For arguably his most famous film, 1964’s Manji (卍), Masumura returns to the themes of destructive sexual obsession which recur throughout his career but this time from the slightly more unusual angle of a same sex “romance”. However, this is less a tale of lesbian true love frustrated by social mores than it is a critique of all romantic entanglements which are shown to be intensely selfish and easily manipulated. Based on Tanizaki’s 1930s novel Quicksand, Manji is the tale of four would be lovers who each vie to be sun in this complicated, desire filled galaxy.
The story begins with a framing sequence in which Sonoko sits down with a male mentor to recount her sorry tale from some later vantage point. As she would have it, she was an unfilled, unhappy housewife taking a series of art classes when the principal of the college notices that the face in her sketch of the Goddess of Mercy doesn’t look much like the model. Her drawing is good though so he asks her why she gave her drawing a different face and who it might belong to. She tells him it’s merely an ideal and isn’t based on any real person. However, it does look quite like another, very beautiful, pupil at the school – Mitsuko, and a rumour quickly starts that the two women are lovers. Though barely knowing each other before, the pair laugh it off and decide to become friends anyway. Gradually, something more than friendship begins to grow but not everyone is being honest with each other and the added complication of the men in their lives is set to make the road even harder for Sonoko and Mitsuko’s love affair than it might otherwise be.
Sonoko narrates things from her perspective, though you get the feeling she may not be a completely reliable narrator. She seems shy, innocent, wounded though she speaks of her great tragedy with ease and a surprising frankness considering its sensitivity. The object of her obsession, Mitsuko, by contrast plays the innocent but also seems to know perfectly well what she’s doing. Manipulative in the extreme she plays each of the other three lovers off against each other in an attempt to become the centrifugal force in each of their lives. All things to all people, Mitsuko doesn’t seem to know what she wants, other than to be adored by anyone that’s around to adore her.
At the beginning of the film Mitsuko reveals that she’d been involved in marriage negotiations with a young man from a high profile family and she believes the rumours at the art school were started deliberately to try and disrupt her matrimonial ambitions. Sure enough that liaison falls through but she neglected to mention that she also has another fiancee, the slimy Watanuki, that she longs to be rid of but can’t seem to shake off. After Sonoko finds out about Watanuki, Mitsuko feigns not only a pregnancy but a bloody miscarriage to get her female lover to return to her. However, Watanuki fights back by trying to form a bilateral alliance with Sonoko to ensure Mitsuko doesn’t suddenly take up with a third party – he even gets her to sign a contract saying that she’ll help get Mitsuko to marry him and in return he won’t interfere with the two women’s relationship even once they’re married.
Sonoko’s husband completes the quartet, becoming increasingly frustrated by his wife’s infatuation with another another woman, her coldness towards him and her growing boldness. She labels Kotaro cold and passionless and claims never to have enjoyed any of their married life together. She’s also been taking illegal birth control medication to avoid having children with him. Trying to be an understanding husband, Kotaro also ends up tangled in their web of desire after being seduced by Mitsuko. For a time, the three form an unlikely romantic trio (with Watanuki hanging around disdainfully on the edges) though even between the three of them petty jealousies sap their strength and keep them all guessing as to the exact motives of the other pair.
Just like the four pronged arms of the manji itself, our four lovers lie in a tangled and twisted crisscross of desire, each trying to eclipse the other in the eyes of the radiant Mitsuko. Anything but merciful herself, she adeptly plays on the insecurities of the others to keep them all dancing along to her tune. This is not a story of true love, but of misused desires, almost of the inverse of love where lust becomes a weapon of control and self satisfaction. Even at the end, Sonoko can’t decide if she’s been saved or betrayed and if what happened to her was love or a kind of madness. Whatever it was, each has paid a high price for their selfish pursuit of romance or dominance or whatever Mitsuko really represents for them (clearly not the reincarnation of the Goddess of Mercy after all). Years ahead of its time and still just as dark and fascinating as it always was, Manji is a sadly universal tale of the destructive power of love that plays almost like a ghost like story and is likely to haunt the memory long after the screen falls dark.
Manji is available with English subtitles on R2 UK DVD from Yume Pictures.