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

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