the night, Sokichi tries to plead and/or have sex with Oume but she pulls a knife on him. Kikuyo leaves as if a spectre from some traditional Japanese ghost story, and the unhappily wedded couple are stuck with the kids. Kikuyo is never seen again.

There is a brief period where the couple tries to care for the three children, but this doesn’t last long. Oume starts to personify her hate of the mistress onto the three kids, in particular the oldest, Riichi. “He’s evil,” she says to his face. “He looks just like his mother.” She takes to beating them mercilessly – during one beating off-camera, even the hired hand says, “That’s like living in hell.” The whole while, Sokichi does nothing and subjects his children to this abuse. Eventually, out of hate for her situation, Oume ends up force feeding the toddler, and he’s hospitalized. But at least he’s out of the way. The reprieve gives Oume an idea… her gaze later turns from the sleeping toddler in their home, eating and sleeping away their precious funds, to a blanket she’s putting away. There are moments of intense pause, intercut with scenes of Sokichi’s printing business failing. Soon the youngest, the toddler, has suffocated in his sleep.

At this point you know where the film is going although you really hope you’re just making it up. As the two surviving older kids water their younger brother’s grave, the whole gravity hits you. Children are remarkably resilient, brave, and resourceful. Adults are frail, weak, and cowardly. Oume has become a kind of Evil Godmother, and the three kids are the three fantastical trials of legend… that must be overcome. To save their finances, their sanity, and their marriage, Oume and Sokichi spend the rest of the film wrestling with – and removing – the two remaining children from their lives. It is done from their perspective in all its Hitchcockian perversity. The Demon’s director Nomura Yoshitaro is not well-known in the West, but is very much so in his native Japan, where he ended up making a name for himself in very Hitch-esque mystery thrillers like Zero Focus and Castle of Sand. The Demon may be his most accomplished piece, though: a hat-trick of audience manipulation, and domestic, awkward terror. Nomura lets his leads (especially the incomparable Iwashita Shima as Oume; the same Iwashita of Harakiri, An Autumn Afternoon, Silence and Himiko, among distinguished other works) and Ogata wallow in self-imposed pity and self-righteous hatred in a manner that scares the bejeezus out of us because we’ve seen it before. When Sokichi finally results to violence to rid himself of his eldest son Riichi, you’re not at all surprised. And that scares you deep down.

But like Abraham and Isaac, this sacrifice is spared miraculously, but there is no supplemental Lamb – eventually, the game is up on the gangly Sokichi. Here, Ogata looks twenty years older here than he would in the rather contemporaneous Vengeance Is Mine, where he plays a more overt force of pure, Biblical evil. It’s a true salaryman nightmare, and behind his every gaze are a thousand lost opportunities. It is a performance of grace, covered in blood and dirt and hate. The performances carry the picture, but Nomura’s framing and use of middle-and background is equally impeccable, building tension in harmony with the dialogue in front. Sound design is confined, as if trapped in the wall of the screen – the children’s innocence, meanwhile, is kept personified in a music box from their mother – the only real gift in the film. Its tinkle sounds like Grieg’s Peer Gynt, just a few notes off. Now, it sounds most like Williams’ Harry Potter theme song, which is way, way worse.

On that note, the Demon of the title is never quite explained – but that could be because it is a subtle mistranslation. The kanji “鬼畜” for the title is not necessarily the overt “demon” we Westerners think of as demons, like Oni (鬼), although the symbol is certainly involved. But it is only one of two characters. The Demon, or the Kichiku, translates to something more of a brutal sadist – it is the character of the demon/oni combined with that of livestock, herd, cattle. The demon in all of us.

At the police station, the detective tells the now-profoundly abused boy, on his way to the orphanage to cheer him up:

“The place where you’re going is filled with children like you.”

The Demon The Film now becomes a mouthpiece of Japanese social ills: there is a recapitulation scene of some grander moral psychological message, blah, et al. No one’s listening at this point – it’s like trying to explain away Norman Bates’ state of mind after he’s caught in Psycho. We’ve seen all we need to see – any scholarly explication is an insult to our intellignce.

So we get one. On his way to the orphanage, the child care nurse tell the young boy, “You’re a man, be strong,” and the irony sticks in the back of your throat like sandpaper. He’s strong, but he’s no man. Where he’s going, there is no return. The nurse waves like she’s seeing a friend to the airport. Every life has been ruined, and the boy cries – there is no adult to save him from his future. His coming reality is far, far worse than where he’s been.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

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