subota, 14. rujna 2013.

Shinoda Masahiro - Dvostruko samoubojstvo (1967), Himiko (1974)

"Japanski filmovi zaokupljeni su okolnostima, onime što okružuje ljudska bića."

Pale Flower (1964) 

Double Suicide (Shinju ten no amijima, 1969)

Review © 2001 Branislav L. Slantchev

An adaptation of Chikamatsu Monzaemon's famous The Love Suicide At Amijima, Double Suicide is a superb cinematic rendition of the beautiful 1720 Osaka tragedy.

This excellent film is a unique blend of theater and cinema. The elements of Japanese Bunraku theater, where actors are three-quarter life-sized puppets controlled by puppeteers dressed all in black (Kuroko), are intricately woven into the story. The film opens with the Kuroko getting dressed, the stage sets being prepared for the play, and the director discussing the location of the final suicide scene. The entire sequence is somewhat disorienting because it is hard to tell when the "real life" theater ends and the "imaginary" story begins. The Kuroko continue to appear throughout the entire narrative, yet as puppeteers they only help the actors to their ultimate tragic fate, not control them.

The story is very Shakespearean, and is about two doomed lovers. This time, however, Jihei (Kichiemon Nakamura) is married and has two children, while Koharu (Shima Iwashita) is a high-priced courtesan in the red light district. They have fallen deeply in love and Jihei brings financial, social, marital, and ultimately physical ruin to himself and his family in his desperate efforts to redeem (buy her debts out) Koharu. As his family collapses under the pressure of Osan's (Juhei's wife, also played by Shima Iwashita) father, Jihei is left nothing except his love for Koharu, now fatally out of reach because she has been bought out by the lecherous merchant Tahei. The two desperate lovers commit suicide immediately after declaring their desire to live.

Once the viewer accepts the theater elements in the story, the constant presence of the Kuroko, the staged mise-en-scene, and the additional narrative, the film flows effortlessly and mercilessly toward the ruin of the lovers. As we have seen the two dead bodies under the bridge at the very beginning of the film, and thus know the fate of both principal characters, everything Jihei and Koharu say is tinted by that knowledge, every emotion, and every false resolution are given a dark and ominous cast. Despite the strong erotic element in their love, the link between the two is not entirely physical, it is very much duty-bound, and a force that cannot be overcome despite Jihei's realization that his actions would cause his family to disintegrate.

Osan's reactions are also very interesting: she is hurt, jealous, but still hopes to help her husband, who appears very much like a lifeless, confused puppet. As a matter of fact, the husband-wife scene, where Osan reveals her communication with Koharu, directs viewer sympathies toward Osan, away from her weakling of a husband. The ambivalence is resolved in the end, when Jihei finds it in himself to administer the fatal piercing of Koharu's throat and his own hanging.
Double Suicide is definitely an experience that is at once beautiful, haunting, and thought-provoking. The story masterfully manipulates the spectator in shifting attention and sympathy between the various characters. The sparse musical score, all played with Japanese instruments, perfectly balances the sparse sets. The Criterion DVD is an excellent transfer with hardly any defects, great contrast, and detail in shadows and highlights. It is a pity there are no extras (a commentary would have been nice) but the disk is still the best we are ever likely to see. It is also severely cut by 40 minutes (what's that all about?).

Samurai Spy (Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke, 1965)

Cijeli film:

Assassination (Ansatsu, 1964)

Review © 2007 Branislav L. Slantchev

With the possible exception of Sword of Doom, this has got to be the most nihilistic Japanese jidai-geki I have seen.
Ryoma reads Kiyokawa's Wanted Poster Matsudaira hatching the shogunate's assassination backup
It all starts reasonably enough. Kiyokawa Hachiro (Tamba Tetsuro) is a skillful swordsman of relatively low birth (apparently, he is a son of a farmer). He runs a dojo school and is quite successful in attracting numerous bleary-eyed students as followers. Unfortunately, his low birth keeps him from entering the ranks of the true samurai, the privileged caste under the Tokugawa bakufu. Now, he is allowed to carry swords, so he is no mere commoner, but his only opportunity to mix with the warrior aristocracy ends in disaster. When ??? notices Kiyokawa's famous Seven Stars sword, he invites the owner to his estate. During the formal visit, another samurai challenges Kiyokawa that he has no right to own such a precious weapon, and even offends him by inquiring how he stole it from some noble samurai. "It's not the sword that makes a man," Kiyokawa indignantly replies, "it's his calibre." In other words, it's not birth that is must define one's position in society, but the man's character. This is what he fervently wants to believe but this is fiction in the rigidly stratified society of the stagnant feudal system. His attempt to present his ambitious plan for dealing with the challenge Perry's arrival poses for Japan is laughed out of the gathering as the ridiculous and somewhat pathetic ploy of a country bumpkin to gain access to the corridors of power.
Kiyokawa enacting one of the actions of a noble swordsman The "friendly" duel between Kiyokawa and Sasaki
Naturally, all of this leaves Kiyokawa disgruntled with the shogunate. Ironically, it is his thwarted desire to belong to the system that turns him bitterly against it. Only at one point in the film does he reveal the true background of his ostensibly patriotic support for the Emperor: the scene with the prostitute, and his future mistress, Oren (Iwashita Shima) is where he rails against the perceived injustice of the shogunate. In the end, the supposedly patriotic stance is reduced to a personal grudge born of unfulfilled (and unfulfillable) ambition. For ambition is the one thing Kiyokawa has and yearns for above all else. In this, he is not typical of the shishi who plotted the fall of the shogunate during the 1860s, and this lack of representativeness is mocked by Ryoma, another famous dissident, who tears down Kiyokawa's wanted poster while keeping his own on prominent display. When Kiyokawa asks him why, Ryoma explains that unlike the latter he's not been pardoned by the shogunate. But why is Kiyokawa, the avowed enemy of the system, pardoned by it?
Matsudaira chastises Sasaki for losing to a mere ronin Tamba Tetsuro as the complicated Kiyokawa
His extreme sensitivity to occupying a rung on the society's ladder that is incommensurate with his skills leads him to the ill-advised outburst of violence that triggers his entire downfall. One day during a walk with his students he is accosted by a local policeman (and shogunate spy) who is quite aware of Kiyokawa's pretentious and cannot resist taunting him, perhaps in the hope of getting him to reveal anti-establishment tendencies. Having been baited beyond his endurance, Kiyokawa, whose fencing skills are formidable indeed, decapitates him with a single stroke, so fast that the severed head retains the stupid grin of its once alive owner. This is not an act of courage but a petulant fit of a spoiled child, and Kiyokawa reveals that he perhaps does not have the mettle to belong to the class that he so fervently aspires to. Even worse, he flees the scene of the crime in the most comical and un-samurai like fashion: with unarmed townspeople hot in pursuit Kiyokawa dashes through city streets, naked blade in hand, scaring pigeons and pedestrians. This is not something you would ever see Sanjuro do, despite the latter's low ronin status.
Kiyokawa's former students trying to understand him Running away from the townspeople after the murder
The bakufu, cognizant of the uses of a skilled swordsman driven by ambition, pardons Kiyokawa and, just in case his sympathies with the imperial cause are more than skin-deep, it also hires his future assassin Sasaki (Kimura Isao). The only problem is that at this point they have a different man on their hands. Although the story is somewhat difficult to reconstruct given Shinoda's elliptical and non-linear narrative, the following sequence seems reasonably consistent with events: after Kiyokawa flees his home, the shogunate arrests Oren and at least one of his students. They torture them (especially her) trying to get them to reveal the rogue's whereabouts but Oren dies without telling them (it's not clear that she knows in any case but she is determined to protect the man, seeing in him something we all seem to have missed). Oren's death (again, it is never explained whether it was suicide; all we see is her dead body in the cell, and the bakufu seems to have released the student unharmed) triggers a change in Kiyokawa. He begins actively plotting the bakufu downfall and gathers like-minded supporters. When he meets Ryoma, he tells him that he's going to start a war. When the latter remains skeptical about its prospects (recall that this is the 'rebel' who spends his time fishing or engaging in non-violent civil disobedience like not bathing, for example), Kiyokawa offers a glimpse of the real driving force again stating that there's nothing more exciting than commanding an army. Again, his personal ambition comes to the fore and without Oren there is not containing it.
Oren getting arrested after the murder Oren subjected to torture to reveal Kiyokawa's whereabouts
Oren is an enigmatic character, entirely in keeping with Shinoda's description of women in his films. An unwilling prostitute, she falls in love with Kiyokawa and manages to awaken in him emotions that otherwise would have remained forever buried in his twisted soul. Although her death is ultimately fails in its intended purpose to protect Kiyokawa because he is pardoned for the murder, it is instrumental in revealing the man for what he is. He writes a tender letter to his parents, imploring them to remember her in their prayers and treat her as his de facto wife for she was a good woman. Without her to anchor his ambition, Kiyokawa spirals out of control; there is nothing except his overwhelming urge to gain status that powers him from this point on. She is also the only person to whom he feels comfortable confiding, and he does so, revealing his abhorrence of violence and regret at the wanton murder of the policeman. Shinoda cannot resist poking fun at the samurai code when he depicts Sasaki who has just read about this in Oren's diary triumphantly exclaim that he can kill Kiyokawa: the man has revealed his weakness, for abhorrence of death is the ultimate weakness wholly incompatible with the merciless bushido code. Sasaki can kill Kiyokawa because the latter turns out to be humane, a bitterly sarcastic comment by the director on the feudal past that many glorify or at least view with nostalgia.
The incomparable Iwashita Shima as Oren Sasaki instructed from Oren's diary
The emptiness of Kiyokawa's approach is revealed in the gruesome slaughter at the Teradaya Inn in which samurai rebels are eliminated on the orders of their own lord. Kiyokawa is nowhere to be seen but the following day Ryoma surveys the wreckage and sings a mournful song metaphorically liking Kiyokawa to an unruly colt tied to a tree: when the colt jerks itself free, the shudder will cause the tree to shed its leaves. In other words, Kiyokawa's personal ambition will lead to the senseless deaths of his followers who have bought into his ideas of national salvation hook, line, and sinker. It is not surprising to us but unbelievable to his former students to see Kiyokawa marshalling an army in support of the shogunate. The same master schemer is now maneuvering to be at the head of an army, any army, even one ostensibly entirely contrary to his avowed patriotic purpose. When they confront him, Kiyokawa murders most of them in cold blood, including a wide-eyed youth he had previously saved! His degeneration is nearly complete. What these innocents do not realize is that he has not dedicated himself to a new cause, he is just pursuing his own glory in any way he can.
Kiyokawa is stuck despite his talents on account of his lowly birth Oren is Kiyokawa's only refuge and confidant
Knowing full well that the bakufu would never treat him as anything more than a convenient instrument, to be disposed of the moment he outlives his usefulness, Kiyokawa throws his lot with the imperial cause once again. He marches his unruly mob on Kyoto and then proclaims that he has, in fact, commission from the emperor. A tense night follows in which proof of that commission must arrive or else Kiyokawa's life is forfeit. It does so just in time, the most vacuous important document one can imagine, in which the emperor authorizes Kiyokawa to bring order to the country. Although not all clear what this means, it is a commission, and it saves Kiyokawa, whose tension is revealed by his inability to open his clenched fist in which he has been clasping his sword all night. The funny thing is, this army set off in the service of the bakufu (and opposition to the emperor) but when the imperial edict comes, they all prostrate themselves and the best the more honest ones can do is leave. Shinoda is at it again, irreverently poking fun at the imperial cult, just as dead and meaningless as the bushido code.
The slaughter at the Teradaya Inn Ryoma mourning the harm done to others by one whose life is driven by ambition
But Kiyokawa's ambition is thwarted yet again for this victory brings him nothing. He is not at the head of some victorious army, he is not admitted to the corridors of power, he does not become one of the Emperor's trusted lieutenants. His closest disciple, disgusted with Kiyokawa's shenanigans, abandons him with a note asking forgiveness. As the rest of the naive followers translate Kiyokawa's lame poem into a song, Kiyokawa himself goes to the window and stares emptily outside, then tears up the note and lets the bits scatter in the wind. This is the end of the road for him. He has done everything he can but has achieved nothing. He remains a nobody, and in desperation he indulges in drinks and women. When the assassin finally gets to him (for the bakufu never forgets one who fails to render services it honestly has paid for), he has little trouble dispatching the drunk Kiyokawa. The voice-over narration tells us that when they discovered his body, the ground beneath him stank of sake. In the end, Sasaki's success was not predicated on superior swordsmanship (for we know Kiyokawa can easily defeat him, as he does in the practice match at the beginning of the film), it is also not because of Sasaki's supposed enlightenment from reading Oren's diary, it is simply because of Kiyokawa's utter collapse as a human being that renders him an impotent drunkard. This assassination seems more of a coup de grace, a mercy kill, than murder or retribution.
Premier Itakura making sure Kiyokawa will be checked Kiyokawa and supporters waiting for the Imperial Commission
This complex story is told by Shinoda in his usual inimitable style with unusual framing, freeze-frames that accent the point of a scene, and expert editing that give the sequences a flow that has a jazzy rhythm to it. Shinoda is very unlike Kurosawa or Ozu, and his films have retained a modern feel to them that is still very much in evidence even today. There is a comic-book quality to the sequences with much attention paid to some particular detail rather than the whole scene. The freeze frame is particularly important here, as in the shot of Oren having her first sexual experience or of the samurai who runs his sword through the bodies of his friend as well as his enemy. Shinoda's penchant for the theatrical also finds full expression with moody lighting and abstract shots (e.g., Sasaki training in a no-man's land in a spotlight amid utter darkness), and he utilizes the possibilities of cinema in a way that are now well-established (e.g., when Sasaki is defeated, his blurry vision is represented by an out of focus shot and Kiyokawa fading in and out of the blur). All of this is set to an incredible score by Takemitsu Toru, and it should come as no surprise to learn that many consider this film to be Shinoda's masterpiece.
Kiyokawa's grip is paralyzed from the tension The ignominious end in the back alley
The Eureka DVD in their Masters of Cinema series is superb. If Criterion ever had a challenger that would regularly beat him in direct comparison, these series are it. The video is a crisp high-definition anamorphic transfer at the OAR of 2.35:1, and comes with the original Japanese soundtrack and excellent English subtitles. The extras include an informative film introduction by Alex Cox (best watched after the film, actually) and, more importantly, a 24-page booklet with a superb essay on the film by Joan Mellen, the academic who has written several books dealing with Japanese cinema. As my review makes clear, I disagree with some of her points, but this in no way diminishes the contribution of her essay for me. A superb release of a well-deserving film.

