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.

Zigeunerweisen (Seijun Suzuki, 1980)

ZigeunerweisenSeijun Suzuki maybe most well known for his 1967 weird hitman themed existential crime movie Branded to Kill but the film almost cost him his career and definitely did cost him his job at Nikkatsu after studio bosses lamented that his films made no sense and no money. The next decade saw Suzuki involved in a complex set of legal battles and unable to sit in the director’s chair. The positive result of all this is that he obviously had some time to save up all his crazy so he could put it all into his personal statement of rebirth – Zigeunerweisen. Inspired by Hyakken Uchida’s novel Sarasate no Ban, Zigeunerweisen is a surreal and nightmarish journey through Taisho Era Japan as seen through Seijun Suzuki’s very idiosyncratic gift for storytelling.

As far as the plot goes, it begins with two men listening to a record of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen on which it sounds as if someone says something before the music starts but neither can quite make it out. It transpires that the two men are Aochi, a Westernised professor of German and his old university friend Nakasago who has become something of a wanderer. The pair are reunited in a small fishing village where Nakasago is implicated in the death of a local woman who had apparently fallen in love with him (something which seems to happen to him a lot). After Aochi manages to make all the charges go away with his “I’m a professor don’t you know!” routine, the pair retire to a local inn where they insist on getting the one geisha in the place who’s just returned from her brother’s funeral to come and cheer them up. Later, Aochi is stunned to discover that Nakasago has got married to a noble woman but even more surprised when he realises the wife looks exactly like the geisha from the sea side town! Dualities build upon dualities with an ever multiplying sequence of bizarre love triangles as dreams and reality continue to become ever more indistinct. That’s not to mention the recurrent presence of a blind singing trio, a sister-in-law in a coma and that the main character may or may not be dead the whole time….

The Taisho Era, 1912 -1926 in our dating system, was a short lived historical time period as the Emperor Taisho was in poor health. A little like Weimar Germany, this brief period has taken on a sheen of tragic romanticism, innocent and decadent at the same time – safe from the chaos of the Meiji Era which saw rapid changes resulting from Japan’s emergence from centuries of isolation, but also a time of youthful exuberance before the darkness of the Showa Era’s militaristic bent took hold. Aochi seems to represent an intellectual, civilised Western looking outlook with his European clothing, house and free spirited wife whereas Nakasago represents a more primal force with his traditional dress, Japanese style house in the middle of nowhere and, when he marries, traditional Japanese wife who dresses in kimono and stays home all day waiting for her husband’s return. However, Nakasago also gives full vent to his passions leaving his wife at home to go wandering and break a few hearts along the way. He uses and abuses women with no thought at all – he simply takes what he wants from them and moves on. He cares nothing for so called traditional morality or the rules of society, he is quite literally a law unto himself. Where Aochi thinks, Nakasago does.

As for feeling? Maybe neither of them are particularly engaged in any kind of emotional activity. Adding to the film’s dreamlike quality is a kind of permanent listlessness. A pervading sense of ennui which seems to say that none of this is really of any consequence. Logical sense has no real place here – we’re suddenly in a cave mid conversation, figures appear and disappear from the frame without reason or warning and characters which were once fully grown adults are suddenly children. Oh, and the murder / suicide victim at the beach? she died because six crabs emerged from her nether regions. There are also constant allusions to death – most obviously through Nakasago’s skeleton fetish which is certainly one of his more outlandish (and disturbing) qualities. That’s not to mention the title track itself Zigeunerweisen and its strange recurrence in the plot where the inability to decipher its mysterious message takes on an unsupportable level of importance. Alive or dead? Awake or dreaming? Are those things even mutually exclusive?

What does it all mean then? Absolutely no idea – but that’s OK. Zigeunerweisen throws up mirrors everywhere, demonstrating the curious symmetry of life. Dualities abound, the real and the unreal intersect in strange and inseparable ways. Perhaps that’s the point, there is nothing absolute – all things consist of other things. All moments truly are one moment, coexisting on a vast plane uncrossable by will but nevertheless traversable (or so the bizarre blind trio children would have you believe with their strangely anachronistic Manchurian war song). Suzuki is obviously uninterested in concrete answers, but as in many things it’s the questions themselves which become the most interesting.