Tuesday 28 June 2016
Directed by Yasuzô Masumura
Region 2 DVD
Warning: Spoilers in here.
Manji is not a film I’d heard of but I was drawn to the promise of the cover of the DVD, the most obviously outstanding thing being, asides from the promise of some hot girl on girl action, the extremely cheap £3 asking price... this being a quality that I always find the most attractive point of my movie purchasing escapades.
It turns out this is the first of four movies which were made of Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s novel, Quicksand, which I haven’t read myself. This particular version boasts a screenplay by writer and director Kaneto Shindo, who wrote two of my favourite Japanese movies, Kuroneko and Onibaba. This version is also known in some countries as Swastika, in reference to the Buddhist symbol (later appropriated by the Nazi party) as a metaphor for the four lovers in this movie.
The film starts with a rich woman, financially independent, who has helped her husband set up his business through family money. She is telling an author her story with the suggestion that he will do a better job of committing it to paper than she. Although we occasionally come back to this framing device throughout the movie, the majority of the film is seen as a series of flashbacks as she charts the various delights and anxieties of her relationship with another woman and, ultimately, the two men in their lives.
The story starts off when the lady in question, Sonoko (played by Kyôko Kishida) takes some art classes to relieve the boredom of her life. She becomes obsessed with another woman at the school to the point that she puts her face in place of the model's on the painting she is currently doing. The other woman, Mitsuko (played by Ayako Wakao) is delighted and, as we find out later in the film, is possibly already manipulating the situation as she allows herself to slowly be seduced by Sonoko... in a scene which is almost too uncomfortable to watch as Sonoko rips away her clothes on the excuse of doing a more accurate painting. Things go on from here and it’s not long before Mitsiuko’s male lover and, eventually, Sonoko’s husband, get in on the act. Before you know it, we are in a story where all four are somehow involved with at least... at the very least... one of the others.
Sonoko’s story begins to spiral out of control as she is manipulated by both Mitsuko and her male lover and, quite unexpectedly, her husband also ends up sleeping with Mitsuko while Sonoko is recovering from a sleeping potion both she and Mitsuko take to make their respective male lovers think they’ve tried to commit suicide. Pretty soon everybody is sharing their love with everybody and the edges around who is manipulating who get very blurry. There seems to be an over reliance on people making blood pacts with each other and signing contracts... I don’t know if this is a very Japanese way of dealing with issues at the time or not but it seems to be a dominant feature in the lives of the four central protagonists/antagonists so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a cultural marker.
In many ways the film made me think of the fairly recent movie Side Effects (reviewed here) and its legacy such as the big screen adaptations of the two James M. Cain novels of the 1930s, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Everything seems deeply conspiratorial in tone, like it would be in a 1940s Hollywood film noir thriller adapation of those novels and, although this film is quite colourful in its overall visual composition, it certainly felt like I was watching an old film noir, in some ways. I wouldnt be surprised if various modern directors of noirish themed films have looked at this movie for inspiration at some point, as much as they have the chiaroscuro masterpieces of the post-German Expressionist invasion of wartime Hollywood.
Now I have to say that I wasn’t completely taken by the film in this first watch, to be fair. That being said, there was a strong element in this which kept me intrigued and entertained on a visually aesthetic level throughout the length of the piece. There’s some nice stuff here and the director quite often places large, foreground focused faces looking one way while a smaller figure to their right or left will be seen in perspective looking in another direction... conjuring up the cinematic spectre of Ingmar Bergman in my mind as I was watching. The director also likes to leave big patches of texture or colour on the screen and then separate this from a very small part of the screen where the action is taking place. He often does this using vertical splits but also, he does use quite a lot of diagonal splits to separate the different visual areas too. In a shot very early on in the film, for example, as Sonoko and Mitsuko wander off for a stroll through a forest, the establishing shot is just one big diagonal of the texture of the forest floor and roots covering somewhere between 70% - 80% of the frame, while the two ladies are walking and talking in the small triangle left in the top left hand corner of the shot. And it’s amazing, beautifully captured and designed sequences like this which kept me riveted in certain places, it has to be said.
Another thing the director does in one sequence, which is a nice cinematic flourish and which helps establish the visual syntax of the film for later on in similar scenes where contracts are being contemplated and read, is when Sonoko gives the love letters that she and Mitsuko sent to each other to the ‘writer’ she is narrating the story to. The letters are then depicted flat out and overlapping each other in a nice composition as the camera wanders over them and the voices of the two actresses are heard reading certain sections as the camera brings each particular letter into the prominent part of the shot. It’s pretty cool stuff and keeps what, for me, is a fairly slow burn of what might be seen by some as a suicidal thriller, a little fresher than it might have been in the hands of another director.
Ultimately, for me, this is not a classic Japanese movie that I will watch frequently, purely because the subject matter is not 100% to my taste and I always find it hard to believe that people will get themselves into, quite, these intricate messes without solving them in a more logical manner. That being said, if you’re interested in composition and the way various, quite bold shot designs can be used and edited together without disturbing the viewers flow of the material, then Manji is probably one you’re going to want to see at least once in your life. Certainly not the most entertaining for myself but I absolutely don’t regret buying this one and I’m glad I’ve seen it. I suspect if you are into doomed love affairs which go against the suppression of what society suspects of people, then you will probably get a lot more out of this one and, like I said, the visual design of it is fantastic. Maybe give this one a spin while it can still be picked up so cheaply, would be my advice.