Himiko (1974)

Opskurna šamanska kraljica Himiko (ili Pimiko) predmet je brojnih naučnih debata u Japanu, gde je neki istoričari poistovećuju sa caricom Jingū, koja je bila regent tokom prve polovine III veka nove ere. U kineskim tekstovima opisana je kao moćna čarobnica, koja uz hiljadu sluškinja i jednog slugu, posrednika u komunikaciji sa plemstvom i stranim izaslanicima, obitava u strogo čuvanoj palati. Legende u kojima je povezuju sa Yamatohime-no-mikoto, kćerkom cara Suinina i osnivačicom hrama posvećenom boginji Amaterasu, vrlo verovatno su Masahiru Shinodi poslužile kao glavni izvor inspiracije pri stvaranju mita o poreklu savremenog japanskog društva.
Predstavljajući Himiko kao lažnu proročicu, jogunastu despoticu i strastvenu ženu, koju seksualna opsednutost polubratom Takehikom uvlači u vrtlog ludila i vodi u smrt, reditelj traga za suštinom karaktera svog naroda i bavi se tesnom povezanošću religije i političkih mahinacija. Osvrće se na svrgavanje kralja, koji se usudio da posumnja u "reč božju", potpuni prelazak na matrijarhalno uređenje i oružani sukob između obožavalaca boga sunca i boga zemlje, izazvan incestoidnom vezom. Siguran, neometan i brižljiv u smeloj dekonstrukciji prošlosti, isporučuje nekonvencionalno delo koje balansira između avangardnog teatra i hotimično izveštačene pseudo-istorijske melodrame. U rešavanju zagonetke oko Himiko pomaže mu scenaristkinja Taeko Tomioka, sa kojom je napisao i inventivni Shinjū: Ten no amijima (Dvostruko samoubistvo, 1969) i sa kojom će se udružiti još par puta, na filmovima  Sakura no mori no mankai no shita (Ispod procvalih trešanja, 1975) i Yari no gonza (Gonza kopljanik, 1986)
Glavnu ulogu, baš kao i u mnogim ostvarenjima sa njegovim potpisom, Shinoda poverava svojoj supruzi, Shimi Iwashiti, koja s lakoćom donosi "šizofreni" lik žrtve ljubavi i okrutne vladarke. Ništa manje značajne nisu ni glumačke bravure Rentarōa Mikunija (Nashime, Himikoin savetnik), Masaa Kusakarija (Takehiko) i Rie Yokoyame (zavodljiva sveštenica Adehiko). Snažan utisak ostavlja i performans trupe Tatsumija Hijikate, oca butō plesa. Upadljivo našminkani i odeveni poput otpadnika iz neke alternativne dimenzije, oni se pojavljuju u ključnim trenucima, premošćavajući emotivne jazove i nagoveštavajući promene zgrčenim pokretima i bizarnim grimasama.
Minimalistička scenografija, kojom dominiraju geometrijski pravilni oblici, i jednostavni kostimi čistih boja, lišeni suvišnih detalja, upućuju na veliku kreativnu slobodu umetničkog direktora Kiyoshija Awazua. Himiko je moćna bujica velelepnih, a katkad i uznemirujućih vizuelnih kompozicija, uslikanih kamerom nepogrešivog Tatsua Suzukija, koji je često sarađivao sa prominentnim avangardistima, kao što su Toshio Matsumoto i Shūji Terayama. Nadahnute slike protkane su kakofoničnim skorom muzičkog genija Tōrua Takemitsua, koji folklorne melodije zemlje izlazećeg sunca preobražava u prigušene krikove tragedije. Tenzija na relaciji tradicionalno-moderno kulminira u anahronističkoj završnici, na tragu one iz Jancsovog Szerelmem, Elektra.
Eksperimentalan i hiperstilizovan, ovaj film će sigurno prijati gledaocima naviknutim na ćefove predstavnika novog talasa, što naravno ne znači da je ostalima zabranjeno da probaju... -

Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees
(Sakura no mori no mankai no shita, 1975)

