Among the political provocations; melodramas made with his collaborator and wife, Mariko Okada; and radical experiments; there is one clear outlier in Kiju Yoshida’s filmography: his second-to-last film, Wuthering Heights (1988), an adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Gothic classic that shifts the action to feudal Muromachi-period Japan. An excellent career-spanning interview with Yoshida from 2009 relegates the film to a single (though intriguing) mention: “Then I made Wuthering Heights . . . as pure cinema, just as a cinematic challenge.” This must have disappointed some of the director’s fans—Yoshida at his most apolitical—but as the director remarked contemporaneously, his bleak, anti-erotic adaptation owes as much to the French philosopher of transgression Georges Bataille as it does to Brontë’s source text. The scholar Savior Cantina deliriously describes the film as Brontë’s novel “reconceived as a . . . fantasmal Noh tragedy where Bataille’s shamanic reveries . . . spectrally gleam into Brontë’s intimations of immortality.”
This unruly reinterpretation takes place in the desolate Japanese desert, in the shadow of the sacred Fire Mountain. Fans of the novel or any of its many other adaptations will recognize the story: Lord Takamaru brings back to his manor a starving, homeless child (the Heathcliffe of this film is cruelly renamed Onimaru for his “demonic” looks) to raise alongside his two children. Takamaru’s daughter Kinu (Brontë’s Catherine) and Onimaru eventually fall in love, but are unable to be together, and spend their lives pining after one another in increasingly dramatic fashion until Kinu’s untimely death pushes Onimaru, now the lord of all the land around Fire Mountain, into a self-destructive, paranoiac cycle of guilt that ends in madness. The bones of the story come from Brontë’s novel, but Yoshida pulls and molds the novel’s essence until it is a thoroughly Japanese film: the change of setting from the foggy moors of England to a barren, isolated desert halfway across the world; a score by the master Tōru Takemitsu that highlights Japanese flute, drums, and lutes, set in opposition atop a Western orchestra; the slow, dramatic (not melodramatic), purposeful physical movements and barren set design reminiscent of traditional Noh theater.
Yoshida’s “cinematic challenge” is a different kind of provocation in his oeuvre, one no less outlandish than his best-known films, no matter how staid the idea of another Wuthering Heights adaptation might seem. Yoshida audaciously mixes Gothic romance, Japanese tradition, and French philosophy into an otherworldly swirl of ghosts, blood, and romance from beyond the grave. Yoshida’s masterful film still holds surprises for fans of the novel, and for fans of the director’s prodigious body of work.
Wuthering Heights screens this afternoon, December 3, at Film at Lincoln Center as part of “The Radical Cinema of Kiju Yoshida.”