Shinjû: Ten no amijima (Double Suicide) Reviews
I had previously only seen two of Masahiro Shinoda's other works for The Criterion Collection--the earlier works 'Pale Flower' and 'Samurai Spy', and I don't know if it was on purpose by the company in selecting the titles, but I marveled at the breathtaking variety of his scripts, all from such a short timespan (1964-69). Being a patron of the theatre (in many different modes) and as anthropologically cosmopolitan in my approach to life as is conceivable, I salute Shinoda with a profound respect, and look forward to investigating as many of his other works as possible.
Potentially Shinoda's highest peak of cinematic artistry and theatrical melodrama, this psychological spectacle is a Shakesperian tragedy of striking visuals, overwhelming performances and strokes of surrealism that simultaneously invade a tragic story about loyalty, love affairs and societal obligations that range from the marital to the family-related. Surprisingly, the film opens with present-day (1969) documentary(?) segments, featuring the cast, the crew and the organization of the attrezzo, where we see them organizing the scenography, but seemingly preparing everything necessary for a puppet play. The puppets are clearly displayed. While the initial credits are displayed, we hear a conversation between Shinoda and one of the writers, Taeko Tomioka, discussing the difficulties involved in finding a proper shooting location for filming the "final suicide sequence in the graveyard", and considering what parts of the script should not be followed closely. As we advance through the credits, the puppets fade out and are transformed in the main actors, whereas the crew assume supernatural, ghastly forms of dark ghosts supposedly representing the puppeteers.
Let's just omit saying that this is one of the most ingenious opening scenes ever, and focus on Shinoda's honorable homage to the theatricality of the time. There are very rare cases in which the performances, the cinematography, the script, the music and the artistry involved in the set designs and art decorations correlate perfectly and harmoniously to create a complete, melodramatic masterpiece from every possible angle. Notorious is the work of actress Shima Iwashita, who portrays BOTH roles of Osan, Jihei's wife, and Koharu, the deplored courtesan. Stunning is the usage of the color WHITE to make the film seem like it is taking place in an otherwordly realm surrounded by light, but not necessarily heavenly. Interesting is the decision by Shinoda of keeping the concept of the "puppeteers" from the tradition of bunraku and apply it to film, where they do not intervene in the decisions and tragic outcomes of the characters, but rather facilitate the physical circumstances forming part of the contexts of the characters' decisions. It is like an alternative take on the role that the Chorus had in the ancient works of Sophocles, such as "Oedipus Rex" and "Antigone", where they would chant between one act and the next, highlighting unspoken emotions, unclarified actions, or explaining the tragic circumstances that were surrounding the characters. They were a complement to the story. In this case they are too, but rather working mysteriously like shadows lurking in the dark, awaiting for the execution of their tasks, like symbols of fate.
The plot is initially simple but soon turns trickier. Jihei is the struggling owner of a paper shop. He has two young children with wife Osan but unfortunately has fallen in love with Koharu, a local courtesan. (Remarkably, the same actress portrays both Osan and Koharu -- between Osan's blackened teeth and Koharu's thick geisha makeup, this detail is easy to miss.)
Koharu loves Jihei too and, against all odds, the two actually have a monogamous relationship (Jihei no longer sleeps with Osan, and Koharu refuses other clients). Jihei hopes to buy Koharu's freedom but can't afford the price, and a wealthy cretin may buy her first. Meanwhile, Osan and her family naturally resent Jihei's infidelity. Will this conflict resolve happily? Re-read the film's title.
The story's pull is not so much about foolish Jihei, but about the unlikely empathy between Osan and Koharu. Koharu doesn't want Osan saddled with a husband's suicide, and Osan worries about Koharu's potential misery with the unwanted rival suitor. It's an interesting angle to emphasize, given a culture where women were strictly secondary.
Also interesting is how Shinoda stages the action. In typical New Wave fashion, "Doubie Suicide" continually reminds us of the film's false reality. The main set has oversized characters painted all over the floor (a purely stylistic move) and, more importantly, a variety of black-hooded figures lurk around the frame, serving as onscreen stagehands. They silently observe, supply props, rearrange sets and even assist in the climactic act of violence, but are never acknowledged by the main players. Spooky and fascinating.