Branislav L. Slantchev

Part ghost-story in the tradition of Kwaidan and part bizarre love-story about a woman ensnaring a less than righteous man in a mode reminiscent of Ugetsu, this film manages to be exquisitely cruel and at the same time strangely alluring, which is not something one normally sees in a thinly veiled sociopolitical commentary. Like Mizoguchi, Shinoda is often interested in the role of women in Japanese society and the place they are supposed to occupy under traditional masculine mores. Unlike the melancholy auteur, however, Shinoda is a lot more ambivalent about the true status of their supposed subjugation by men. In some ways, the supposedly helpless female is the true ruler of what appears to be a man's world. And the fact she exercises that power only indirectly, through manipulating the man's lust for her, does not make it any less real.
Love at first enchantmentThe fateful decision
The film opens in modern times with scenes of people enjoying the spring blossoming of cherry trees, a favorite pastime of Japanese. A childlike voice ominously tells us that before the Edo period, cherry trees were not seen as something to be marveled at, and were known for the curse that would haunt anyone who dared walk underneath, not their beauty. To tell the truth, I have no idea whether this is right historically because to my knowledge cherry-viewing parties had been organized for ages before the Tokugawa period, at least by the aristocracy. And I always thought that cherry blossoms were associated with the transitory and perhaps illusory human condition, that their beauty and impermanence was a symbol of our fleeting physical existence.
I thought I was marrying a manly manYou have to kill them
Not so in this film, where the blossoms are the upsetters of the existing social order. In a strange way, they both damn (because they seem to cause one to lose his mind) and liberate (because with the loss of one's mind goes the loss of one's chains to society). One curious thing to note is that only men are shown as being affected by the "curse." Whether this was by design or by omission, I have no idea, but Shinoda does not strike me as one who would miss such an obvious detail. As the carriers of norms and effective prison guards who enforce the prevailing order, men are the natural target of such a transformation. Women, if anything, are its agents. And that a wholesale change is necessary is made clear by the group of Buddhist monks, who are part and parcel of the order, who are all liberated by the curse.
I want her for my maidThe pastime of a big city girl
WARNING: spoilers follow
The story itself is quite simple in terms of events, even if it may defy easy interpretation. Wakayama Tomisaburo is a rough mountain man who waylays passing travelers and robs them. At least that's what he does until the day he ambushes a man whose wife (Iwashita Shima) immediately captivates him with her mysterious beauty. He murders her husband and their servant, and forces her to become his wife. But what begins as the ultimate expression of male dominance soon becomes far murkier for rather than be the helpless victim of her captor's aggression, the woman soon assumes the dominant position in their relationship. Playing on his animal lust for her, she demands that he treat her as a lady, which includes, among other things, carrying her on his back lest she hurt her feet on the mountain paths. The odd reversal of the oppressor and the subjugated is made blatantly clear by her physically towering over him, and on his back too.
Monks going madTheater of the grotesque
As if to dispel any doubt about who is going to rule this relationship, she taunts him about his lack of physical prowess, then mocks his proud claims to be the "ruler of his domain," and finally orders him to murder the other "wives" he has squirreled away in his remote shack. He meekly complies and kills all of them except one lame girl who the new wife demands as a maid. The man's life begins revolving solely around his new conquest, and he is forced to procure an ever-expanding list of items for her (by robbing others, obviously). Finally, she gets bored with their solitary dwelling and demands that he take her to the city. Despite his obvious discomfort (he is completely out of place in the city; people make fun of him, he does not know how to use money), he complies. The woman the goes into overdrive and uses the threat to withhold sex to demand that he bring her the severed heads of various people so she can stage her little grizzly love plays with them.
I need more heads for my partyExtreme casting session
As the days pass, the heads decay and rot away, and the house in which they are squatting is falling apart, the dissolution paralleling the degradation of the man's psyche and his increasingly destructive bond with his wife. He is reduced to begging for food even though his bandit skills should have made it straightforward to obtain some cash in, ahem, less humiliating ways. But it seems that he's lost his zest for life: while he was shown energetically hunting in the mountain forests, he is now depicted as a listless fish out of water; he is not in his element and he does not even seen to be able to break away. His wife appears to have gripped him tight. Eventually, he realizes that this existence is going to kill him and resolves to head back to the freedom of his beloved mountains. He is prepared to be abandoned by his wife but she surprises him by meekly accepting his decision and declaring her ever-lasting love for him, a love that, she claims, would force her go anywhere he goes just to be with him.
Morbid sexuality as becomes a ghostEverything falling apart
But we know that this is a lie. Not that she would not follow him, after all her power needs someone to rule over if it is to have any meaning. But we suspect that she is not about to march blithely back into oblivion. Even though her husband does not realize it yet, he has freed himself from her spell and she knows it. If he is permitted to depart, if he is forced to make a choice between her and his freedom, she has no doubt where she will stand. So she goes with him, and for a while it seems that they have returned to the earlier "happier" days as he carries her on his back high up the slopes. In his exultation, the man appears to think that nothing can harm him, that his wife's coming with him and her apparent love have made him invincible. So he decides to dare fate by walking under the blossoming cherry trees.
Wherever you go, I goBack full circle to happier days
It is then that her true nature is revealed and the cherry blossoms, instead of causing him to lose his mind, actually open his eyes and show his wife as the ugly supernatural spirit that she is. The man goes berserk and strangles her. When the deed is done, the blossoms having accomplished their purpose, she reverts back to her human form and we know that she was no supernatural being. That does not mean her ghost form was any less real, of course, and that's where Shinoda's ambivalence to women shows through. Stripped of the supernatural, the only explanation is that the man saw behind his wife's mask, if only for a fleeting instant, and that revelation yanked him out of his dreamy existence in her shadow. In other words, while Shinoda depicts a world ostensibly dominated by men, the real oppressors are the women who are in control, and so the cherry blossoms are not really a curse at all. The irony, of course, is that they have lost their liberating spell in the modern world where men regard them merely as pretty sights. In a way, modernity has not only tamed men, but has also deprived them of their only chance to see through their supposed freedom, to realize that they are not in control of anything.
Is she the one?Under the cherry blossoms
The Toho DVD is that rare beast: a Japanese disc with English subtitles. The video transfer is at the unusual 1.55:1 aspect ratio (OAR) and is anamorphically enhanced. It is very nice and does justice to Shinoda's mesmerizing eye for composition. The Dolby Digital monoaural soundtrack is in Japanese and is very crisp. There is not a whole lot of speech in this film, but the music is stunning, and the soundtrack does it justice. The only extra is a long trailer for the film. All menus are in Japanese. Definitely a film that must be seen and then watched again. It looks gorgeous but its subversive message will give any feminist a pause.

Shinoda Masahiro

Ever since I saw Double Suicide, Shinoda has been on my get-everything-by-this-guy list. So imagine my delight when Criterion decided to release this film... what turned out to be a truly bizarre entry in the chambara genre. I am still unsure about this film. I think I liked it, but I do not know why. I know why I should not have liked it though. Samurai Spy is really an artsy political intrigue/love story that masquerades as a ninja flick with some reality-defying stunts.

