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Sexual Symbolism Heats Up Yanagimachi's 'Fire Festival'

August 05, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

Mitsuo Yanagimachi's "Himatsuri" (Fire Festival), based on actual events, moves back and forth between natural and supernatural in its tale of a man (Kinya Kitaoji) seemingly freed from the law of the region's Shintoist beliefs yet in complete harmony with its spirit. The gods and goddesses who inhabit the trees, the mountains and rivers are venerated in Japan's aboriginal religion.

Holding the film together in the earthly realm is a story line involving a marine park developer coming to town and buying up real estate, and mysterious oil slicks that are killing the region's fish.

Both potentially tired backdrops in the eco-saturated '90s, they are presented here, along with other conflicts between old and new, in ways not an iota less refreshing now than when the film first appeared in 1985. Seamlessly woven into the story, the film's religious and sexual symbolism works surreptitiously and hence all the more intensely.

Now a lumberjack but equally at home with the sea, Tatsuo is the quintessential natural man. He raises dogs for boar-hunting, he laps water by stooping head-down to the stream and he runs through the woods whooping like a monkey in naive celebration after making love "standing up."

When, in a particularly potent and portentous scene, companions bemoan the fact that Tatsuo's friend has used wood from a sacred tree to fashion a trap, Tatsuo takes the bird from the trap, squeezes out several drops of blood and rubs it into his arm in ritualistic fashion.

"It doesn't matter," Tatsuo says, laughing. "The mountain goddess is my girlfriend." He turns to his friend and says, "You've hurt her sacred tree. So (expose yourself) and apologize." The friend duly drops his drawers. "Only I can make the goddess feel like a woman," Tatsuo reiterates later in a line delivered so unself-consciously that you don't doubt him.

After a spiritually ecstatic episode in a rainstorm, he and the goddess indeed seem to communicate. "I understand," he says when a tree falls in his path. That communion--and the twin purification of ancient ceremonies at the annual Fire Festival--carries the film to its shattering, and totally unexpected, conclusion.

"Himatsuri" (1985), directed by Mitsuo Yanagimachi. 120 minutes. Not rated.

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