Toshio Matsumoto’s samurai jidaigeki Demons opens with a blood-orange sun hanging and atrophying into unearthly darkness. Our only glimpse of colour is therein abandoned, as the film’s dizzying portrait of dishonour and brutality becomes enveloped in stark black and white. Established by his precursive and confrontationally avant-garde Funeral Parade of Roses, and confirmed by Demons, Matsumoto’s filmmaking maintains the idea that aesthetics should jolt and provoke us. His camerawork is emphatic and decisive, moments are often recycled from different angles, and all aspects of his craft are excessively theatrical: they are exaggerated to the point of repulsion.
As a pawn within an elaborate scheme, penniless samurai Gengobe (Katsuo Nakamura) is duped by his lover Komon (Yasuko Sanjo), a geisha, who with her secret husband exploits Gengobe’s trust by duplicitously stealing money belonging to his samurai clan. Gengobe comes to realise this betrayal as he spies on Komon and the cacophony of tormentors – including her husband – who mock him and his poverty. Through direction that can only be described as Shakespearean, everything within the composition of this scene emphasises its performative nature: Komon is centre-stage with her profile to the camera, rendering her words indirect and duplicitous. ‘A geisha lives a life of lies’, she says, as the camera occupies an unnatural distance from the room, emphasising the stage-like optics of this spectacle.
A room full of opened parasols, tattoos and their false significance: every symbol in Demons is predicated on a sense of ill-fortune and deceit. Smaller scales of distrust climax to diabolical, visceral repercussions, a process visualised most effectively by the paper-thin parasols slashed by Gengobe with a samurai sword. These lacerated parasols signify Matsumoto’s ability to interlace gentle, almost beautiful visuality with terrorising brutality, positioning Demons as horror at its most aesthetically diverse. Avant-garde camerawork and macabre images enable reconfiguration of the jidaigeki genre, to facilitate gory visual effects that are both operatic and modern. Matsumoto’s maddening blend of barbarity and visual splendour is entirely at home within the film’s theatrical cadence and influence.
While the extent of its violence certainly generates discomfort, Demons is not limited to the category of horror. It can be viewed more accurately as a nightmare of embodiment: an emotive, bloodsoaked trauma of what it means to feel engulfed by dishonour. Matsumoto carries the weight of an epic tragedy through the design and visuality of a horror film. In the end, every character is little more than a shadow: their bodies violently decimated and annihilated, discarded to the stage like props.