Sasuke always in a fogA typical stance
The Criterion DVD comes with a handy booklet that lists all the main characters, and the disc itself has a cast description! This is the first time I have seen anything like it, but pretty soon into the film one starts to appreciate the nice folks at Criterion for thoughtfully providing a roadmap to the various clans, spies, maybe-spies, spies-wannabes, spies-in-the-making, ex-spies, and dead spies. I mean, this film has a character count that can rival anything Tolkien put out, and even seems to approach some of the goofier Chinese epics in sheer volume of people with names whose loyalties viewers must track very closely.
Some gravity-defying leapsThe melancholy dancer Okiwa
As far as I could tell, there are two main rival clans, the Tokugawa and the Toyotomi (the film is set fourteen years after the Battle of Sekigahara and right before the siege of Osaka, so the Tokugawa are still battling for supremacy), and a third clan, the Sanada, that sits on the fence, trying to figure out which of the two will be the winning horse to mount. Sasuke (Takahashi Koji) is of the Sanada, and is currently roaming the country in search of information for his lord. We are not told just what sort of info he's looking for, but pretty soon it does not matter for he finds himself deep in a conspiracy that he will never untangle.
Love and fear in feudal JapanMeeting Omiyo at the temple
The film begins very atmospherically, with Sasuke running through a field enveloped in dense fog. He says that he is always on the run, and as we shall learn, he is does not know why he's doing what he is doing, he has stopped asking questions, and the fog symbolizes his confusion, and the absurdity of living a life without awareness. An unexamined life is not worth living said Socrates (I hope), and this is the conclusion that Sasuke will eventually reach. As a samurai, he is the then-new (1965) type of character that does not seem to care particularly either about his clan or his lord, who sort of just does various tasks and often does not behave according to the idealized Bushido code. He is not a ronin for his clan is quite well, and he is not a yakuza. Neither an outcast, nor a traditional samurai, he occupies the murky ground in between where one can just as easily take the corrupt path to destruction or the noble road to... often destruction too.
Sasuke on the long road to nowhereStill life
Sasuke soon learns that an important spy for the Tokugawa clan, Tatewaki (Okada Eiji), has decided to defect to the Osaka faction, and that he is being assisted by one Mitsuaki (Toura Mutsuhiro). That is, the latter is only ostensibly assisting the defector. This Mitsuaki character is one unscrupulous and quite disagreeable guy, having not only set up an innocent Christian samurai to take the fall for him but also planning to betray Tatewaki as soon as he collects his reward. He asks Sasuke for help and it is not at all obvious that the latter is averse to laying his grubby hands on the tons of cash the venture seems likely to bring. But before they can put the plan into motion, someone kills Mitsuaki, and the hapless Sasuke finds himself a murder suspect.
Omiyo barely containing herselfThe kidnapping of the orphan girl
Various people try to milk him for information: both the Tokugawa and the Toyotomi people believe that he knows Tatewaki's whereabouts, and they try everything to get him to reveal them. They even arrange for the beautiful dancer Okiwa (Watanabe Misako) to seduce him even though she is not the "type." Sasuke falls hard for her immediately, but the relationship is doomed from the beginning: he knows she is a spy, and she knows he does; even their love-making is laced with suppressed anger on his part and barely concealed fear on her. Yet, fall for her he does, and when she is murdered by the unknown assailant, Sasuke undergoes a drastic change: his new purpose will be to track down the killer and dispatch him to whatever Elysian field the people in this business end up in.
The enemy of my enemy is my friendMore ninja than samurai
It is not a deep goal, but it is better than the nihilist existence he used to have. But before he can do anything about it, he meets another girl, the orphan Omiyo (Yoshimura Jitsuko), who immediately takes to him body and soul. Oblivious to her feelings, Sasuke rattles off a list of things he's done to Okiwa, and causes her to run away from him and straight into the hands of the authorities who have come to arrest Sasuke on suspicion of the two murders. All they manage to do is kidnap Omiyo although it's not exactly clear why they should do anything to her. At any rate, to save this damsel in distress, Sasuke divulges all his information to the Tokugawa master spy Takatani (Tanba Tetsuro).
Escape from the Suwa dungeonSasuke fights the sinister Takatani
The rescue is beautifully staged, and Sasuke even manages to free the Christian samurai in the process. It is only at this point that the mysterious goings on finally get a proper explanation as the secret background of Tatewaki, and his relationship to the Christian samurai, are both revealed. Everything falls into place, Sasuke finally acquires a higher calling in life: he is no longer unsure what it is that he is supposed to do. Resolved to help the Suwa clan instead, he plunges back into the Toyotomi conspiracy, and finally locates the elusive Tatewaki. Of course, helping him elude both rival clans makes him an enemy of both the Tokugawa and the Toyotomi, which occasions the explosive duel with the ruthless Takatani and the unknown murdered whose identity I will not reveal.
The blood of a master spyGratuitous shot of Yoshimura Jitsuko
Ostensibly a chambara film, Samurai Spy will disappoint anyone who is looking for something like the Zatoichi or Sleepy Eyes of Death fare. Shinoda being what he is, the film often feels like a theater staged in front of a frequently static camera. The director makes heavy use of long shots, off-center framing, unusual camera angles, and jerky editing. The visuals absolutely dominate this film, from the architectural detail often barely visible in the murky noir-style lighting, to the expressive close-ups that leave the camera so close to the faces that one can literally see the small hairs on the guys' chins. The acting, especially by the two women, is top-notch, but since the protagonist spends most of his time being confused (something with which I could relate), he does not get to portray more than the narrowest range of emotions. The pacing is quite deliberate for this type of film and if it weren't for the stunning visuals, the outing would have dragged. As it was, the combination of odd cuts and Takemitsu's music score made it worth watching.
Sasuke out-maneuvered but unbowedRandom shot of Yoshimura Jitsuko
There are many things I like about Shinoda's directing, but what really struck me about this film was the meticulous attention to aural detail. I was particularly impressed with the background sounds during some rather tense moments: characters would be in a stand-off that is likely to end with one of them dying, there would be total silence, and then one would hear the rustling of feet sliding on the ground and the chirping of birds, the latter so incongruous that it made the scene even more full of pathos for only then can we take the place of the character about to die: unless we come close to feeling the sense of loss as his fleeting life leaves his body, we cannot understand his end. And as some people say, it is the losers that are more important in these stories.
About to finally cut through the fogThe unseen enemy is the worst
The Criterion DVD is pretty damn good, and I am glad they gave this film the attention it deserves. The booklet comes with an essay by Alain Silver, the author of the one book on samurai films I have read. In addition to the aforementioned helpful character gallery, there is a 15-minute interview with Shinoda, in which he discusses some aspects of his start in the movies, and what it was like to work with the composer, and so on. Not the most informative thing out there, but nevertheless a welcome extra that beats the 2-minute mockery of an interview on the Samurai Rebellion DVD.

Bridging the Centuries

Masahiro Shinoda on bringing the classic into modern times
by David Phelps  posted November 1, 2011

