Double Suicide (心中天網島 )

  • Film: 心中天網島 (Double Suicide)

10/12/17 (Thurs)

Double Suicide (1969) is Masahiro Shinoda’s highly stylized take on Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 18th-century Bunraku (puppet theater) masterpiece The Love Suicides at Amijima. Chikamatsu does not emerge from this well.

The film follows the plot of the play closely: Jihei, a young paper merchant with a wife and two kids, falls deeply for the courtesan Koharu but cannot afford to buy out her contract. Unbeknownst to him (and us), his wife has written Koharu and begged her to stop the affair. The courtesan, feeling guilty, purposely bad-mouths Jihei to spur him to break off relations, a ruse that is successful. He can’t forget her, though, and remarks that Koharu has vowed to kill herself if she can’t have him. The wife realizes in shock that her letter may be responsible for a suicide, and rushes to sell everything to earn the money to free the girl and prevent tragedy. Unfortunately her father, disgusted with his son-in-law’s behavior, forces Jihei to divorce the wife and drags her back to her family home (leaving the children behind, by the way, which doesn’t seem very grandfatherly). After various complications, Jihei and Koharu ultimately go off to die. In a last gesture to the wife, Koharu, who had promised her she wouldn’t commit suicide with Jihei, insists that they at least die apart. They cut their hair to suggest that they have become monk/nun, releasing them from the obligations of the lay world. Jihei then stabs Koharu to death and hangs himself.

The play revolves mainly around the Japanese obsession with the conflict between what the Japanese call giri and ninjo, meaning duty vs. emotion, head vs. heart, responsibility to societal obligations (e.g. family, business, community, nation) vs. uncontrolled raw feelings. This play is a supreme example of the intricate web of such giri and the inability of the central lovers to suppress their passion for the sake of others. Their resulting suicide should not necessarily be construed as social commentary, as some have argued; the lovers are taking action simply to ensure that they will be reborn as a legitimate couple in a future life, evidently a Buddhist belief in Chikamatsu’s day. I doubt the author intended much more than to tell a good story, which he most certainly does.

Sadly, Chikamatsu’s story is only a secondary component of this film, which concentrates more on drawing attention to itself. The entire presentation is intentionally stagy and unrealistic to no clear end, punctuating the intricately plotted story with sudden freezes in the action, revolving sets (as on a Bunraku stage), excessively calculated camera shots, cartoonish backgrounds, outsized emotions (including exaggerated sexual encounters) and more. I have no idea what the director hoped to accomplish. The film actually opens in a Bunraku theater, where the film director and staff are discussing how they want to stage certain scenes as the lifeless puppets lie before them. That suggested that this might be a filmed version of the puppets rather than a human version, and in a sense that remains true even when the humans take over given the constant movement of the black-hooded kurogo.

The kurogo, the “invisible” assistants who manipulate the puppets and props on a Bunraku stage, are hardly invisible here. They are a major presence throughout the film, frequently popping up to observe, assist or direct the characters. In one case, a kurogo actually breaks his silence by reciting the introductory verses to the death scene; in another, one encourages the lovers across the bridge to their deaths; another group then helps the male lover tie his rope on a shrine gate and lifts him up to hang himself.

I suppose they are supposed to be some representation of fate or a Greek chorus, or a symbol that the characters are unable to move freely under the strict rules of society. Shinoda evidently sees himself as Bergman – I was practically waiting for the chessboard. In practice, it was just pretentious and dumb. It degenerated to parody when one kurogo rises from behind a gravestone to watch voyeuristically as the lovers go at it full blast in the cemetery, which made me laugh. Shinoda seemed less interested in the story at hand than in the avant-garde touches he could add to it. Chikamatsu described his art as “something that lies in the slender margin between the real and the unreal”, but that assumes that there’s something real. Nothing about the story as presented here was convincing, even given the odd notions that pass for giri in Chikamatsu’s world (it works beautifully on stage).

The film did offer committed performances by a young Nakamura Kichiemon, a noted Kabuki actor who is now a National Living Treasure, and the director’s wife Iwashita Shima, who was fearlessly over the top as both the wife and courtesan. It was not their fault that the story looked more like a manipulative puppet play than the actual puppet play, where the overwrought emotional arc perhaps works better. Shinoda would do well to look to Mizoguchi’s brilliant Chikamatsu adaptation The Crucified Lovers for lessons in how to bring Bunraku to the screen.

 

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