At six hundred pages, Natsuhiko Kyogoku 's debut novel is one of his shortest. It also reads like an attempt to include every possible element that can make a novel unfilmable. The story is extremely long and very complex. It involves extended flashbacks, vast swaths of exposition, and the dramatic arc of the story has a decided tendency to take second shift to the philosophy involved. It is filled with ninety-page long conversations - two men sitting in a bookstore, sipping tea and slowly, deliberately, painstakingly explaining the world view upon which the entire story is founded. The first person narrator barely interacts with the plot, spending most of the book being taught, standing by, or wrestling with titanic internal struggles. The story only works at all because he lies to us repeatedly - or, in fact, tells us the truth as he perceives it, where his perceptions are eventually proven to be unreliable.
Kyogokudo (Tsutsumi) is a used book seller who doubles as an onmyouji, or Heian style occultist. His friend Sekiguchi brings him the story of a woman who has been pregnant for twenty months. Sekiguchi investigates further with the help of his friend Enozuki, a detective with the unusual ability to see people's memories. They are hired by the impossibly pregnant woman's sister to find the woman's missing husband and lay this whole matter to rest. In the end, they need the help of Kyogokudo to exorcize the family curse.
Any attempt to film the book's epic conversations would instantly begin to come across as a sort of supernatural My Dinner with Andre. (Andre's conversation is a rather good analogy for how the book reads, actually; carefully, methodically boiling complex ideas down to their essence so we understand and remember them and can then use them to follow the later developments in the plot.) Faced with a script that boils these lectures down to a cliffnotes set of famous lines, bouncing the opening of an idea off the audience without any of the follow through that makes the purpose of that idea transparent, the director, Akio Jissoji, has chosen to jazz things up a little.
Recent Japanese directors like Yukihiko Tsutsumi (2LDK, Chinese Dinner) and his followers have successfully developed a film language in which bizarre camera angles, dramatic camera moves, and rapid fire editing can actually make a complex piece of exposition both exciting and really easy to follow. The director of Ubume has clearly watched their work and understood none of it. He directs his actors to speak as fast as humanly possible, then films their motormouthed monologues as distractingly as possible, so that it becomes completely impossible to figure out what the hell Kyogokudo is on about.
Shinichi Tsutsumi is a brilliant actor, so when the camera isn't unexpectedly flipping upside down, backing off the set and into a different building, or straining to show us that they've actually gone and built ceilings onto their sets, he does manage to communicate a few of the ideas and give a sense of the character's mysterious charisma. Masatoshi Nagase, left with the unenviable task of being completely integral to the story and yet not being allowed to say or do much of anything, manages to convey an immense amount through body language and extremely subtle movements of his face. It doesn't really come together as a performance, because the screenwriters and director have chosen to completely remove the source of his madness, apparently deciding the movie couldn't survive a main character who believes he has raped a girl. The rest of the cast is either flat and forgettable, or hamming it up like they're in a Jim Carrey movie. Finally Abe Hiroshi manages to sell his character's eccentric humor despite having all of his interesting scenes removed in service of speeding the plot along.
The plot does indeed speed along, but so recklessly that they frequently have to stop, backtrack, and explain something that happened a good deal earlier because it turned out to be important after all. Vital dramatic scenes, scenes that turn the entire plot of the book, are snipped down to three lines, and left connected to nothing. The only people following the plot of this movie are the people who have already read the novel, and even those people may have trouble with several of the salient points if they haven't reread it recently.
Despite whittling the conversations and plot down to nothing, the director still finds time to remove most of the book's most dramatic imagery. A key character transformation takes place with a strobe light on, so we can't see it. The climactic revelation of the truth behind all things is done in a truly bizarre rainbow sparkler effect. The main character is beset by cheaply produced, silent film-level special effects flashcut over his face. The director's favorite trick is the spotlight, shining one down on the characters at regular intervals as if to call attention to the staginess of his sets and blocking. (They vowed to recreate the Showa era, but the movie feels like it's set in a museum, not a place anyone has ever lived.) And despite all this trimming, they turn around and insert a riot, a fire, a wandering picture storyteller, and famous manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, played by none other than Natsuhiko Kyogoku himself, apparently so pleased to be in the movie he forgot to ask what purpose his character served.
I knew Ubume was going to be a bit of a train wreck, and I went to see it more out of morbid curiosity than anything else, but this movie failed so spectacularly that I was disappointed despite my lack of expectations. I had been hoping for a movie that threw out everything that made the book unique, but instead I got a movie that didn't even have the decency to make sense, or be scary. The novel is about perception. What we perceive now to be psychological conditions were, a few hundred years ago, perceived to be monsters. The monster called Ubume is the madness of a woman whose child is stillborn. I perceive a good deal of irony in that.