Unable to conduct an in-person interview with Masahiro Shinoda, halfway across the world, I had about 30 questions of all sorts sent to him via email. I suggested that he could look them over in advance and, once he sat down with a translator, just pick a few that interested him to discuss at length: as a current professor at Wasada University, he could give an impromptu lecture on his own films. Shinoda very generously, and very graciously, sent back via email an audio recording of a completely openhanded 80-minute monologue (with breaks for translation), weaving between a few important points of reference, including a picture-scroll from his own collection, and often responding to multiple questions in single topics and lines. I've left out my original questions, almost all of which were addressed, and which are now implicit in the responses.
I'm extremely grateful not only to Mr. Shinoda, but to his interpreter, Okura Yoshiko, and especially to Ishida Satoko, my Shochiku intermediary who not only arranged the interview, negotiated the details, and translated and communicated my written correspondence to Mr. Shinoda's office, but also has been extremely helpful at every step in assisting me with information and materials. —DP
Masahiro Shinoda: As you know, the original script for the film [Shinju ten no amijima (Double Suicide, 1969, adapted from Chikamatsu] comes from ningyo joruri [puppet theater, or Bunraku], and has been staged and played many times in many forms by people—and puppets. But in my research, I found that the scripts used for production were, in fact, rewritten many times and had lost their original sources. And in a way, for us to accurately restore the classicism of the original material of the 17th century was a way for us to rediscover the art of the 17th century in our own time. This was an idea I had developed from the 1950s, from before I was a filmmaker, but since I'd become a director I had always wanted to do this: to show the original Chikamatsu as it was written, not the versions that had been revised to suit more musical versions of the production over the many hundred years.
Double Suicide
Double Suicide
But despite my idea, this was material that definitely wasn't suited for mass consumption. The mass audience for a film at the time had no interest in this type of material, especially set in the Edo era—and Kabuki and film by this time were very different mediums of art. And there were no producers willing to take on the project either. I had been, as you know, at Shochiku studios, which are also producers of Kabuki, and where Ozu, of course, had worked. And I myself, like Oshima, had become independent from Shochiku, in order to make my own films for the audience, especially for the intellectuals among the public. The motivation was, why not make films for the intellectuals? And so I found myself in a situation where we had a dramatically low budget, but a dramatic freedom to make films, and this was the beginning of ATG, the Art Theater Guild. We found ourselves able to choose what we wanted to make, without the financiers' meddling. And this situation was really very much a miracle. But again the budget we were able to work with was dramatically low.
As a result of this, my film became very theatrical, as an expression, because obviously we did not have the budget to use big sets, outdoor sets, and to build them, and we obviously did not have the technology, CGI, that would enable us to recreate the period, like we can do now. As Oshima and Yoshida, I believe, did, we were working in a limited space directing actors in a very symbolic way.
In the 1960s in Europe, there was a conceptual movement called the Black Theater. The idea was to find ways to put on a play without any art, without any production design or devices, to recreate the quintessential world of pure theater only by use of words. And I had heard about this, and in Japan, I had actually seen a stage play take on a similar sort of challenge. Around this time, I had also come upon Toru Takemitsu's radio play of Shinju ten no amijima, and because it was over the radio, the sounds I was hearing, the voices, seemed like they were coming from this place of darkness: they almost had an operatic power, a hold, a resonance. The film I had wanted and Takemitsu's radio drama: there was something there. And like the fatal aspect of the story, and because there was a realism I wanted to have in the film, it was something I couldn't run from. But as I said, I only had a limited budget for my expressions. So I couldn't build huge houses, or a red light district, for this film. I decided to use kuroko stagehands as my intermediaries.
Now in ningyo joruri, the kuroko, the ones in black, are of course the ones who manipulate the dolls. But in my film these dolls were going to be played by actors. So when it comes to film, you actually see people who are playing the kuroko, who are also manipulating, or pushing along, the stories and the characters within the film. But I wanted these elements to come together in the form of cinema, not theater, so I came up with the concept that the hands, the fingers, of the kuroko are in fact those of Chikamatsu's, the author's intention. He was very ambitious, and I saw this as him being ambitious enough to dominate even the destinies of the characters in his play, so in fact when you see the kuroko's hands, those are the hands of Chikamatsu's intentions, those of the unseen god, those of destiny. And I thought by materializing this to be seen, the audience would be able to see the author's, or the filmmaker's, or the artist's intention. So just by watching the film with this device, you would not only get the fictional drama being created, but the intention of the filmmaker, of the artist: why this drama was created, why the characters were moved this way. And the audience would be able to see all this. This is definitely something that can only be done in the territory of film. And again, to explain it again, I basically took away the rule in puppet theater that the kuroko must not be recognized as any force within the fictional world. And by taking that away, I thought the audience would be able to confront the author, or the filmmaker, or the artist themselves.
The prologue of the film was such a hard thing to overcome in the making of this film. I discerned the roles of the kuroko in the puppet theater, and I took them out, and I made them gradually guide the actors, and that became the introduction of the film. And I was also going to lay the opening credits over this sequence, so we decided to have music scored for this scene. But in fact on the day of, we didn't have the music yet, and it was Takemitsu who told me to call the screenwriter Tomioka Taeko and to recreate our discussion about the last scene over the phone—and to record that and use it for the music of the scene. So this particular music was in fact the screenwriter and the director with their imaginations in exchange, and this whole idea was in fact not mine, but Mr. Takemitsu's. This kind of spontaneity was something I experienced throughout the making of the film, and in all sorts of different sections and stages. Some of it came from proposals from the actors, and the crew, and some were very surprising, and so for the entirety of the film I had no storyboard at all. And every scene I took with one take—and David, I know you had a question about the montage sequences in my earlier films, but here I attempted to do long takes, as long as Mizoguchi's.
 Double Suicide
Double Suicide
Because we, the artists, auteurs living in the 20th century, were going to tell the story of a love affair taking place in the 17th century in Osaka, and because we were not just approaching the play, but approaching it through the author, Chikamatsu, and approaching it through his inner landscape, I feel the way we were able to bring the classic into modern times was itself a trip, and one that left very different tracks from the normal way you would recreate a classic for contemporary times. Now in terms of music, Takemitsu completely denied the use of any kind of instrumental music that would traditionally be used in Kabuki or a puppet play, and his main keynote was to be the gamelan music from the Indonesian island of Bari, and also the pipes and  flutes and drums of Turkey. And the effect, toward the end of the film, as they press down on the story, and attenuate the story, is completely the opposite kind of music than that of a Kabuki production.
Mishima had committed suicide in 1970. What my peers, Oshima and Yoshida, were experiencing, I hope you can discern from their work. For me personally this was the climax of the prosperity that Japan had experienced. And this was of course partly due to the fact that we were occupied by a big, strong country like America, and this was the conclusion that we as a society, a country, were coming to, that Japanese culture had become localized. There were not many people at the time who could even read Shinju ten no amijima in its Chinese characters. And I felt I had seen this landscape of a culture deteriorating; many skyscrapers were being erected in the city at the time. When you would go out, the sense of life as something optimistic was overwhelming. The Japanese identity, for me, though, of the time, seemed to be disappearing.
And this was the feeling that was very prevalent in me even when I directed Pale Flower. We were on the brink of a new era, of IT, high technology—and committing shinju for love in the 17th century was in fact something that happened in Osaka in reaction to what were, perhaps, the first displays of capitalism in Japan. And within me I felt that this was maybe a foreshadowing of what would happen to our own capitalism as a country, that this was the capitalism we would have to face in the future. And so the tragedy that the independent small business merchants suffer in this film was the tragedy that I felt that we were about to, or would eventually have to face in Japan.
Now you have a question about why I pursue beauty, but that I wanted to make my films as elegies to those who fail and collapse was something I already recognized within me at this point. This was quite intentional when I chose the theme of shinju here, because my intention as an artist was to strike outside of the confines of society, to become an outsider—to put it in beautiful language—to become a filmmaker and do my work there. And this was before I was 40, but to become an outsider, to make a film there, was probably something I wouldn't have been able to accomplish if there had been a studio producer looking over my back.
Double Suicide
Shima Iwashita in Double Suicide
