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.

The Tale of Iya (祖谷物語 -おくのひと-, Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2013)

1Japanese cinema has certainly been no stranger to the discussion of environmental issues from Studio Ghibli’s concerns about the modern society’s encroachment into the natural world to the ultra modern concerns about pollution and the dangers of nuclear disasters. However, they’ve rarely been addressed to poetically as in The Tale of Iya which is an extraordinarily rich examination of man and the landscape. Tinged with magical realism and surreal juxtapositions, The Tale of Iya is an oddly wonderful experience in the broadest sense of the word.

Film begins with a vast expanse of deep snow in which a lone figure dressed in traditional blue mountain dress with a conical straw hat is making an everyday journey to a local shrine. This could be a scene from any Jidaigeki or even a woodblock print were it not for the crashed car the old man finds a little further into his journey. A woman has been thrown through the windscreen and is lying motionless the bonnet. The old man gives the incongruous scene a quizzical look, but moves on along his planned path. Then, however, even more strangely he finds a little pink bundle by the side of a frozen river. This time he does stop and scoop the infant up. A jump cut sees us flash forward to around fifteen years later as teenage girl dressed in pink gets up to make breakfast for her ‘grandfather’  – the old man of the mountains. On her way to the local school she passes an old lady who’s taken to making sack mannequins which seem to do their part to make up the population of this rapidly declining mountain village.

The newly born sack people aren’t the only newcomers though – in an attempt at modernisation, the town planning committee have elected to build a tunnel which will connect them to the main road and make transportation easier. However, this has met with strong opposition from ‘environmental groups’ represented by an American eco-warrior. Amongst these strangers is another from Tokyo who seems to have come for an unknown reason but eventually decides to stay and attempt to farm the land. Iya is certainly very beautiful, but country life is also hard and entirely dependent on the weather. The young people long to leave for the comparative excitement of the city. City people though long for the simplicity of a long forgotten country life.

The film begins in a more or less naturalistic style filled with the most beautiful cinematography of snow covered vistas and foggy mountains. However, a strong seam of surreality constantly builds throughout the film until it reaches the final third and almost becomes a sort of science-fiction film about a magical environmental product that can clean polluted rivers down to near perfect clarity. Folklore beliefs and practices run side by side with a more poetic slice of magical realism that is jarring at first (and actually a tiny bit frightening) but the film’s surreal and dreamlike imagery is likely to be the thing that lingers longest.

A Tale of Iya also manages to offer a broadly nuanced and balanced view of the nature of country life and concerns about the environment. This is a remote town with a dwindling population – the new tunnel will ease communication, ultimately make lives safer and perhaps stop so many young people leaving the area altogether. The local people are therefore very much in favour of the new tunnel and many of them actually work for the construction company who are building it. The only opposition to the bridge is from a group of foreigners who are living in a commune but come down from the mountain every day to shout ‘save Iya’ and various ‘shame on you’ type comments (in English) at the construction team. The irony being that their ‘commune’ run in a typical communal farming style with hundreds of ‘save Iya’ billboards might actually be the biggest eye-sore in the area.

That’s not to say the film isn’t in favour of conservation or that it feels all construction is beneficial (quite the reverse) but it is eager to present a fair comment on both sides of the problem. Similarly, it isn’t afraid to point out that this ancient way of life is extremely difficult. Kudo, who’s arrived from Tokyo and looks so jumpy all the time one wonders if he left in a hurry, is eager to learn about traditional farming. He looks so pleased with himself when he’s finally mastered how to water crops in the traditional way, not to mention that torturous looking two buckets on a stick water carrying device. It’s not long before he’s taken up the self sufficient life but the problem with that is you have to do everything yourself – no electric, no running water (other than that which runs in a stream), no sanitation and in short no safety net. Muddling through and celebrating small victories is fine in the blistering heat of summer but as the first snow falls and you don’t have enough winter stores, death from cold or starvation (or both) is a very real possibility. City people romanticise country life thinking it’s ‘easier’ or admiring its ‘simplicity’ but whatever it gives it also takes.

At 169 minutes, there’s no point in denying A Tale of Iya is an extremely long film that moves a stately pace. Undeniably some viewers will be put off by its epic running time and frequent flights of fancy but those who stay the distance will be richly rewarded. Magical, beautiful and finally profoundly moving, A Tale of Iya is an incredibly heady brew that stays in the mind long after it finishes. Truly ‘wonderful’ in every sense of the word, A Tale of Iya deserves to be much more widely seen.


First published by UK Anime Network.