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Review: The Oil-Hell Murder

If you’ve seen one film inspired by playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu's work, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Gonza the Spearman, Night Drum, and the aptly titled A Story From Chikamatsu revolve around the same basic tropes: forbidden love, adultery, the conflict between personal morality and social obligation, tragedy, pyrrhic victory, reluctantly pursued vendettas. The specifics may vary, but the overarching structure remains strictly formulaic—consistent, dependable, and predictable.

Fortunately, Hideo Gosha brings some much-needed vitality to his adaptation of the otherwise painfully conventional The Oil-Hell Murder. The director reins in the manically kinetic visual style familiar to fans of his contributions to the chanbara genre; here, his camerawork is patient and methodical, observing the drama with a cold, voyeuristic detachment. Every edit is precise and economical; whenever possible, he adjusts the framing and blocking rather than cutting, lingering on such subtle details as a glistening puddle of spilled oil or the frayed ends of a broken sandal thong. Even something as simple as a dirty over-the-shoulder shot crackles with electricity; in one scene, for example, the protagonist is almost entirely obscured by her costar, leaving only her eyes visible—her stony, tear-dampened gaze clearly conveying the maelstrom of passion, lust, rage, fear, and doubt tormenting her psyche.

While it’s not as boldly innovative as Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide, The Oil-Hell Murder is a taut, efficient, and deliciously suspenseful cinematic interpretation of well-worn theatrical traditions; if you’re acquainted with Gosha solely through his action-adventure movies, this is required viewing.

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