Yari no gonza [Gonza the Spearman, 1986; Shinoda's second Chikamatsu adaptation] again is a film that takes place in the Edo era, when the shogunate is established, when the Bushi soldiers are no longer able to use their source of livelihood, their swords. And this was also an allegory of the time when the film was made, because in our constitution, we had to abandon all forms of self-defense as a country. Now the Japanese love golf. And the golf clubs are there to replace the swords that the Bushi warriors would carry.
Looking back in hindsight, Mishima had written an essay about how in theory we would have to defend our country by means of culture if by law we were not able to use force anymore. And as he wrote these essays, I saw these samurai swords, which in the end he used to kill himself, were being replaced by golf clubs.
From ancient times to the middle ages in Japan, the Japanese as a race would often use decapitation in battles and wars.
[Here Shinoda pulls out a book with a print, from Go Sannen Kassen Emaki, a picture scroll from 1087 that unfortunately can't be included here due to rights issues. Along with a riding warrior and a tree, the emaki depicts three racks of decapitated heads, a few fallen on the ground, as if hung like modern laundry.]
The backstory of this picture is an Auschwitz of a kind, in that particular headhunters from the Northeastern part of Japan had risen to strike against the establishment, where they were countered by a force that surrounded the capital. And they were all killed, and their heads were left to be exposed.
In ningyo joruri, the doll, or puppet, is called the kashira, which also means "head" in Japanese, so the expressions of each of the kashira becomes of course the main theme and story of the production. This ningyo joruri came about around the same time that Noh had come into the Japanese history of entertainment. Noh of course is a stage play where masks are used in a similar manner to the kashira (dolls).
 Double Suicide
Double Suicide
Now I am, of course, aware of many decapitation stories in other cultures, those associated with the guillotine in the French revolution, Marie Antoinette and so forth. In Japan, though, even apart from the many political instances where warriors were beheaded, there were many stories also of soldiers or samurais decapitating their children's heads to cover for their master's child, or for their master. By the arrival of the Meiji era, Japan had stopped their tradition of decapitation, but within the traditional Japanese theater, we still see this tradition continued in the form of use of kashira and the masks. And I feel hara-kiri is very closely connected to beheadings as well. Because in loyalty through death, or virtue through self-sacrifice, within this act, I feel the Japanese concept that mortality's an illusion.
In contemporary Japan since 1945, the Japanese people have not killed anybody—not one person—through the act of war. It might be the only country that has managed to do this. At the same time, every year we see more than 30,000 people kill themselves, while traffic accidents, which were born out of motorization in modernity, have gone down to 10,000 a year.
There's this feeling that you are inadequate or unable to show your true colors in your work, in your company that you work for, in your family that you look after, or in your society, to the extent of taking your own life. The act of dying in war that's always been celebrated, because in a way you're doing it for your country, is no longer there: these suicides are probably a new Japanese experience that show how repressed we are in contemporary times.
Occasions and opportunities to help you enjoy your life, like Christmas sales, all sorts of discounts, Disneyland, have been imported into Japan. But on a personal level, these Americanisms are impossible for me to feel optimistic about. And I am unable to find beauty in the death of these 30,000 people who were suicides. For me, this has to do with the idea of how to die beautifully. And it is because of this beauty that I find myself interested not only in people who actually go to the lengths of dying, but those who are on the way to death, or being corrupted, or failing and falling apart. The victors are always arrogant. But losers lose with a great amount of imagination. And I think that in this sense, the losers are closer to cinema's own possibilities of imagination.
In Shinju ten no amijima, my wife and actress Shima Iwashita played two roles, and of course the reason isn't because I didn't have the budget to get two actors for the role, but because my perception of women is that of woman as a prostitute and woman as a wife: and essentially, I believe, this is the same thing. Now in the Western world, you would take an actor and talk about their characteristics, say you take the two Hepburns, Katherine and Audrey, and say that they're different. But for me, they're both Hepburns [laughs]. For men, it's nice to have a woman in the prostitute mold and a more loyal wife—and while you can go to whichever you like, for a man to be close or drawn to a woman requires Eros. If you were looking at a woman and trying to choose, or show her in the light of morality or that of Eros, I would feel very uncomfortable having to choose the former as a standard to use to talk about, or describe, or portray her. And this is because I have a mother complex: my mother for me is the eternal woman. My mother was very wise as a person, and I have great respect for any woman who is able to bring up a child: women by nature are gifted with the ability to have children, which I fundamentally have great respect for, while men, on the other hand, for me are only objects I can fight. Now in Shinju ten no amijima, my wife played Oharu, who of course is a prostitute and figure of Eros, and Osan, who's a more domesticated wife character, and I think these two are the motivations for men to love a woman: and this is the only thing I'm interested in in this subject.
 Double Suicide
Shima Iwashita in Double Suicide
I lost my mother at the age of 22, and the loss was so great that I almost doubted the existence of the world around me. I recently, as you well know, have written a book and have received a Kiyoka Izumi award for it: a book I wrote on the history of Japanese theater. Interestingly Izumi also lost his mother, at the tender age of nine: his mother's name was Suzu, which in Japanese is the sound of the bell ringing. Later when he got married, his wife had also by law the same name, Suzu, and was a geisha. Of course his work was the basis for my film Demon Pond, by which time I had revisited his works for the film, and had discovered that in childhood he went through the same emotional experiences I went through, in losing our mothers, and I think the ghost of Izumi is what shone a light onto my book that led to this award. By now, you probably think I'm quite into mysticism, but that's not quite true.
In any case, I feel more strongly that I've been given blood by my mother than my father, and I think this sense has to do with Japan being an island country, where fathers can move around freely, but mothers have to stay very close to home. And I think because of this, our country is traditionally very much a matriarchy. Now thinking about that and looking at cinema, which was born in the 20th century in France and went to America and became this huge industry, America's of course a country that sought independence from England, and the idea can be seen in—or has strong ties to—American westerns and genre films.
But when you look at Japanese cinema, though, I don't feel that it started in the 20th century, because, say, you take a film like Ugetsu, by Mizoguchi, there's a beautiful woman, in this case played by Machiko Kyo, who lures a man and turns out to be an evil spirit. When we look at the motifs of the film, the story actually harks back to the middle ages in Japan, and that has very much to do with the history of theater in Japan. And in this sense I feel that Japanese cinema and the history of it is very different from that of world cinema, and this is also something you'll be able to discern from Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.
Now the younger filmmakers in Japan that are making so-called J-horror films are the successors of the Ugetsu tradition, if you will. And in The Seven Samurai, the character played by Mifune, the local farmer dreaming of becoming a samurai, is very much the Taro-Kaja character that's seen in Kyogen in the art of Noh. Now when they made their films, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, perhaps unconsciously within that postwar environment, had to lean on Japanese tradition, because they knew that they weren't Americans. And so their films had a sense of Japanese tradition, but my films I approach more from a rational than mystical point of view, based on my own very real confrontation with a postwar society. And that's where I come from as a filmmaker.
My views and perceptions of women, or feminism, come from my mother, as I was telling you. But when it comes to my father, I felt that I could study him: a father is more of a social being that is linked to the more political fate of a nation. And the mother, by contrast, is an eternal sort of lifeblood that symbolizes it. And I think directors like Oshima and Yoshida were trying to create films from a more rational, patriarchal approach to their filmmaking, whereas I was probably trying to make films from a more motherly approach, where sometimes things would not be able to be explained only rationally. We have the term Japanese New Wave, but you can't brand us by one label.
Now as you know, I have retired and announced my retirement from filmmaking. And I am researching currently the junction between Japanese entertainment and contemporary times, and the relationship between  these two, which I'm very drawn to. My current book attempts to break down theater through anthropological and historical points of view. But this particular field is barren, it's a wasteland. I still hear the sounds of the camera rolling, the voices you hear on the set, and the crew and myself running around: that vision, that space, is something that hasn't disappeared inside me yet. It is almost as if I had pulled the brakes on a locomotive while the train is still moving, and now it's riding on the rail. And whether the engine will be started again on this living train, and whether I will return from the barren wastelands of the academics to the more civilized world of film, remains to be seen.
And this is my answer to you, David, whom I haven't had the pleasure of knowing yet.

