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.

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