Shinjû: Ten no ami­ji­ma [Double Suicide]

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #104: Akira Kurosawa’s Shinjû: Ten no ami­ji­ma.

I was hav­ing a dis­cus­sion the oth­er day about Japanese the­atre: kabu­ki, noh and bun­raku, and was rec­om­mend­ed the film Shinjû: Ten no ami­ji­ma [Double Suicide], by Masahiro Shinoda. It is an adap­ta­tion of a bun­raku [pup­pet the­atre] play, with kabu­ki act­ing. I was told it was done in noh style, so I was ex­pect­ing some­thing par­tic­u­lar­ly aus­tere, per­haps like Mizoguchi’s Genroku Chushingura. I ba­si­cal­ly went in­to this movie blind, I’d for­got­ten [if I ever knew in the first place] that Shinoda was part of the Japanese New Wave, and was pre­pared for the op­po­site of kabu­ki melo­dra­ma.

The film/​play is about a poor pa­per mer­chant named Jihei who has thrown away his hon­or for a geisha named Koharu. He has sworn to buy her free­dom, but in­stead spends all his dough pork­ing her. He’s got a dog-ug­ly wife named Osan and two zom­bie chil­dren, a nag­ging moth­er-in-law and a fa­ther-in-law who was prob­a­bly oil­ing his wakaza­shi when Jihei first came to court Osan. Osan is his cousin, by the way. The lovers swear to elope to­geth­er and then com­mit sui­cide. I’m pret­ty sure this is be­cause they are be­ing ground be­tween their love for each oth­er and their oblig­a­tions as mem­bers of Japanese so­ci­ety, but se­ri­ous­ly, some­times Japanese hon­or and eti­quette makes no sense to me. After lots of wig­ging out by Jihei and vis­its by all the afore­men­tioned par­ties to wig out at Jihei, he ends up elop­ing with Koharu, they pork one last time in a grave­yard and then he chops her up Benihana style and hangs him­self with her obi.

So that’s the plot. How was it shot? Shinoda starts out self-re­flex­ive­ly, with the bun­raku pup­peteers, called kura­go, set­ting up pup­pets for Shinjû: Ten no ami­ji­ma. A dis­cus­sion of how the cemetary sex should pro­ceed is in­ter­spersed with these shots. I’m not sure if it is Shinoda on screen dressed as a kura­go [a cin­e­mat­ic pun that is car­ried through­out the film] but it is def­i­nite­ly his thought be­ing ex­pressed, in terms of fetishism of space and the poignan­cy of the death scene, which they don’t want to be a typ­i­cal kabu­ki death. Once every­body is all set the play part of the film be­gins, in pe­ri­od, in cos­tume, but with the black masked kura­go omi­nous­ly shad­ow­ing and di­rect­ing the ac­tion. This use of kura­go is what makes the movie. Their pres­ence is the sym­bol­ic hand of the di­rec­tor and the hand of fate, with echoes in my mind of Death in The Seventh Seal. They al­so serve as re­minders that this is based on bun­raku, that the ac­tors are not much more than pup­pets to the will of the di­rec­tor and just about any oth­er func­tion you’d care to as­cribe to them. In some ways the ac­tors’ melo­dra­ma is nec­es­sary to re­duce the im­pact of these still, black-clothed mys­tery men.

Jumping back to the Shinoda’s fetishism of space. He re­al­ly push­es the frame in a lot of shots, and us­es his misé en scene and shot place­ment to cre­ate rigid sens­es of en­trap­ment. A wardrobe will split the frame, keep­ing the ac­tors pressed to one side while a kura­go sits at his ease on the oth­er, or a rack fo­cus will re­veal a dress­er, emp­tied of ki­monos to pay Koharu’s debt, that weighs heav­i­ly on Osan. Chaotic set dress­ing is the norm when rigid­i­ty is ab­sent. Smears of paint on a wall, en­raged faces paint­ed on walls and floors seem to re­flect the emo­tion­al states of Koharu and Jihei, while al­so con­fus­ing the eye. The sets could al­so be dis­as­sem­bled to re­veal ear­li­er sets, and there are ro­tat­ing walls and oth­er hoo-ha to cre­ate a whol­ly new type of im­mer­sion. Instead of the view­er be­ing im­mersed in the sto­ry, Shinoda strikes a bal­ance where the view­er can walk in the sto­ry, but the char­ac­ters can al­so walk out­side the fourth wall. For me this is sup­posed to be a re­minder that while this might be a play, shit hap­pens in re­al life too. 

Visually the film is a treat, but the sto­ry didn’t do a whole lot for me. The sex among the tomb­stones did do some pret­ty good fetishism of space, I guess, but it had a healthy dose of voyeurism along with it with the [more ac­tive at this point] kura­go sit­ting around watch­ing the ac­tion. The death scene was in kabu­ki style [or maybe bun­raku, which I’m not as fa­mil­iar with] but didn’t have the [for lack of a bet­ter word] glo­ry of a kabu­ki death. Their deaths didn’t seem cheap ei­ther, but full of pathos. It might be worth a watch for cineast­es, but prob­a­bly not your av­er­age view­er.

Further Reading: Claire Johnston’s ex­cel­lent es­say. [Although I think her phal­lic bell might be a bit of a phal­la­cy.]
NY Times re­view of the Criterion Collection DVD.

Link of the Day: Lateral Thinking Puzzles