The Closed World: The Films of Shinoda Masahiro – Surface play and subterfuge in the movies of a modern classicist

“If we abandon the gods, what must take their place in order to support the center of the culture?… It is difficult to decide what will take the place of the gods. I have never believed that culture is something one can ‘make.’”
“I must categorize the films of the world into three distinct types. European films are based upon human psychology, American films upon action and the struggles of human beings, and Japanese films upon circumstance. Japanese films are interested in what surrounds the human being. This is their basic subject.” — Shinoda Masahiro
I. Way In
Circumstance is a subject, but unlike personal psychology or the struggle for individualism, it doesn’t offer a particular perspective: just the material for one. “Never as radical as Oshima, nor as consistent as Yoshida, and certainly never as satirical as Imamura, Shinoda, on the other hand, is unquestionably the most versatile of the New Wave directors,” offers David Desser in his book Eros Plus Massacre, even if versatility, a salaryman’s virtue, is not quite a viewpoint. “[I am] not interested in utopian ideals,” Shinoda has said, more simply. “I would like to be able to take hold of the past and make it stand still so that I can examine it from different angles.” Per Desser, Shinoda’s “most significant authorial characteristic, the comparison between traditionalism and modernism (in terms of both social norms and aesthetic practice)” is only a playing of worldviews against each other.
Dealt with films in all colors, shapes, and settings, and unable to discern an auteurist imprint beyond a hodgepodge of motifs—historical backdrops at moments of transition; occasional theatricality; street processionals; a nihilistic critique of Japanese imperialism—American critics, sensing that “in pure visual and sound experience his films impress with lush flamboyance,” have logically posited the means as an end. “The director’s main concern,” says Donald Richie, is “an exclusively aesthetic one—namely, the shape of men’s lives, the patterns they make.” “His contribution to the generation of the 1960s has been his devotion to beauty,” Audie Bock ends her profile on him. “Surface rather than substance,” writes Carole Cavanagh.
From his early, sun tribe JD films (’60-’62) to yakuza and samurai pieces (’64-’65) to chamber dramas, Brechtian theater and deconstructed myth (the late ’60s to the ’70s), and even in his late, naturalist histories (‘80s-’02), Shinoda’s films offer a pictorial beauty that its own excuse, an art for art’s sake that’s almost always positioned politically even so. The open question remains whether Shinoda’s picturesque sense of environs and choreographic sense of movement are the product or antithesis of a soulless landscape: an art reacting against social realities, or just the extension of social role-playing?
No way in, no way out: Shinoda’s story is almost invariably of an outside agent, often a girl, who rebels against power politics either through some abstract, aesthetic ideal—at least six of his films follow artists or musicians, and even the equivocating samurai in Assassination only finds respite in a ballad—or in a viral attack on the system, whether an authoritarian kingdom or household. “The Japanese have a belief that it is purer to sacrifice themselves for things invisible than to do so for a political cause.”
But in either case, the agent turns out an unwitting victim of circumstance whose only expression is in the violence of a local, historical politics that can’t be transcended. Shinoda has described both Pale Flower, his yakuza reappraisal, and Samurai Spy, his Samurai reappraisal, as reflections of the cold war: a solitary hero, the Japanese idealist in a cultural wasteland, becomes the pawn of opposing powers whose politics are a mask for power. Almost every Shinoda of the period has this set-up of a rebel whose only expression of identity is in picking between equal superpowers. According to Desser, already in Dry Lake, Shinoda’s first film, “Shinoda claims that he and [screenwriter] Terayama confronted the fact that whereas the rightists in Japan typically resorted to terror and violence (as in the assassination of JSP leader Asanuma), the emerging left was similarly becoming so inclined.” “Power will never perish,” says Lord Mizuno in Buraikan—“it will always be replaced by another.”
In Shinoda’s films, the characters whose dedication to “style” gives the films their own, lose something like personal expression—whether a sense of morality, feeling, or the mundane—to mask-like roles and inherited ideals. These films mine a voguish existentialism, even “nihilism” (Shinoda’s term), in stories of rebels who infiltrate closed worlds by submitting to their choreography of violence, their external morality of men and women who are only as good as their their sword-fights, their car races, their rockabilly hip thrusts. The classic beauties turn nihilistic as styles that are their own end: Shinoda gets surface tension from characters, like the camera, seemingly oblivious to anything but their own movements.
In the 60s films, scenes of slaughter, flight, and cunnilingus are abstracted by slow-motion and a biwa’s accompaniment into visual motifs: an appeal to the eye instead of body in a slow crescendo of repeated thrusts forward. But the realization that the most visceral, physical moments of Shinoda’s ’60s films are abstracted into unfurling lines of motion offers only one angle. Another is that these distantiation techniques only make the scene more immediate, more visceral: the viewer projects himself into the scene by rhythm alone. These moments seem to compound traditional Japanese virtues of aesthetic disinterestedness (iki) all at once with a 60s rejection of classical geometries, with Antonioni fog, and with the invisible hand of Toru Takemitsu, the modernist composer who used natural rhythms as ostinato, and insisted directors pare down their soundtracks for the maximal inflection of single sounds. “I will make the film. That’s one voice. Takemitsu is another voice,” says Shinoda, the director Takemitsu worked with most. “I wanted these two voices to come together.” (1)
In Shinoda’s ’60s works, the sounds of the scene become the rhythms of the film.
Takemitsu’s music is generally used to dramatize only the least dramatic moments. The duels in Samurai Spy (available from Criterion), a film in which a distant zoom happens upon the key action, are usually accompanied by bird calls that sometimes change pitch and species at crucial junctures. The teen rock-and-roller of Tears on a Lion’s Mane, fantasizing a fame perpendicular to his world of class conflict, walks down busy streets to the sounds only of his footsteps. In Punishment Island, face offs are counterpointed by the slide-whistle of the wind and the breaking sea, Shinoda’s favorite sound, while shots of the sea are silent or accompanied by Takemitsu’s warbling strings. An undertaker’s hammering is the film-long beat and meter in Buraikan. And in Pale Flower, yakuza gambling scenes, set like business meetings around an empty grave with only the movements of hands, cards, and Shinoda’s swiveling montage, the pure exteriority of men in ritual is matched by echoing castanets and tap: the rhythms of dance in the ceremonies of an echo chamber.
However pure that beauty, there’s always some awareness of its expense. “Circumstance,” a historical reality beyond the studio’s purview, already grates against aesthetics in Shinoda’s early, pop-JD films like Killers on Parade (1961), a windshield view onto a contemporary Yokohama of brutalist architecture and primary-colored yakuza who sing a cappella and are finally wiped out as a gang leader, dripping red paint, hopscotches his last steps to the sounds of real waves and an imitation train whistle. Yet in Shinoda the movie’s splay of seemingly arbitrary movements become part of a schema of effects: matching tracking shots and pans that build an almost classical rhythm of refrain and response. In the opening jump cuts, as the yakuza line up in a clear movie studio to shoot an apple off a girl’s head, miss, and splatter the wall in paint, Shinoda, as Godard would a few years later, flaunts violence for a surface beauty on film that only comes at the expense of any real-world index-point.
That beauty is the painted face of violence will be the more obvious target of recurring, iconographic posters that give mobsters and militants the cover of societal legitimacy throughout Shinoda’s ’60s films: Hitler in Dry Lake, JFK in Killers on Parade, the Mona Lisa in Pale Flower, Abraham Lincoln in Punishment Island, Marilyn Monroe in Petrified Forest. “Culture is nothing but the expression of violence,” Shinoda has said, adding, “also, human tenderness is unthinkable without violence.”
Violence is an art form, but art is unthinkable without violence: is that aestheticism or its critique? All of Shinoda’s films seem to teeter between material interpretations of violence at beauty’s root through Japan’s history, and Shinoda’s own abstraction of violence into something beautiful. Art of circumstance or circumstances of art? Circumstance is a web of arts in Shinoda: by 1964 an extended sword fight in Assassination (available on Masters of Cinema) is shot with a gliding tracking shot, almost absent of sound, in the attenuated motions of Kabuki. As late as Owl’s Castle (1999), the athletes’ rehearsals for battle and Kabuki are nearly the same; Buraikan (1970) follows a failed Kabuki actor (Tatsuya Nakadai) who becomes an unwitting revolutionary instead. It was in Kabuki that Shinoda “found that violence is at the root of all human passion, the fundamental enthusiasm of the human being.”
Art and politics again: Shinoda has repeated that his nihilism comes from his desire to kill himself at 15 at the emperor’s surrender of god status, and the ongoing search and failure since then to find anything on earth worth dying for, even while the formal illusions and hierarchies of culture—everyday and aesthetic—have had to be maintained. “I wanted to know, ‘Where are our gods? Have they gone?’… The origin of drama started in a religious form, trying to communicate with God especially in the Noh and Kabuki theater. The main theme is to bring death into the world.” And: “In my films, I have tried to show the present through the past and history, coming around to the truth that all Japanese culture flows from imperialism and the emperor system. What characterizes Japan is the imposition upon the people of absolute power and authority without the right to question and debate… I find, however, that politics leads to nothing, and that power politics remain empty.”
Pale FlowerDouble SuicideBuraikan
Buraikan (1970)
Buraikan (1970), Shinoda’s comedy about underground Kabuki actors who stage an underground rebellion on a soundstage 1840s, gives Shinoda’s most easily distilled thesis that men are dolls, God withdraws as a source of meaning and leaves materialism to rule itself. Even self-sacrifice seems less defiant than inevitable. Unlike Mishima’s beautiful suicide in Patriotism, or the classically Japanese, tragic martyrdoms in Kobayashi, one of Shinoda’s favorite directors, resignation is rarely noble in Shinoda: the traditional coupling of ninjo (personal feeling) and giri (social obligation) seems to become a duel between self-destructive urges, lust, and material gain at one end, and an absurd, historically determined system of oppressive morality and debts on the other. In both men are puppets to their own lives. beautiful and hollow, and, as in the traditional Japanese fables Shinoda would adapt, led on by the superficial beauty of enchantresses: both Shinoda’s leading ladies, Kaga Mariko and his wife, Iwashita Shima, have a doll’s cat-eyes and glutted lips behind which may lie anything or nothing. But these dolls are never quite allegories for experience: in Shinoda, allegory seems impossible in a world in which meaning is localized, historically determined, and life is lived not only for but as the external grace of good pupeteering. When the endings of Silence (available on Masters of Cinema) and McArthur’s Children call for allegories of Christ and politics—a priest projects himself into the role of Christ as a martyr for humanity; a baseball match between America and Japan pits brute modernity against hangdog tradition—Shinoda sheds larger statements for local concerns: the priest is not Christ and will help his tortured brethren better in apostasy and submission to the state; a dog grabs the ball and the game ties. In Buraikan, a revolutionary sets fireworks in defiance of Mizuno, who responds that there can’t be fireworks, he outlawed them; in the outskirts of town a matriarch marvels: “how beautiful!”

