Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Starring: Shima Iwashita, Masao Kusakari, Rie Yokoyama, Rentaro Mikuni, Jun Hamamura
Himiko, a film by Japanese new wave director Masahiro Shinoda, has apparently never been available on DVD, even in Japan - making it one of the many lost gems that were undeservedly forgotten when studio catalogues were upgraded from VHS to DVD.
Thankfully, Criterion have resurrected this rare film on their streaming Hulu channel (although at present Hulu is not available outside of USA and Japan. For readers outside of these two countries, your only recourse is to resort to the nefarious and sub-legal realms of the cyber-underworld where I'm told it can be found.)
Queen Himiko (played by legendary actress, and Shinoda's wife, Shima Iwashita) was a 3rd century historical figure in early Japan, and a topic of much academic debate to this day as to her exact location, time period, and even her name. But she is well known to the Japanese, much as Cleopatra is to us Westerners.
Part of her legend is that she was a shaman/sorceress who worshipped the sun, attended by 1000 maidens. Shinoda has incorporated this and many other historical details into a film that at first glance, feels suprisingly modern and experimental. The interiors, for instance, look remarkably unrealistic and akin far more to theatre sets. This does however allow him to concentrate more on the drama, and simultaneously achieve some truly memorable visuals.
And this is definitely a film for the arthouse crowd. Shinoda seems more than a little preoccupied with creating a visual spectacle for spectacle's sake, and that's just fine with me. The addition of famed Butoh dancer (and founder) Tatsumi Hijikata and his troupe add interpretive dance sequences and a unique visual flair throughout.
The drama concentrates on the political machinations of Himiko's advisor Nashime (Rentaro Mikuni) and the love triangle that develops beween her, her half-brother Takehiko (Masao Kusakari), and one of her female oracles, Adahime (Rie Yokoyama). And it's quite a saucy affair too. Not only is Himiko dispensing sexual favours to Nashime, and bedding her half-brother - but she's also ' making love' to the Sun God in ritual ceremonies as well!
However she falls hard for Takehiko, who commits the unforgivable sin of sleeping with Adahime on the side. Unsurprisingly it ends badly for all involved.
As an introduction to the legend of Himiko, the film fulfills it's purpose, and with no small amount of style. The cast is terrific, and the visuals often amazing. It is however a product of its time - experimental, arty, and very different to modern Hollywood fare.
My rating: 7.5/10
Recommended for film lovers open to something different.