The Return of the Gothic

A scene from Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.

As part of Somerset House’s Behind the Screen season of talks exploring the craft of filmmaking, Jasper Sharp presented a fascinating lecture on the Japanese Supernatural Gothic on Thursday 15th August. If you are the kind of person who enjoys serious, almost academic discussion of art then you really owe it to yourself to attend the remainder of this series.

Sharp, of and the indispensable (and incredibly beautiful) Midnight Eye, talked about the characteristics of ‘Gothic’ as opposed to simply horror and how this related to Kurosawa’s masterpiece ‘Throne of Blood’ which was being screened following the lecture.

He showed a number of really beautiful film clips to illustrate the traditional and more experimental plot devices used in Gothic movies. My favourite example was from Kiyohiko Ushihara’s 1938 film The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen which featured what could have been a ludicrous cat possession but was somehow incredibly tense and edgy. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be a second of this film on youtube.

One thing I drew from these movies was the similarities between Japanese Gothic cinema and its British counterpart of the same era. The use of smoke and long periods of silence to set the mood stood out as did the choice of music. Even the portmanteau format made famous by Hammer was replicated in films like 1964s Kwaidan. It would be interesting to learn more about the cinematic cross-fertilisation that occurred between these two traditions.

Sharp continued the discussion by investigating the traditional Japanese Gothic ‘look’. The depth of field is kept incredibly shallow giving no sense of distance on screen and the camera work emphasises this by panning from side to side, very rarely zooming into the scene to give perspective. This mirrors other forms of Japanese art which sought to be flat and contemplative rather than inviting the viewer into the work.

He finished by using Ringu as an example of the modern Gothic with its mixing of the traditional with the Western. The use of high contrast and the female supernatural figure feel very familiar but Sadako’s famous TV escape (bringing to mind Cronenberg’s Videodrome) breaks the traditional depth of field conventions. (I realise this may not mean much if you haven’t seen Ringu but I don’t want to ruin one of the most amazing moments in cinema for anyone).

Once the talk was done we all made our way up to join the 2000 others who had already taken their seats (on the ground) in the courtyard of Somerset House. This was my first film in these surroundings and I was impressed. The sound was incredible for an outdoor screening and my view was surprisingly unimpeded. Admittedly it was quite uncomfortable but that didn’t seem to matter. There’s something special about watching a great film under a full moon with thousands of like minded people that makes sore buttocks less of an annoyance. Still, best bring a cushion.

I won’t review Throne of Blood here other than to say it is the best version of Macbeth I’ve seen with the most brutally balletic ending you’ll ever see. I’ve seen it loads of times and it really doesn’t get old. I will say that although Throne of Blood is already a great name, its more literal translation is Spiderweb Castle, which is way better. So if you like the sound of the Behind the Screen series then do go along to a discussion with David Gorden Green followed by the premiere of his new film Prince Avalanche. If gothic film is something you’re interested in then check out the upcoming BFI gothic series of films that looks sure to be an absolute winner.

Words by Neil McComb


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