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