Hiroko Yakushimaru was one of the biggest idols of the 1980s. After starring in Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, she went on to become one of Kadokawa’s tentpole stars in vehicles such as Detective Story and Main Theme but she hit her artistic stride in 1984’s W’s Tragedy (Wの悲劇, W no Higeki) which earned her her first Blue Ribbon award for Best Actress. Inspired by the 1982 novel of the same name by Shizuko Natsuki (translated into English under the title Murder at Mt. Fuji), Sawai’s film radically diverges from its source material as the central murder mystery takes place on stage but eerily begins to mirror real life events.
Shizuka Mita (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is an aspiring young actress desperate to find her place in the spotlight. After spending the night with her teacher, she wanders home through a park and begins monologuing her life on the stage of an outdoor amphitheatre. Unbeknownst to her, a young man was sleeping on one of the rear benches and wakes up to applaud her performance. Despite her hostility towards him, Akio perseveres in getting Shizuka’s attention and the two eventually develop a tentative relationship.
Shizuka’s acting school offers its pupils the opportunity to star in a full scale production with established stars of the stage as part of their training and this year’s play is based on the recent novel, W’s Tragedy, which centres around a murder in an aristocratic family. Shikuza is desperate to win the leading role of Mako who claims to have murdered her grandfather after he tried to assault her. Losing out in the original auditions process but winning a small role which also comes with some backstage craft experience, Shizuka begins to lose heart. However, after building up a relationship with the star actress in the show, Shizuka is offered the opportunity to displace her rival through underhanded means but just how far is she willing to go for stardom and what will it all mean if and when she gets it?
Taking its cues from All About Eve, W’s Tragedy, reconfigured as a vehicle for Yakushimaru, becomes more about dualities as Shizuka effectively splits into two different “selves” – the young and innocent girl dreaming of a life on the stage, and the insecure, ambitious student willing to sacrifice anything to get there. Though clearly conflicted, Shizuka easily gives in to dubious suggestions that will earn her what she wants though not perhaps in the way that she wanted it. Her rival is shown to be a very competent actress who has also sacrificed parts of herself to attain the position that Shizuka so covets though it’s the older actress, Sho, who is the first to lament the fate of the displaced former leading lady even if she adopts a casualty of war ethos about the whole entrprise.
Shizuka gives the best performance of her life at a press conference held when she replaces the other actress in the show as she lies through her teeth to reinforce the fake story she and Sho have concocted together to their mutual benefit. Taking the brunt of a scandal just as Mako tries to take responsibility for a crime in the play, Shizuka becomes rather than performs an entirely different persona as she gives a heartfelt account of a passionate love affair with a married man that belongs to someone else entirely. Taken to task by Akio who doesn’t know the story is fake but has come to despise this manipulative side of the acting profession, Shizuka begins to wonder who she really is underneath all of the lies, scheming, and performance.
Though the directing style is generally straightforward and in keeping with Kadokawa’s mainstream idol movies of the time, Sawai adds in a few interesting flourishes which often pay homage to similarly themed Western movies such as an overtly All About Eve moment with Shizuoka taking to the stage and reciting the lead role when she thinks no one’s looking. A strange shot near the end takes place during the play but has been constructed entirely for our benefit as Shizuka looks at her reflection on a pane of glass. The audience would not be able to pick up on this ghostly effect of the two Shizukas – the stage persona and the shade of the innocent girl dreaming of the spotlight, but the effect itself is a perfect evocation of the ever present theme of duality.
Very much of its time and bearing most of the hallmarks of the classic Kadokawa idol movie, W’s Tragedy is, in many ways, the evocation of another era. However, it does provide a plum leading role for its star and an interesting meditation on the nature of acting as a profession as well as the double standards and hypocritical judgements inherent to the running of the entertainment industry. Though less explosive than the later Perfect Blue with which it shares a few common themes, W’s Tragedy provides another set of mirrors into the nature of stardom, identity, and the price of success.
Unsubbed trailer (look out for a brief cameo from the late Yukio Ninagawa):
And here’s a clip of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 30 year anniversary concert back in 2013: