(Chojin densetsu Urotsukidoji) (1989)
Directed by Hideki Takayama

Artistic Value: * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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Amano and Megumi, a brother and sister from the world of the man-beasts, discover that Tatsuo, a teenaged boy living in Osaka, is the Overfiend, an incredibly powerful entity born once every three thousand years who has the ability to transform the universe. The siblings subsequently befriend Tatsuo in order to help him cultivate his powers, but they are opposed by the king of the demons, who has set out to find a being capable of defeating the Overfiend.

Urotsukidoji is violent, brutal, and lurid, but it is also engaging and even exhilarating. The viewer will likely be troubled by many of the events depicted in the movie, which include mass murders, rapes of young women by nightmarish demons, eviscerations, dismemberments, monstrous transformations, and more, but, if he is able to disengage himself from his ethical concerns, he will find the movie to be evocative of profound feelings of ferocity and excitement.

The animation used to give life to the various brutal occurrences depicted in Urotsukidoji is often helpful in arousing the feelings of terror, exhilaration, and disgust which dominate the film. While the quality of the animation is by no means impressive, it is considerably better than that found in most animated television programs. None of the character designs are attractive, but many of the monsters and fiends with which the movie is filled are strange and horrific. Although Urotsukidoji is never visually stunning, it does provide a number of dire and repulsive images able to evoke feelings of fear, ferocity, and revulsion in the viewer.

Oddly, while the movie is frequently extremely dark and brutal, its countless depictions of various acts of savagery are interspersed with scenes of Tatsuo's budding romance with a girl from his school, comic moments centering on Tatsuo's voyeurism and Amano's strange, infantile sidekick, and even a few attempts at profundity when Amano considers that releasing the Overfiend was perhaps a mistake. Few of these ancillary elements work well, however. The romantic moments are contrived. The attempts at comedy are completely moronic, and those at profundity are shallow and hackneyed. Despite such substantial flaws, the film is so peculiar and so evocative that watching it is an enthralling experience.

In fact, although much of Urotsukidoji is undeniably ill-conceived or even puerile, the movie does contain a number of interesting elements. The depictions of the characters' sexual activities are particularly varied and are presented in ways few other films have dared. Some scenes show emotionally intimate encounters. Others deal with the voyeuristic interests of young male characters. Still others give expression to fantasies of both rape and victimization.

All such scenes, even the most sadistic, are clearly intended to titillate, and many viewers are likely to be offended by the bizarre, frequently cruel sexual encounters depicted. Those able to understand the distinction between the actions of the ordinary world in which we live and those presented in a work of art may well, however, be able to appreciate the feelings of sexual arousal and ferocity the film mingles together.

Unfortunately, many persons fail to distinguish between artistic and didactic works. While the latter attempt to convey information about things beyond themselves, so that we determine their worth by the accuracy of their presentations of such information, a work of art is whatever arouses in us an appreciation of its intrinsic beauty. If the purpose of art were to convey information, then it would be a particularly inadequate means of doing so. I can only hope that most people will not be convinced of a given position by any admittedly fictitious account. Being self-referential, artistic works simply do not convey information. They are capable only of producing in the connoisseur an appreciation of their native beauty.

Moreover, not only is a person's appreciation of a work of art essentially an emotional response rather than an intellectual evaluation, any additional emotions such a work arouses, and with which this appreciation is tinged, are focused only on that work itself and do not lead to pragmatic results. Consequently, though an individual feels love, anger, hatred, mirth, revulsion, or some other emotion while he is enjoying a work of art, these feelings are distinct from those he experiences in his daily life. Unlike, for example, the love a person ordinarily feels, which is directed at some particular person, the love that colors a person's appreciation of a work of art is not directed towards any individual. It is love as such. The individual enjoying a given play or movie is not in love with some character in that work, nor does he confuse himself with a second character shown as feeling love for the first, but he does feel love. Whatever feelings he experiences are not directed towards practical ends. They exist only within his appreciation of a given work of art.

