Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a really odd book. On the surface it’s the first bodice-ripper – a passionate tale of doomed love set among the Yorkshire Moors. Yet our ideas about the story, and the tragic duo of Cathy and Heathcliff, often come from the myths that that have built up around the novel, rather than the tale itself. Scenes of Cathy and Heathcliff running towards each other across the heather calling each other’s names never appear in the original. Kate Bush’s song was based on a scene from an old BBC version, not the book itself, and so Wuthering Heights has become this immense mountain of romantic images and ideas, only some of which relate to the original buried somewhere down at the bottom of the heap. People coming to the book for the first time are often surprised by how much is left out of the adaptations (and the song). Most of the book isn’t about Cathy and Heathcliff at all, but about their children and contemporary obsessions about inheritance and class. You can also read it as a tale of everyday Yorkshire folk and, believe me, not a lot has changed:
‘I don’t want your help,’ she snapped; ‘I can get them for myself.’
‘I beg your pardon!’ I hastened to reply.
‘Were you asked to tea?’ she demanded, tying an apron over her neat black frock, and standing with a spoonful of the leaf poised over the pot.
‘I shall be glad to have a cup,’ I answered.
‘Were you asked?’ she repeated.
It’s my Great Aunt Jessie to a T.
So you have a peculiar mix of blunt northerners bollocking each other, a tangled skein of property rights – and thrown into the mix a Gothic collection of ghosts, brutal violence and unrequited passion. It’s no wonder that directors struggle to get anything worthwhile out of the book and why most film or TV adaptations fail.
The biggest challenge is Heathcliff. Casting Cathy is not too hard, although it’s difficult to make a heroine out of someone so self-centred and wilfully malicious. Heathcliff, on the other hand, is part uncouth lout – “‘You’d better let the dog alone,’ growled Mr. Heathcliff in unison, checking fiercer demonstrations with a punch of his foot”, part Gothic demon with undertones of Frankenstein’s monster, part shadow-half of the heroine. It’s a bugger of a role, and neither Lawrence Olivier, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Feinnes, nor any one of the hundred actors who’ve played him over the years, have succeeded. We either get hefty brutish Hell’s Angel Heathcliffe, or posh sensitive RADA man being a bit petulant and sweary. Either way it’s a colossal disappointment. Given that Heathcliff is described as a Lascar child from foreign parts, Andrea Arnold finally bit the bullet in 2011 and had him portrayed by the black actor James Howson. Even so, he still looks like a sulky teenager who’s just wandered off the set of Grange Hill.
Which brings me to the 1988 Japanese film of Wuthering Heights (Arashi ga Oka – lit. ‘Stormy Hills’, so a pretty good translation). The idea of Japanese actors portraying early nineteenth century Yorkshire farmers may seem surreal to say the least (although the anime Steamboy has characters from Victorian Manchester speaking in Japanese). In fact Yoshishige Yoshida, the director, did the sensible thing and transposed the entire story to medieval Japan. Most of the story takes place on the lava slopes of a volcano. As well as providing ample opportunities for sweeping shots of bleak, mist-swept landscapes it also has cultural associations with Buddhist hell, where souls tormented by their attachment to earthly desires mope around picking on each other.
Free from any need to faithfully recreate Romantic Yorkshire, and tapping into the stylistic and cultural heritage of Japanese cinema, Yoshida turns Wuthering Heights into a stunning myth. The plot actually follows the book quite closely, spanning the two generations of Emily Bronte’s original story. Wuthering Heights itself becomes East Mansion, and Thrushcross Grange is West Mansion. Cathy and Heathcliff are unpronounceable in Japanese, so she is Kinu (‘silk’) and he is Onimaru (‘demon’). The ghosts have gone, but instead Mr Earnshaw, Cathy’s father, is guardian of the mountain spirits. Once in a while he dresses up like a ghost warrior, kicks a few doors off their hinges in a religious fit, and runs across the cinder plains in a mysterious Shinto ceremony (Shintoism is the old animistic religion of Japan). Interestingly Cathy is being trained to be a temple maiden, a process that involves her being shut up in a hut at the bottom of the garden at certain times during the month.
I had a long chat with the director when I was writing a chapter for a book on film adaptations of novels. He explained to me that he wanted to get away from the soppy romanticism of the 1939 MGM version and recast the story as a symbolic battle between a small hide-bound and fossilised community, and an implacable and chaotic universe (i.e. between Japan and the rest of the world). Heathcliff becomes the disruptive outsider who overturns the social order, only meeting his match in the icily cold temple-maiden Cathy who spends much of the first half of the film sitting as still as a board and muttering ‘I am Onimaru, Onimaru is me’ into a mirror.
Freed from the shackles of normality, Onimaru is a wonderful Kabuki-style Heathcliff. He is played by the actor Yusaku Matsuda, who western audiences will know as the villain Sato in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (he tragically died from cancer at the age of 40, the year Scott’s film came out). Japanese cinema acting styles work really well here, Heathcliff oscillates between taciturn monosyllabic Japanese man and wild, gurning Kabuki emoting, so he manages to capture the range of emotions and images that surround Heathcliff in the book, even down to the Gothic demon elements that Emily Bronte poached from Frankenstein.
Stylistically the film is beautiful, if austere. Tiny figures in kimonos struggle across huge vistas of black sand, characters sit as still as origami sculptures, their seething passions only evident in the tones of their voices. The script is pared down to a minimum and there are long periods of thoughtful silence. When the violence bursts out it is startling. Yoshida pulled no punches, and the rape and subsequent suicide of Isabella is hard to watch. (Isabella is the sister of Edgar Linton, who marries Cathy in the novel).
Free from any association with the bodice-ripping Mills & Boon associations we’ve built up around Wuthering Heights, Arashi ga Oka does a wonderful job of creating a stripped down collation of all the themes of the original – Gothic horror, society turned upside down by a demonic outsider, unrequited passion and brutal violence. Getting hold of a copy outside Japan is a challenge, but some kind soul has put it up in two parts on YouTube, so I urge you to watch it before someone else takes it down.