Zigeunerweisen was an unexpected commercial and critical hit in Japan netting both an improbably good box office return and more than a few awards. The next instalment in what would become Suzuki’s Taisho Roman Trilogy (though it would be another ten years before the final part, Yumeji, would arrive) therefore benefitted from a slighter bigger budget, bigger stars and even greater ambition. Like the others in the trilogy and as implied by its title, Kagero-za is once again based on a book set in the Taisho era though this time by Kyoka Izumi. Izumi was a novelist and kabuki playwright most closely associated with supernatural tales influenced by Edo era traditions and Kagero-za even features a playwright as its protagonist. With even less clarity than Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za is not altogether as successful but nevertheless boasts Suzuki’s bizarre imagery and surreal world view.
Like Zigeunerweisen Kagero-za also throws dreams and reality into a giant melting pot with a non-linear narrative that floats and wefts like a strange nightmare. It begins with the central character, Matsuzaki (played by Yusaku Matsuda), meeting a lone woman near a shrine who asks him to accompany her to visit a friend in the hospital. She doesn’t want to go alone because she’s afraid of the old woman who sells charms and medicines there including bladder cherries which are said to contain the souls of women. Originally reluctant Matsuzaki agrees only to have her change her mind shortly after. Matsuzaki is pre-occupied over having dropped a love letter and worrying it’s been found by an ‘evil’ person – something which upsets his new friend as she’s convinced the letter was from a married woman.
This mysterious woman, it turns out, may be (or have been?) the wife of Matsuzaki’s wealthy patron Tamawaki. To make matters even more confusing, Tamawaki may have had two wives – the first a German woman he married while abroad and brought back with him to Japan who died her hair black and wore contact lenses to look more Japanese but regained her original blonde & blue eyed foreignness in the bright moonlight. The second is, apparently, dying in hospital – not that Tamawaki is terribly upset about it. Matsuzaki becomes increasingly obsessed with the mysterious woman, following her across the country only to discover Tamawaki waiting for him – apparently intent on witnessing a double suicide.
The film takes an even more surrealist dive towards the end as Matsuzaki finds himself the only adult audience member at a kabuki show entirely performed and witnessed by children. Not only that, this bizarre kabuki play appears to re-enact the exact same events from the first half of the film. A fitting trap for a playwright, this last, nightmarish section echoes the film’s ghost story origins complete with the creepy bladder cherry seller from the beginning as some kind of villainous demoness and Tamawaki as a tempting devil. Who talks of realism here? Says Tamawaki making an exit through an alleyway with a rifle on his shoulder. Who indeed? Not us, that’s for sure.
Even less coherent than Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za is a veritable fever dream of a film. There’s barely any linear plot, Matsuzaki’s perceptions are recounted in fractured dream narrative where the true nature of events is always unclear. We can’t trust Matsuzaki to guide us here, nor can we trust Suzuki who employs fewer absurdist tricks than with the previous film but injects a heavy dose of kabuki inspired theatrics. Everything feels inevitable, like the action in a play it’s all been scripted and performed many times before. Yet for all that we don’t ever come to feel very much for Matsuzaki and his presumably tragic fate even though we realise fairly early on what sort of story this is. It’s hellish, and gruelling and honestly tries the patience at times but never achieves that sense of over arching dread that characterised Zigeunerweisen.
That said, if Kagero-za’s largest weakness is playing second fiddle to Zigeunerweisen that’s not so much of a problem. Once again filled with bizarre and trippy imagery, Kagero-za has many startling moments but fails to marry its visual virtuosity with the more individualistic focus of its script. Undeniably without the power of Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za ultimately feels a little too clever (and perhaps too cold) for its own good but nevertheless does offer Suzuki’s visual flair and an entertaining (if baffling) narrative.