Because the savage emotions experienced by the viewer of a film such as Urotsukidoji are without objects, he is no more prompted to commit the violent acts depicted in the film than he would be moved to eat his children after having seen and appreciated Goya's Saturn Devouring One of his Sons, which is also evocative of cruelty and brutality. The feelings of sexual arousal mingled with ferocity and viciousness elicited by the movie are already present and intertwined within the viewer, whether he admits their existence and combination or not, and the film merely stirs them up in a pure, raw, abstracted form. Thus, the viewer's enjoyment of the experience of such emotions is devoid of any object extrinsic to the movie. In fact, by engaging with a given work of art, the connoisseur forgets everything beyond that work and casts aside his concerns with the ordinary world.

What is more, since a work of art does not refer to objects outside of itself, since it is, in other words, fictitious, it cannot provide the evidence necessary to convince an intelligent person of the truth of a given position. As much as an artist may want to teach others, at best he will be able to trick them. No reasonable person is going to be persuaded by invented evidence or moved to behave towards others because he has seen imaginary persons act in similar ways. Thus, any facts mentioned in a work of art are relevant only to its emotive effect, and any emotions so aroused refer only to the connoisseur's appreciation of that work and not to anything extrinsic to it.

If such arguments are not sufficiently convincing, I should additionally note that an understanding of art as didactic is incompatible with actual experience. Whenever a person approaches a work of art for the pleasure it gives him, without being concerned about the practical results of his experience, that work cannot, in such a case, be didactic or injunctive, irrespective of the intentions of either the artist or the connoisseur. If, for example, I really demanded that a given movie be didactic, then, once I had watched it and learned what it was meant to teach me, I could have no desire to watch it again. If I do watch the movie again, then, irrespective of anything I may tell myself about my motivations for seeking it out, I am doing so because I enjoy it for its beauty. Since I cannot learn something I already know, I cannot watch it to learn a lesson I have already been taught.

Even if a work of art were created in order to teach, it is art only insofar as it is able to elicit an appreciation of its innate beauty. If the lessons the work was meant to teach aid in the production of that beauty, then they are subordinated to it. If they do not help to increase the work's beauty, then they are detrimental to it and diminish its artistic merit. Because the enjoyment of a work of art is distinct from the experience of learning, even when elements of the latter are included in the former, the purpose of any work of art containing such didactic material remains the production of pleasure not the production of knowledge.

It is, therefore, absurd to think that Urotsukidoji could truly advocate any particular behavior. The movie does not enjoin the viewer to act as its characters do any more than Shakespeare enjoins the playgoer to kill his family members as Hamlet does. A person's enjoyment of either of these works requires him to forget about being taught something. If an individual does demand that an artistic work preach to him, then, by rejecting all works that do not do so, such a person will inevitably blind himself to virtually all of the fantastic diversity of beautiful things available for him to enjoy.

Evocations of disturbing emotions and depictions of morally reprehensible actions in a work of art can, however, be distracting, and Urotsukidoji does combine feelings of ferocity, repulsion, and sexual arousal in a way few other films do. Even when a person is aware of the distinction between artistic and didactic works, he may still find it difficult to forget about his ethical qualms. It is possible, therefore, that the viewer will be troubled, and even shocked, by the combination of emotions Urotsukidoji elicits.

The considerable disjunction of the events of the film from those of ordinary experience should, however, enable the moviegoer to remove them from the purview of his moral sensibilities. Like a number of paintings of hell or of the actions of demons from the Western artistic tradition, Urotsukidoji evokes a world so unlike our own that it allows the viewer to experience feelings of ferocity, repulsion, and sexual arousal as associated only with his engagement with the movie and as separated from his involvement with his ordinary life. Instead of relating these emotions to the world in which he lives, the viewer is able, because of the movie's stylization, to associate them only with his experience of the film. Once the viewer has put aside any misguided notions about the nature of art which might interfere with his appreciation of the film, he can submerge himself in its terrible world and enjoy it as much as he would one of Bosch's paintings of hell or the Last Judgment.

Urotsukidoji is an exciting, horrifying film. While much of the movie is puerile, even silly, it is a peculiar enough work to be well worth seeing.

Review by Keith Allen

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