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  • Benjamin May

Owl (2003) Review

Kibogaoka was once a thriving village built for Japanese returnees from Manchuria, now it's a ghost town but for two: a lady named Yumie and her daughter Emiko. They barely survive, eating what meagre scraps they can scrounge and living in a state of disrepair. One day, a cunning idea strikes Yumie: she and Emiko will work as prostitutes- as the menfolk who work near Kibogaoka are notoriously deprived of female companionship- and then kill their johns, so they get more money. It's a brilliant plan, and seems to work well for a while. However, the arrival of a distant relative and the machinations of a local policeman threaten to foil the ladies' scheme and bring their murderous maneuvers to light.


Written and directed by Kaneto Shindô, 'Owl' is a bizarre black-comedy that is wildly entertaining and rather madcap; but also quite profound. The story is a simple enough one, but contains unexpected depth and intelligence, exploring the notion of the male gaze from a decidedly feminist perspective. The men in the film are largely ridiculous folk blinded by sexual attraction, who assume that the women are stereotypically innocent, feminine creatures who will serve them unquestionably- and with a smile. Shindô's clever screenplay shows that thought process to be one of male-centric folly.

'Owl' is also a funny picture, that goes to some surreal areas. The sounds of barn-yard animals are frequently heard while men writhe in the throes of death, and the overall atmosphere is surprisingly light and giddy; considering the film is about a couple of serial killers. The dialogue is sharp, witty and humorous- often in a very droll manner. In fact, at times 'Owl' feels like some kind of distorted drawing-room-play from the likes of Noël Coward or Oscar Wilde; in tone if not in subject matter.


The set design surely has some influence over that, as the film is staged and designed like a play. The action takes place in one location, largely in one room of that location; and the outside world is hardly glimpsed at all. Yoshiyuki Miyake's restrained cinematography adds to the somewhat claustrophobic or theatrical sense of space in the film. He moves the camera slowly; his composition is staid and assured and his framing is somewhat conventional- all of which makes 'Owl' look like a filmed piece of theatre.

This minimalism of set design and cinematography lets us focus on the dialogue, the characters and the wonderful performances in 'Owl' all the more intently- as well as on Hikaru Hayashi's emotive score. It is melodically enchanting work that can be remarkably eerie when required. Hayashi worked with Shindô on numerous projects- beginning in 1959 on 'Lucky Dragon No. 5'- and the two clearly enjoyed a bounteous working relationship. Hayashi's work on 'Owl' is aurally captivating and atmospheric; heightening the film's impact dramatically.


As mentioned above, the performances in 'Owl' are terrific, especially Shinobu Otake's as Yumie and Ayumi Ito's as Emiko. Otake is a most versatile performer who can imbue characters with a multitude of emotions. As Yumie, she is part terrifying and part tragic, a pitiful creation the motivations of whom the audience understands perfectly. As was the case with her performance in Yoshimitsu Morita's 'The Black House,' Otake's intensity and range leaves an indelible impression on the viewer.

Ito's performance as Emiko is just as intense, though she is somewhat more sympathetic and light-hearted. As one who always had to rely on her mother's judgements to survive, she doesn't question the murderous spree the two engage in; thinking it natural if Yumie is suggesting it. Ito's committed, slightly ditzy and breezy performance suits the character perfectly. As for the supporting cast, all the men are terrific; though they get very little to do. Mansaku Ikeuchi has the most screen time, and as the lascivious police officer he's excellent; stealing the few scenes he is in.


Kaneto Shindô's 'Owl' is a wild black-comedy that's as clever as it is macabre. Featuring two strong central performances from Shinobu Otake and Ayumi Ito, the film is unpredictable; even if some may suggest the murder spree feels a tad repetitive. The film benefits from a great musical score by the late Hikaru Hayashi and has an assured visual style that is strikingly minimalist. For those who appreciate the dark and the bizarre, 'Owl' is a real hoot.

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