With Beauty and Sadness
Two compass points for Shinoda, Oshima and Kobayashi, posit in very different ways a struggle of the personal against the political, one that collapses as the two become mirrored reflections: the victim of the state turns victimizer, while violence, as in Shinoda, is the fulcrum of both expression and suppression. But where Kobayashi’s films schematize a clear pattern of disillusionment, an impossible ninjo against an inescapable giri, Shinoda’s show illusion, however beautiful, on all sides: personal desire becomes self-interest within the context of a time.
And where Oshima’s films seem framed by an irreducible metaphysic of guilt, sadism, and alienated subjectivity, all affirmed in the battle against them, Shinoda’s movies see these things as historical vectors rather than inescapable worldviews. Spy Sorge opens with a quote by the Chinese writer Lu Hsun: “Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.” But even in this message of hope, there’s no way out.
Childhood Days (1990)
Asked how to avoid sentimentality in late, character-based histories like MacArthur’s Children, Shinoda has said to play character interests against each other—again a balancing of views—but added: “What I most wanted to do with this film was to shoot the school ground. And I wanted to do it from the vantage point of the corridor that connects the classrooms. After receiving your training in the classroom, you come out and feel the wind or the rain in that corridor.” Padded by sentimental coming-of-age stories and viscid melodies, these late films have drama in background detail and historical setting: the anecdotal Children climaxes around the point when a girl needs to pee in a ’40s straw outhouse, and asks a boy to sing a traditional Japanese anthem so he won’t hear. But at the same time Shinoda’s approach to history as a stage for classical narrative was being developed by directors as different as Pialat, Yang, and Hou, in films in which history is inscribed even in the gestures of how one hangs around.
The Petrified Forest (1973)
Shinoda’s ’70s films, often accompanied by oneiric Takamatsu scores, are more expansively realized. The Petrified Forest charts culture clash in mundane detail while insanity spreads as a disease; in the historical films, characters move through the static frame and stop to watch street processionals without realizing they’re part of the passing crowds as well. The Ballad of Orin, perhaps Shinoda’s culminating work, tracks a traveling goze, blind singer Iwashita, through 70 locations, all four seasons, and a series of exploitations recalling Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu except that, without the onus of a transcendental martyrdom, the goze has a sex drive as well. Her lover is not the love of her life but one more important than the rest, and even her sacrifice to him, repeating Silence, is to an ideal, invisible love. At the dawn of industrialization and militarization, the blind leading the blind are matched with marching soldiers, and what starts as fable ends in a particular time and place.
The Ballad of Orin (1977)
But it’s Shinoda’s ’60s films that hew closest in form to life as the art of circumstance. Using every abstraction the Japanese New Wave had taken against convention—freeze-frames, overhead shots, 180-degree cuts, handheld CinemaScope, and high-contrast smears of white scene detail against preponderate blacks at night—Shinoda arranges them in films like Tears on the Lion’s Mane, Pale Flower, Samurai Spy, Assassination, and Punishment Island into a coherent syntax of matching tracks, scene bridges, and symmetrical openings and closings.
As with his slow-motion abstractions to music, Shinoda gets his dynamism in these movies from a concatenation of alternating angles, speeds, and motions. One pattern is to start with a hero’s close-up, then pivot centrifugally around him through 90-degree cuts till the camera has full scope of the scene and can circle on its own: the character becomes the scene’s central axis. But the technique slows and hardens in the late ‘60s: a five-minute circling pas de deux in With Beauty and Sadness, a seven-minute stage at the showdown of Punishment Island, a three-minute, deep-focused poison preparation in Petrified Forest. Still the characters, never points of access into the scene, are staked in the center of rooms like ornamental pillars. Except for Double Suicide, there are relatively few point of view shots in Shinoda: where classic Hollywood grammar works its way through a scene from the inside-out, through characters’ viewpoints onto it, Shinoda, like many of his peers, works from the outside-in so that the characters are set up as one object among many in a composition. The effect of near-silent montages, frequent in Samurai Spy, is usually of characters gliding in a weightless world and propelled by their own momentum. In the debates of Assassination, the characters playing out their political roles seem to become abstractions of themselves.
II. Way Out
 A Man Vanishes (Imamura, ’67), Double Suicide
The exception that could prove a rule is Double Suicide, Shinoda’s 1969 adaptation of a Chikamatsu play that begins as a backstage documentary as both Shinoda and the hooded stagehands, kuroko, talk on the phone. Shinoda, on the location he’s found for the graveyard finale: “But it captures the space on stage, the nothingness, a sort of fetishism of space, the vivid contrast between that and the bodies of the couple… the essential image needs to be captured.”
A thesis to decode the meaning and intent of Shinoda’s formal conceits seems unavoidable in a film that shows set changes, Iwashita playing double role of courtesan and wife, and ancient lovers performing their duty in suicide alongside kuroko performing their own duties on-stage to assist the killings, and off, answering the phone. The puppets, critics have said, are symbols of “Shinoda’s sense of the powerlessness of ordinary men,”(2), the stagehands symbols of the artist meting fates out at will, the Brechtian approach the marker of a stringent social conscience. “The emphasis on the artificiality of the drama serves the purpose of distancing the audience in a Brechtian fashion. The audience cannot identify with the individual characters, and is therefore forced to observe, much the same way as the kurago [sic].” (3)  The whole thing is symbols, from the calligraphy on the walls to Iwashita’s double performances, each coded in traditional make-up. “Shinoda is commenting upon the significance of roles and signs in society. Cast in the role of courtesan, Iwashita becomes eroticized; cast in the role of wife, Iwashita becomes de-eroticized… And the very conventions that make Koharu an object of desire and Osan an index of obligation are the ones that inevitably drive Jihei to suicide.” (4) “The strain of tensions between the boundedness of the puppet play—the confines of the genre—and the limitlessness of cinema are immediately apparent.” (5)  Or did Shinoda say that it’s cinema that frames the empty void of the stage to give it, almost arbitrarily, subject, context, and meaning—a fetishistic form?
If Double Suicide, a ningyo joruri (puppet play) adaptation, were demonstrating that men live as puppets—victims of circumstance in their theatrical formalities—it would, as Desser says of Shinoda’s Demon Pond, only be institutionalizing old conventions as new ones. Shinoda’s explosion of puppet plays would be a puppet play, its code of meaning inescapable. And this is very nearly what happens a couple years earlier in Imamura’s documentary A Man Vanishes: as the characters over tea discuss the nature of truth, as elusive to the documentarian as the vanished man, Imamura has his stagehands disassemble their room as he announces that “nobody knows the truth… this is a stage set, but you all talked as though it was really a cozy room. The set took on the life of a real room… This is fiction.” The moment is as much an attack on the manipulations of the subjects and filmmaker as their complicity with the audience: reality is simply the stage on which truth is manufactured.
By 1969 in Japan, more attempts at taking to the streets seem to end in halls of mirrors. Imamura’s trick-reveal, simultaneous to the French New Wave’s collusions between reality and fiction, ends with a line, “the film is finished, but reality is not,” matching Jean Rouch’s at the end of The Human Pyramid that “it’s not what happened within the film that mattered, just what happened outside of the film… the film ends, but life goes on.” But where Imamura indicts daily life as a set, Rouch sees a stage for revolution. By 1969, some Japanese directors seem to be trying for this theater of revolt as well in mock-documentaries: Hani Susumu’s Inferno of Love (’68), Terayama Shûji’s Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (’71), Yoshida Kiju’s Eros Plus Massacre (’69), and Oshima Nagisa’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film (’70) all concern filmmakers who may be inventing and projecting themselves into the world on-screen as a political act of revolution. (6)  Or, alternately, may be trapped like Imamura’s ruffled subjects in their own subjective perceptions. Or objective habits. Or, alternately, may not be able to project themselves into their world of revolution at all except by—in more than one of those films—playing the projector light over their naked bodies.
In the Oshima, in particular, the mysteriously dull footage of houses from a dead man is unsatisfactory to the communist cell that watches it both because its intentions are illegible and because intentions, wherever they are, are necessarily subjective, and thus inadmissible to communal spirit: the footage belongs neither to the realm of subjective intentionality nor familiar, objective fact, but as unprocessed material in-between, and though the communists are attempting to overthrow both personal subjectivity and societal objectivity, they struggle to find either intention or indexicality in the film to make sense of it. Each needs the other. The footage needs some fundamental truth-value, as in Imamura or Rouch, in order to become meaningful as a contextualized stage, with props and a premise, for fiction and a revolution.
In some way these are also the questions of Double Suicide, a film severed from both subjective intentionality—the film is a staging and weaving of cultural traditions beyond any individual worldview—and any notion of objective realism—the closed world of ritual and ceremony that, as usual in Shinoda, men create and are created by. Are the actors and filmmakers witnesses or agents on-screen? Whose life is led when truth is a communal manufacture? Where is the worldview, and in 1969, the world?
The answer of Chikamatsu’s paper merchant to sophomoric questions of obligatory conventions is to flee from one lover to the other, while defaulting on his debt—however emotional, invariably expressed in economic terms—to whatever woman he’s just left. As Carole Cavanagh points out, paper, “on which the source text is calligraphed, and… on which all the private promises and legal contracts binding the characters together are written… draws together story, design, cinematic construction, and theme.” The merchant’s worldly ties are in paper, though as Cavanagh goes on, it is the contractual bond between the merchant’s two women—the wife asking the courtesan not to lead her husband to double suicide—that provides the “humanizing” touch. But this ostensible liberation and act of understanding is also what dooms the characters to more economic debts, as the wife tries to repay the courtesan by buying her freedom, and to the final suicides of the lovers, each alone. Even suicide is worldly: a symbol of money repaid, and thus a social currency. Every attempt of the characters to take agency of their life results in subjugation to it: they’re all passive witnesses. And when the merchant, like the revolutionary in Eros Plus Massacre, tries to knock down the shoji—paper walls—he only reveals the larger stage.
In an inversion of A Man Vanishes, in which the stage is fake the but the filmmaking reality, here the merchant’s rooms are the movie’s only reality to believe in against an artificial studio. Unlike his contemporaries, Shinoda doesn’t stage a fictional documentary but a documentary of a fiction. In Double Suicide, Shinoda’s opening discussion about a tentative ending is neither the voice of an original authorial figure nor a faithful interpreter of Chikamatsu subjected to the dictates of the play, any more than the kuroko, whose faces are visible under the hoods as they sing like a Greek chorus, are shorthand symbols for the heavy hands of fate, nor, exactly, victims of the play’s demands. As Shinoda looks for bodies that will serve as presences over an absent space, his own role, like that of the kuroko, becomes one of a living performer playing his part willingly, and in the present tense, within the film’s discourse of documentary footage, long takes and diegetic realism, against the abstraction of the sets, the two-dimensional compositions, the traditional Kabuki acting. Not just a naturalist qualification to Kabuki, he’s also an elemental cog in a vast, material puppet machine: like so many Shinoda characters, a tool of his own actions.
The scaffolding of Double Suicide, then, certainly isn’t so simple as puppeteer and puppet, author and player, fate and victim, intention and sign, or even giri and its actors, the courtesans to social custom. It also isn’t so simple as ninjo vs. giri, since in the film’s complete exteriority, ninjo, personal desire, is already bound up with giri: personal desire, again, can only be expressed economically, and the concern of the play is not how a man and his mistress can run off together, but how they can do so within (not against) both their (financial) bonds to the people around them. Nor is the space even as simple as a predetermined staging of a predetermined plot of predetermined social conventions that Shinoda has undermined by placing such formalities over an indeterminate blank void: that would still be a thesis, a supposedly “Brechtian” revelation that there is no basis for their roles, that there is no origin for their strings, and that their “fated” actions are of their own, material devising in an empty world to which they’ve given arbitrary limits. Even that would imply some measure of potential intentionality on the part of the main characters, and they have none: the acting is traditionally declamatory, coded, and seen only though the sympathetic gazes of the kuroko watching a spectacle. Both the set and the kuroko are totally devoted not only to deconstructing the play as play, but to making it as beautiful as possible.
Instead, the tentative space of Double Suicide is one of inscription, the pure exteriority of signs: one of paper sets covered in words and pictures, sets in which characters can write their own histories on papers, but only in the worldly language of economic terms, and can only act as signs, so that Iwashita’s wife is coded by her blackened teeth, a traditional Kabuki make-up. Yet against the void, blank canvas of the graveyard, this writing of bodies on the ground, bodies seen and heard breathing and mostly watched walking, are some sign of material life that recalls Artaud: “The actors with their costumes constitute veritable living, moving hieroglyphs,” for whom words and signs are valued not for what they signify, but “for their shape and their sensuous emanations.” The bodies, performing specific, gestural variations on coded movements, become analogous to the calligraphy on the set’s walls that has a phonetic, meaningless meaning only at certain alignments, but is always expressive as an artist’s abstraction: frequently the writing on the walls breaks down to lines and curves and ink blots in which the original letter is hardly discernible. Similarly the characters, initially so coded, and even because of such codes, become almost pure, performing bodies without a pretense of interiority: as in dance, the differences between the character and the actor collapse in a costumed body no longer signifying anything but itself moving on-set. They are signs floating free from any meaning but their own action, beauty.
Double Suicide is not only a documentary of its impossibility as a documentary, but a real, beautiful documentary of bodies moving in rhythm across spaces: the film it’s closest to might be Michael Powell’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Radical and traditional, its self-reflexive stagings are both another ’69 anti-establishment exposure of a manufactured landscape as well as a sort of foundational myth. The lovers die alone at the hands of the dutiful kuroko, but a final, handheld overhead shot restores them both to their ideal, eternal companionship as well as to the opening, handheld sequence, and thus the outermost layer of the text and set: Japan, 1969, where a kuroko answers the phone and dead lovers on the ground give a nearly standard image of the time—climaxing films from Eros Plus Massacre to Poem to Go Go Second Time Virgin. Projected onto some eternal present that’s as much 1720 as 1969, the lovers are still just agents of their times.


  1. Shinoda interview, disc feature on Samurai Spy Criterion Collection DVD.
  2. Joan Mellen, program notes for Shinoda retro at MoMA in mid-1970s.
  3. Claire Johnston, Criterion DVD notes. Reprinted from Focus on Film #2, March/April 1970.
  4. David Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 177.
  5. Nina Cornyetz, “Scripting the Scopic: Disinterest in Double Suicide,” in The Ethics of Aesthetics in Japanese Cinema and Literature: Polygraphic Desire, London: Routledge, 2007.
  6. Desser provides a more sustained comparison of three of these films in his final chapter of Eros Plus Massacre.

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