The Whale God (Tokuzo Tanaka, 1962)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Whale God.

criterion logoA small Japanese village is obsessed with killing a monstrous whale that has decimated its hunting parties. The town’s wealthiest man offers his land, position, and only daughter to the individual who can kill the demon whale. Shaki, a popular young man whose family has been massacred by the beast, steps forward vowing to slay the whale and avenge his relations, but his efforts are complicated by a brutish stranger to the village also intent on killing the monster and collecting on the promised riches. Based on Koichiro Uno’s award-winning novel published the previous year and scripted by visionary writer-director Kaneto Shindo, this loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick captures the madness and danger of whaling and combines it with period drama and kaiju monster effects.

Disc Features:

  • New, high definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with Japanese film critic Tadao Sato
  • New interview with Japanese-literature scholar Jeffrey Angles
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by critic, novelist, and musician Chris D.

It may be surprising to learn that Japanese filmmaker Tokuzo Tanaka is already well established in the Criterion Collection, with a page of his own and no less than four films cited there. Tanaka learned his craft from Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi (acting as an assistant director on Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)) and becoming something of a journeyman director for Daiei Studios (directing three films in the Zatoichi series). While Tanaka’s career is not as distinguished as those of his iconic mentors, he was a talented director and it is disappointing to see his best work absent from the Criterion Collection and without any North American home media edition. Naturally, MMC! is proud to propose for a wacky “C” a pair of impressive and memorable films by Tokuzo Tanaka that likely stand as the pinnacle of his directing career. First up is Tanaka’s genre-busting, Moby Dick-inspired, kaiju art film, The Whale God (Kujira Gami).

At its most essential, Tokuzo Tanaka’s The Whale God concerns the mad obsession of a Japanese fishing village bent on killing a baleen whale that massacres its hunting parties each season. Within the film’s first ten minutes, three generations of men die hunting “the whale god,” leaving Shaki (Kôjirô Hongô) burdened with the obligation of avenging his family. Anticipating the whale’s eventual return, the village’s elder (Takashi Shimura), a wealthy businessman, promises his title, his fortune, and his daughter Yuki (Michiko Takano) to the man able to kill the whale god and bring him its head. Respected by the townsfolk, the privilege of claiming the elder’s prize is left to Shaki who vows to kill the monster, but a stranger called Kiju (Shintaro Katsu) confirms that the prize is claimable by all and asserts that he, not Shaki, will take the reward.

While the village awaits the beast, the competing, discordant interests of The Whale God‘s characters reveal themselves. Kiju wants only material reward and confirmation of his manhood, fighting and besting all whalers who challenge him. Shaki only cares about killing the whale, with no interest in the elder’s prize, in a marriage with a poor but loving girl named Ei (Shiho Fujimura), or in even surviving his vengeance. Yuki resents to being pawned off on some poor fisherman notwithstanding her father’s assertion that the whale’s killer will not survive the effort, yet she finds herself increasingly drawn to Shaki and his single-mindedness. Kiju is unable to engage Shaki into conflict with him and he rapes Ei instead, impregnating her in the process. Shaki preserves Ei’s honour by marrying her, passing the child off as his own, but their domestic life does nothing to dissuade him from his revenge, and when the whale god eventually returns, Shaki and Kiju stand at the front of their respective boats, ready with their harpoons and knives.

Whale God PressThe Whale God‘s legacy seems built largely around Tanaka’s injection of kaiju monster spectacle into a period-set drama heavy in samurai-style machismo. Special effects experts Toru Matoba, Tsutomu Komatsubara, Hideyoshi Ono, and Takesaburo Watanabe create an impressively epic whale hunt, but it is Ohashi Fuminori’s life-size whale model and Ryosaku Takayama’s 18-foot miniature that stand out. Akira Ifukube’s score declares his past connection to Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954), with its deep, ponderous music conveying the near divine power of the whale god and the epic scale of its death.  It is a brutal, savage affair, as Shaki digs at and stabs at the creature while the monster’s blood geysers out from it, coating him in his vengeance.

There is an inherent novelty to The Whale God given its connection to a classic work of American literature – Moby Dick. Novelist Yoichiro Uno and screenwriter Kaneto Shindo’s adaptation elaborates on the novel’s central obsessive theme, while significantly amending its events to suit its foreign, landbound context. Setsuo Kobayashi’s cinematography is exceptionally black, often giving the feeling of day for night or the unsettling darkness of a portentous eclipse. The Whale God‘s gloaming is virtually omnipresent throughout, looking like the film’s details are rubbed out of charcoal. It is as if Ahab’s mad mind has been broken open and the inky mania of his grudge has been allowed to permeate nearly all of Wadaura village. The film’s indelible final scenes represent its most inspired translation of Melville’s Moby Dick, replacing the image of Ishmael floating atop Queequeg’s coffin with Shaki set down on the beach in a casket, all his limbs broken and soon to die, next to the massive head of the whale god.

bake kujiraThe Whale God, like its titular creature, is a strange beast, one deserving of greater attention given its singular nature. Rather than propose an artist for a Criterion cover treatment as normally done, we’re going to honour the strangeness of Tanaka’s film and propose an unusual concept for a cover treatment’s subject – the Bake-kujira. For those unfamiliar with this Japanese monster (read: virturally everyone), the Bake-kujira is a ghost-whale that appears as a massive whale skeleton. It is accompanied by strange birds and fish and is purported to be extremely dangerous, smashing boats and leaving a terrible curse on the local village. The arrival of the Bake-kujira represents a terrible inversion of a rare and auspicious occurrence – the instance where a whale travels close enough to shore to be hunted and killed by local fishermen in smaller boats and using only nets, harpoons, and knives. A cover treatment utilizing the Bake-kujira myth to illustrate the central conflict of The Whale God could be graphically interesting and ominously foreboding if employed somewhat abstractly. We haven’t seen any discussions of The Whale God that connects it to the Bake-kujira (and don’t even know how well known the monster is in Japan itself), but we expect that some connection likely does exist and this cover treatment could therefore potentially dovetail with examinations of the film offered in the special features of a Criterion Collection release.

bakekujiraCredits: Relatively little seems to be written about Tokuzo Tanaka and The Whale GodMMC! is indebted to VENOMS5’s review at Cool Ass Cinema, which was by far the most informative and insightful treatment of the film available in English.

Tadao Sato was chosen for his frequent appearances on Criterion Collection editions of Japanese films, while Jeffrey Angles was chosen for his commentary on Sansho the Bailiff as a Japanese-literature scholar, a film that Takana worked on as an assistant director. We tapped Chris D. to provide an essay given his admiration for Japanese genre cinema and his work on the Zatoichi set that includes three films directed by Tanaka.

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