This year I moved to Japan from Korea. I’m still teaching English, but I’m now in a country that I have much more of an attachment to. I’m particularly thrilled with the area where I live, in central Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four big islands. Many of Japan’s creation myths are said to have occurred in this area, including when the sun goddess, Amaterasu-O-Mikami, hid away in a cave after her wild brother pushed her too far. (Having the walls of your home smeared with feces would drive you into a cave too.) After visiting this actual cave, in Takachiho, in Miyazaki Prefecture, I re-watched Hiroshi Inagaki’s epic 1959 film The Birth of Japan, a lavish, big-budget production that depicts the creation of Japan as well as some of the life of Yamato Takeru, an early hero. And while it is fun to see these myths recreated by the Toho special effects team, for me the film that really captures the essence of a pre-historical Japan is Masahiro Shinoda’s Himiko (1974).
Recently released to Hulu via Criterion, Himiko is Shinoda’s (some say too) arty take on the life of the titular shaman queen. That she existed is not in doubt—she’s mentioned in Chinese historical records—but what she did or even where she lived is still open to debate. Through sumptuous, striking visuals (that include extensive use of flat, barren sound stage interiors as in Shinoda’s 1969 Double Suicide), the casting of Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata and other dancers as a kind of mute Greek chorus, and a fever-dream plot, the film, for me, comes close to recreating the same feelings of awe and wonder I have when visiting an ancient Shinto shrine. It’s not often that a film can bring you face to face with the ineffable like this.