VILLAGE OF EIGHT GRAVESTONES
(1977, Japan, aka YATSU HAKA-MURA)
Hong Kong region 3 NTSC DVD review (Panorama Entertainment)
A gory epic murder mystery from Japan
I wish I'd seen this film back in 1977 - I'd have switched on to Japanese cinema far earlier. It's a mystery of the calibre of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS intercut with violent flashbacks as gory as THE WILD BUNCH.
From the DVD cover, I thought I was going to get a low-key ghost story where the scariest thing was a close up of an undead samurai (even RING was guilty of blowing its scariest moment on the front cover). How wrong I was. This turns out to be one of the biggest budget Japanese movies of the seventies and one of the most successful. It works as a murder mystery and a ghost story, with generous flashes of violent samurai back stories. It doesn't actually scare, but it constantly manages to shock and intrigue over an epic 150 minute running time.
Briefly, a young airport technician, Tatsuya, working in Tokyo, is sought out by his estranged family via a solictor. He's invited back to his ancestral home, but not before his grandfather dies in mysterious circumstances in the solictor's office. Carrying his grandfather's ashes, and curious to learn more about his mother and his place of birth, Tatsuya returns to a valley deep in the mountains behind Osaka, to a mansion in the 'Village of eight Gravestones'. When another relative dies the same way as his grandfather, Tatsuya hears about an ancient samurai curse...
Most of the film takes place around an entire valley, the centre of which is the huge family home. It appears to have been shot largely on location, spectacularly captured in widescreen. The lush colour occasionally runs red during the nastier sword action, which involves clever and graphic violence that punctuates the detective work.
I'm astonished that this film isn't famous internationally. It's accomplished cinema that doesn't pull its punches. Director Yoshitaro Nomura was one of the mainstays of the Shochiku film studio, delivering over 80 films. His best film is cited as being CASTLE OF SAND which on the strength of VILLAGE, I'm tempted to check out. Sadly, he passed away last year. At least this has inspired retrospectives into the gems in his huge body of work.
It's not just Hollywood, the film was remade in Japan in 1996!
The DVD (pictured above) has reasonably good english subtitles, though they occasionally miss short sentences out and fail to translate signs and text. The mono mix is full and clear. The original 2.35 widescreen is presented cropped to 16:9 after the opening credits, resulting in cramped composition and some characters talking offscreen. The image is non-anamorphic, the subtitles dipping into the lower black bar.
This long film has been split over two DVDs rather than use the dual-layer facility. There are good liner notes and the director's filmography in english. No other extras. Obviously the side-cropped widescreen is annoying, but the film isn't otherwise available, even in Japan! This Hong Kong release is currently advertised on HKflix and DVD Asian.