The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1933)

“As long as I breathe, I’ll remember my debt to you” avows a young man to his unexpected benefactor becoming one of many claiming they will never forget her kindness though in his case he actually means it. Kenji Mizoguchi would later become known for tragic tales of female suffering, but his central themes were established early on and very much in evidence in 1933 silent The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Taki no Shiraito) in which a truly good woman tries to use her independent success to improve the lives of those around her but finds herself cruelly betrayed by a greedy and self-interested patriarchal society. 

Tomo Mizushima (Takako Irie) goes by the stage name Taki no Shiraito, which means something like white threads of the waterfall, particularly apt seeing as she is a “water magician” with a troupe of itinerant players. A beautiful woman who can make the water dance, she has her share of followers and is financially independent if subject to the vagaries of the show business existence. Her life changes one day when she is travelling in a horse-drawn coach that is embarrassingly overtaken by a fast running rickshaw man. The passengers are irate, wondering what they’re paying for, while the driver ignores their pleas not to spare the horses. Tomo decides to use her feminine appeal and then her financial power to convince him to speed up, but he ignores her too until he eventually decides to gallop forward recklessly while the passengers shake inside until the coach’s axle finally snaps and leaves them stranded. A gallant young man, the driver grabs Tomo and throws her on his horse to get her to the next town. She faints on the journey and only comes round after the coachman has left but discovers herself in possession of a complicated law book she assumes is his.  

Tomo cannot stop thinking about the dashing young man, only identified as “Kin” (Tokihiko Okada). She is surprised to reencounter him asleep on a bridge though he seems not to remember her. After finding out that he is an unluckily orphaned former samurai who was fired from the coach for breaking the axle and endangering the passengers, she resolves to use her financial power to help him achieve his dreams of studying law in Tokyo. Tomo does this because she is in love and asks for nothing in return except a future promise of romantic union to which the young man does not exactly agree but does take her money and vows to live up to the faith she has shown in him. 

Alone once again Tomo tries to contend with the world around her while dreaming of Kinya, sending him her savings for his upkeep while the troupe continues to suffer especially during the traditional dry spells of the heavy winter. The troupe’s leader makes the decision to get involved with dangerous loanshark Iwabushi (Ichiro Sugai), a huge hulking man with a mean look and lecherous temperament. While Tomo dreams of Kinya, two romances mirror each other in the failed relationship of the cruel knife thrower Minami (Koju Murata) and his terrorised wife Gin (Kumeko Urabe), and the innocent young love of the beautiful Nadeshiko (Suzuko Taki) and the barker Shinzo (Bontaro Miake). Gin also borrows money from Tomo which she was reluctant to surrender because she saved it for Kinya, claiming she needs it to visit her sick mother in Tokyo and vowing once again never to forget Tomo’s kindness but later skipping out with a stagehand to escape Minami’s control. Nadeshiko and Shinzo, however, are forced to flee on learning that Minami plans to sell her to Iwabushi to settle his private debts. The couple regret leaving Tomo who has always supported them in the lurch, but she helps them escape, ushering them out the back towards a waiting boat and handing them still more money asking only that they be happy and stay together always. 

That’s not perhaps a power that’s in their keep, but the youngsters keep it as best they can and eventually attempt to protect her in the way she has protected them. The world, however, is cruel. With work thin on the ground Tomo finds herself unable to go on funding Kinya as she’d promised, and is only shamed by his well-meaning letter explaining that he’ll try to find a way of supporting himself until his studies are finished so she needn’t worry. She cuts a deal with Iwabushi and sells her body on Kinya’s behalf, but he is in league with Minami who sets his goons on her to retrieve the money seconds after she’s obtained it. 

Her hopes are at least repaid on discovering that her love is true to his word, has never forgotten her, and is well on the way to achieving his dreams as person of note. “Chance and fate, that’s all there is” Kinya had lamented on their second meeting, but he couldn’t know how right he’d be. Tomo’s dreams are fulfilled only their negation. Kinya must do his duty even if it does her harm, yet he too feels responsible and wants to share her burden though that, ironically, would only destroy everything for which she has sacrificed so much. “The river flows on as it always has and always will” the Benshi adds in solemn contemplation of this romantic tragedy, somehow inevitable in its cruelty. Tomo finds herself at the mercy of her times in which money is all, goodness is a weakness, and love too fragile to survive. The woman who made the water dance floats away on a river of tears, a victim of a cruel and unforgiving society.


