If The Warped Ones showed us a hellish, uncivilised world in which people acted on their base desires with little thought for others, Thirst for Love (愛の渇き, Ai no Kawaki) shows us the opposite as desire repressed eats away at those unable to find fulfilment in their assigned social roles. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s swirling artistry may have proved too much for studio bosses at Nikkatsu (Thirst for Love would be the last film he’d make as a regular director for the studio), but it finds a perfect match in the florid world of Yukio Mishima. A tale of inequalities and misunderstandings, the rarefied atmosphere of Thirst for Love is just as “warped” as that of Nikkatsu’s gritty youth dramas in which desire and gratification become tools of currency in a grand game of wounds given and received.
Our heroine, Etsuko (Ruriko Asaoka), is a young widow living with her late husband’s family. Following the death of her husband, Etsuko has become the mistress of the family’s tyrannical patriarch, Yakichi (Nobuo Nakamura) – a successful businessman apparently forced out of the company he founded and into an early retirement. Yakichi resents the rest of his family whom he regards as feckless freeloaders. Oldest son Kensuke (Akira Yamanouchi) is a part-time classics professor and full-time neurotic intellectual. He and his wife Chieko (Yuko Kusunoki) are unable to have children of their own (something else that annoys Yakichi), while daughter Asako (Yoko Ozono) has come back to her family home following a divorce with two children in tow. The family are all “aware” of the strange dynamic between Yakichi and his daughter-in-law but are too polite to bring it up. Nevertheless, Kensuke also has a thing for Etsuko which Chieko is aware of but not particularly worried about because she really does respect and trust her husband.
Etsuko is not particularly interested in Kensuke. There’s nothing he could really offer her. Though she keeps up a pretence of happiness with her current living standards, even going so far as to write a fake diary expressly intended for Yakichi to read, Etsuko feels nothing but contempt for and boredom with the emotionally cold and controlling family patriarch. Her faith in human emotions is low, but still she feels desire. When the teenage gardener Saburo (Tetsuo Ishidate) catches her admiring a beautiful statue and remarks on Etsuko’s own beauty, he puts untoward ideas in her head.
Even in the post-war world, women like Estuko have little agency. After her husband died, she could have stuck it out alone – found a job, supported herself. She could have remarried or perhaps have received financial support from the family while living alone, but she’s chosen to remain with them even given her somewhat degrading role as her father-in-law’s mistress-cum-plaything. When Saburo tells her she is beautiful he oversteps the established laws of class separation and Etsuko is too clever not to know how clichéd her new found lust for a peasant boy really is but she can’t unsee his broad shoulders and muscular frame or the sweat that crowds his brow as he labours on her behalf.
She begins making coy overtures which Saburo, unwittingly or otherwise, deflects. The situation is complicated by another woman, Miyo (Chitose Kurenai), who may or may not be something like Saburo’s girlfriend though as we will later find out, Saburo is a typically immature young man who regards his relationships with women as essentially inconsequential. Deferent towards his mistress, he demands to be released from her cruel games. Yet Etsuko had hardly realised that’s what they were. She cannot simply voice her desire or make her interest plain. Hers is not the first move to make. Several times Etsuko comes close to crossing a line but she always pulls back – inflicting necessary suffering on herself through her inability realise her desires.
Suffering, in a sense, becomes the point and almost a bizarre source of pleasure. In a climactic moment of drunken dinner party truthfulness, Kensuke attempts to apologise for a potentially destructive speech by revealing that he meant to smash everything to bits but has only succeeded in destroying himself. Etsuko too means to hurt others, partly as a kind of revenge, but in truth only to increase her own suffering. Her plan stumbles when she realises that Saburo is and always has been entirely indifferent towards her. He saw her as the mistress of the manor, an elegant and attractive woman, but felt no more desire for her than for any other. As he puts it, they live in different worlds – she is nothing to him, and nothing she does can change that. Etsuko has only destroyed herself, a self-immolation of repressed desire which threatens to burn the world with its ferocious intensity.
If Etsuko is to free herself from the burden of her need, she will pay a heavy price to do so. Kurahara shifts into an avant-garde register more in keeping with the more or less contemporary work of Kiju Yoshida in his anti-melodrama phase, but Kurahara’s approach is, in keeping with the source material, altogether less serious, fully embracing the melodramatic but taking pains to underpin it with deeply felt emotion. Asaoka excels as the neurotic housewife driven slowly mad in a stultifying, moribund household where she is forced to submit to the sexual whims of her bossy father-in-law and has little more to occupy her time than walking the dog and dreaming of a roll in the hay with the not yet 20 gardener.
Kurahara paints her world as one of sensations – the blood that becomes both symbol of life and death, the symbolic pleasures of a pomelo, and the fearsome flapping of chickens even as their throats are slit. Shifting to still frames for moments of high emotion – much as Shinoda had done in the finale of With Beauty and Sorrow two years before, Kurahara mixes ironic voiceover with intertitles and unexpected editing choices to capture the flightiness of Etsuko’s mind but he allows himself one luxury in letting her leave to a bright red sky, a woman on fire thirsting for love.
Original trailer (no subtitles)