School of the Holy Beast

Smart, determined, and sexually liberated Maya Takigawa has one last fling, and then becomes a nun.  At St. Clore abby, she finds repression and punishment, hypocrisy, lesbian trysts, and mysterious that have been hidden for eighteen years.  None of this dissuades Maya, because she didn’t join to serve God, but to find answers about her life, and her mother’s.

One of the most beautiful and most blasphemous films ever made, School of the Holy Beast is a fundamentalist’s nightmare.  Lovingly rendered with great artistry, there is hardly a moment that doesn’t have something to offend devout Christians, and because it is so expertly made, it is difficult to dismiss.

Generally it is lumped into the “Nunsploitation” genre, a grouping of films primarily made in Europe in the 1970s and ’80s that involved sex and violence inside a convent.  They tended to be period pieces and almost always had scenes of lesbian encounters, flagellation, and demon possession.  But shoving School of the Holy Beast into this niche is like saying The African Queen is a “boat movie” and Schindler’s List is a “war picture”; it is accurate, but doesn’t tell the whole story.  Yes, it has some amorous nuns and whipping scenes of various sorts, but the aim is higher than mild eroticism, or even criticism of church power and sexual repression (don’t take that to mean the stimulating moments and the accusations of hypocrisy aren’t relevant and part of the package).  But two larger themes stand out.  First is the non-existence of God.  Underlying every second of the movie is the utter absence of God in the world.  It is spelled out by the priest, who notes that God wasn’t there when the bomb incinerated the people of Nagasaki, nor was He present in Auschwitz.  All of the actions of the church are hollow because no one is listening or watching.  Second, it is human action, decision, and will that count.  It is humanity that fills the perceived void in the universe where some think a god sits.  Maya represents a new order where superstitions are unnecessary.  She never bows to any divinity and gives no respect to its followers.  She is able to take care of herself, is unburdened by religion-induced shame, and willing to act.  She isn’t entirely noble and is filled with hatred, but what do you expect from the human race?  At the end, even her vilest opponent recognizes her as the true “God.”

So, there’s plenty of hefty concepts here, but this is no philosophy lecture.  It is quick moving, entertaining, and shocking.  Even ardent atheists will find things that will induce gasps.  Torture is prevalent, and not meekly presented or off camera.  Bloody beatings are common.  In a scene that won’t be reproduced in any mainstream film, a nun is forced to undergo a test of her love for Jesus that involves salt water and urine.  Plus there are multiple rapes, some presented as positive social acts.

Which points out that this isn’t a Western movie.  It is very Japanese, and so, has very different sensibilities.  It is not sexist, although at least one of the rapes would label it so if it were made in the U.S.  (Maya is a startlingly liberated character, particularly when you consider the dominance of males in Japanese society as well as the  weakness of the average female character in Hollywood films of the early ’70s.)  But this isn’t the U.S., and the attitudes toward sex and punishment are not what the typical person from Peoria has grown up with.  The attitudes toward religion would be even stranger to that Midwesterner.  As Japan has so many religions, no particular one is out of bounds for criticism, and it is acceptable to denigrate the whole concept.  Additionally, like much of Japanese art made by those who were alive in the ’40s, the devastation of the two nuclear bombs is clearly felt both in the story and in the style.  Is it snow that falls on Christmas or ash?  A Japanese citizen watching this in 1974 would have thought of Nagasaki as a Catholic city, as it held the most Christian churches in Japan, and is where the missionaries lived.  The irony that Western forces blew up a Western religion would not have been lost upon the viewer.

While School of the Holy Beast isn’t for everyone, no one will find anything to complain about with regard to the cinematography.  The rich colors are dazzling.  The high contrast shading gives the picture an unreal feeling, which become more pronounced as the film progresses.  In the most famous scene, Maya is bound topless with rose vines and beaten in slow motion with bouquets of the flowers, the thorns ripping into her flesh.  The camera focuses on each pedal that flies off and follows a drop of blood as it flows across a vine.   If torture can be art, this is it.  Legendary cult director Norifumi Suzuki creates almost as impressive a moment when the nuns, now revealed to be carrying out empty rituals, walk to Christmas mass, the unreal snow and other-world lighting placing them in a snow dome.  Although those are the images that stick with you, Suzuki’s greatest talent may be his ability to show off the astonishing beauty of his young star, Yumi Takigawa.  He captures the intensity in her expressions while basking in the gentleness of her eyes.

School of the Holy Beast is an experience.  Love it or hate it, you won’t forget it.  Unless you speak Japanese (and if so, please drop me a line if you’ve seen the film as I’d love to hear your take on the translations), you will have to deal with subtitles.  There are at least two versions.  I can’t say which is more accurate, but they are different in more than the choice of a phrase, although no plot points or themes are changed.