Blue Lake Woman (青い沼の女, Akio Jissoji, 1986)

vlcsnap-2016-11-15-01h56m08s744Akio Jissoji had a wide ranging career which encompassed everything from the Buddhist trilogy of avant-garde films he made for ATG to the Ultraman TV show. Post-ATG, he found himself increasingly working in television but aside from the children’s special effects heavy TV series, Jissoji also made time for a number of small screen movies including Blue Lake Woman (青い沼の女, Aoi Numa no Onna), an adaptation of a classic story from Japan’s master of the ghost story, Kyoka Izumi. Unsettling and filled with surrealist imagery, Blue Lake Woman makes few concessions to the small screen other than in its slightly lower production values.

Successful artist Nagare had a serious following out with one of his oldest friends five years ago and is so rather stunned to receive an invitation to his wedding. Nagare had been invited to paint the portrait of Takigawa’s father and then asked to stay at his home for an extended period whilst Takigawa travelled in Europe buying art. Tokigawa’s father was old and frail and therefore retired to an annex each night at 8pm leaving Nagare entirely alone in the house alongside Takigawa’s wife, Mizue. The inevitable occurs when the lonely and neglected Mizue falls for the handsome painter but the romance turns dark when she talks Nagare into a double suicide at Blue Lake. Mizue drowns herself but Nagare survives only to be rescued and confined to a mental hospital.

Now five years later Takigawa wants to forget (if not quite forgive) the past and start again with a new wife by his side. The funny thing is wife number two, Ameko, is the spitting image of Mizue. When Takigawa once again asks him to stay alone in the house with his new wife whilst he jets off to America, Nagare begins to wonder exactly what’s going on. Staying at the house a second time, Nagare finds himself haunted by the ghost of the woman who died for him, but whose sacrifice he ultimately rejected. Mizue seems to want him to come to her at the bottom of Blue Lake, but Nagare still lacks the courage to take his own life, if not the inclination. Thinking of Mizue but inevitably becoming closer to Ameko, Nagare is trapped between the living and the dead but it turns out there may be more than supernatural intrigue to his darkly romantic adventures.

Jissoji creates an oppressive and creepy atmosphere for the woodland mansion noisy with the sound of a hundred ticking clocks, filled with shadows and shot from odd angles. Nagare begins to dream strange dreams in which Mizue comes to him, leaving watery footprints and her signature comb behind her to indicate that her presence is not limited to the dream world. Complaining that she’s “alive” beneath the mud next to Blue Lake where she’s cold and lonely, Mizue waits for him to make good on his promise and join her there. Nagare remains unsure if this Mizue is a manifestation of her grudge towards him, or simply a manifestation of his own guilt in allowing her to die alone.

Trapped in Vertigo-esque conundrum torn between the living Ameko and the dead Mizue, Nagare
finds himself in an impossible position unable to clearly distinguish between the two women, at one point physically attacking Ameko believing her to be Mizue’s ghost. It remains unclear if the resemblance between Mizue and Ameko is real or a figment of Nagare’s imagination prompted by both women’s position as Takigawa’s wife and by their watery names (“mizue” literally meaning “water picture” and “Ameko” “rain child”) both of which lead him straight back to Blue Lake. If it’s death Nagare is chasing rather than either women or friendship, he is ultimately unable to follow through on his desires all the while protesting that it’s “desire” which holds him among the living.

The supernatural elements are emphasised and undercut by turns as Nagare discovers their may be a more solid, real world cause for the strange events plaguing him. Still, the past continues to haunt Nagare in one form or another leaving unexplained and half remembered events to linger in his memory, rendering his reality continually unstable. As her name suggests, the ghostly Mizue is always shown in a hazy, watery blue, radiating waves of unease designed to pull Nagare back to the failure of his love suicide and at least as far as his art life in concerned, there’s part of him always submerged beneath the waters of Blue Lake. Even if not quite reaching big screen standards, Blue Lake Woman displays high production values for a 1980s television special anchored by naturalistic performances and innovative camera technique. Filled with Jissoji’s idiosyncratic surrealist imagery, Blue Lake Woman is a haunting, gothic ghost story which refuses to give up on its supernatural chills even whilst proffering a more rational explanation for all of its strange goings on.


 

Kagero-za 陽炎座 (Heat Haze Theatre – Seijun Suzuki 1981)

SuzukiKageroza1Zigeunerweisen 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.