Sting of Death, The (1990) (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: May 15, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Sting of Death, The (1990) (Blu-ray Review)


Kōhei Oguri

Release Date(s)

1990 (February 6, 2024)


Shochiku (Radiance Films)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: A-

The Sting of Death (1990) (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


Hardly a fun night out at the movies, The Sting of Death (Shi no toge, 1990) is an unrelentingly bleak and disturbing family drama covering the final, masochistic months of an unsalvageable marriage, the wife descending into full-blown madness. It’s undeniably well-made, featuring an especially strong performance by Keiko Matsuzaka, one of the great beauties of Japanese cinema, but it’s also over-stylized and self-consciously arty, exhibiting some of the last gasps of the Japanese New Wave and the influence of Japan’s ATG (Art Theatre Guild).

Based on Toshio Shimao’s 1960 autobiographical novel, the film stars Ittoku Kishibe as struggling novelist Toshio and Matsuzaka as his wife, Miho. They are the only actors billed in the opening titles. While other characters, notably their two small children and Toshio’s mistress, Kuniko (Midori Kiuchi), appear, they are largely incidental as the film is rigidly focused like a microscope on the unhappy couple.

In early postwar Japan, Miho is unforgiving of her husband’s affair with Kuniko, taunting him mercilessly. He attempts to atone for his infidelity by making a final break with his mistress, staying home with his wife and children, promising never to lie to her again, and indulging her in ways unthinkable in 1950s Japanese male-female relationships terms: carrying her bags in public, putting on her geta (wooden sandals) at the door, etc. Throughout the film are fleeting moments where Miho seems happy and the family unit restored but, invariably, in the middle of some happy domestic scene her lingering suspicions will manifest and burst out like the Alien from John Hurt’s chest, she accusing him of lying, secretly seeing his former mistress, or demanding intimate details about Kuniko’s lovemaking habits in front of the children. In one particularly awkward moment, Miho has a meltdown on a train platform when she thinks she sees Kuniko mooning at her husband from across the tracks.

Toshio, weak-willed himself, at times cannot contain his own suffering, at one point running off and throwing himself on some train tracks, wanting to commit suicide, and later he’s seen sobbing uncontrollably in public, a real faux pas in famously reserved Japan. More radical changes are tried, such as moving out of the city to Toshio’s hometown in rural Japan. Nothing works.

From its opening scene The Sting of Death is so unrelentingly depressing that Cassevetes’s A Woman Under the Influence (1974) plays like a Neil Simon comedy by comparison. Kōhei Oguri’s adaptation doesn’t let the author off the hook, Toshio appearing emotionally aloof in the Japanese manner while positioning himself as a kind of martyr. Even today, Japan is decades behind other countries in their understanding and treatment of mental illness, so one can forgive the character’s lack of demonstrative empathy toward Miho, but The Sting of Death still very much feels like its story is told from the husband’s perspective, rather than an impartial, third-person one. He did one terrible thing to his wife, but she will neither leave nor forgive him and put it behind her.

Regardless, Matsuzaka’s harrowing performance is on the same level as Gena Rowlands’s in A Woman Under the Influence, high praise indeed. Her taunts and outbursts have an emotional and clinical authenticity that are genuinely disturbing to watch unfold. The film is like being trapped in the same room with this disintegrating couple, with nowhere to run. One can only helplessly cringe watching their preschool age children suffer as their parents behave with such inexplicable hostility toward one another. Watching the film, then, is a grueling experience with no relief in its nearly two-hour running time—a contender for the worst-ever “first date” movie, this is—yet it also puts a spotlight on relationships as few films ever dare to do.

Oguri’s efforts are undercut by pretentious “artiness,” stylized flashbacks and blocking, including positioning the couple facing the camera shoulder-to-shoulder, having conversations without looking at one another, a theatrical contrivance that only draws attention to itself. The production design captures the look of postwar Japan well, even the subtly artificial look of some of the sets works in tandem with the spirit of the drama, but Oguri’s deliberately slow pacing and the static nature the way many scenes play out seem designed to inform the movie audience this film means business, rather than add to its effectiveness.

The Sting of Death was critically acclaimed in Japan, winning many top prizes at that year’s Japanese Academy Awards and acknowledgments in Kinema Jumpo, Japan’s leading cinema magazine. It also seemed to do okay financially, though one could argue such emphatically downbeat, molasses-paced films such as this contributed to the popular decline in Japanese-made films within Japan.

Radiance Films’ Blu-ray of The Sting of Death is offered in a high-def transfer provided by Shochiku. It’s fairly good though not great, with noticeable speckling and other minor issues. The transfer is 1.66:1, an aspect ratio uncommon in Japan and generally reserved for “arthouse” titles. The LPCM 2.0 mono is adequate for what it is, and the optional English subtitles are excellent. Encoded for Regions “A” and “B.”

Supplements consist of 56-minute archival documentary by Hubert Nigoret, Japanese Cinema: New Territories, covering trends occurring during the 1990s. Hideki Maeda is interviewed about the source novel and film adaptation in a 20-minute interview. Also included is a 24-page full-color booklet that includes Nigoret’s 1990 interview with writer-director Oguri.

Not for the squeamish, The Sting of Death has many worthwhile qualities, tough as it is to sit through, and for those willing to look past its distracting directorial flourishes it is recommended.

- Stuart Galbraith IV