Manji (卍, Yasuzo Masumura, 1964)

8127Ur2xnXL._SL1500_For arguably his most famous film, 1964’s Manji (卍), Masumura returns to the themes of destructive sexual obsession which recur throughout his career but this time from the slightly more unusual angle of a same sex “romance”. However, this is less a tale of lesbian true love frustrated by social mores than it is a critique of all romantic entanglements which are shown to be intensely selfish and easily manipulated. Based on Tanizaki’s 1930s novel Quicksand, Manji is the tale of four would be lovers who each vie to be sun in this complicated, desire filled galaxy.

The story begins with a framing sequence in which Sonoko sits down with a male mentor to recount her sorry tale from some later vantage point. As she would have it, she was an unfilled, unhappy housewife taking a series of art classes when the principal of the college noticed that the face in her sketch of the Goddess of Mercy doesn’t look much like the model. Her technique is good though so he asks her why she gave her drawing a different face and who it might belong to. She tells him it’s merely an ideal and isn’t based on any real person. However, it does look quite like another, very beautiful, pupil at the school – Mitsuko, and a rumour quickly starts that the two women are lovers. Though barely knowing each other before, the pair laugh it off and decide to become friends anyway. Gradually, something more than friendship begins to grow but not everyone is being honest with each other and the added complication of the men in their lives is set to make the road even harder for Sonoko and Mitsuko’s love affair than it might otherwise be.

Sonoko narrates things from her perspective, though you get the feeling she may not be a completely reliable narrator. She seems shy, innocent, wounded though she speaks of her great tragedy with ease and a surprising frankness considering its sensitivity. The object of her obsession, Mitsuko, by contrast plays the innocent but also seems to know perfectly well what she’s doing. Manipulative in the extreme she plays each of the other three lovers off against each other in an attempt to become the centrifugal force in each of their lives. All things to all people, Mitsuko doesn’t seem to know what she wants, other than to be adored by anyone that’s around to adore her.

At the beginning of the film Mitsuko reveals that she’d been involved in marriage negotiations with a young man from a high profile family and she believes the rumours at the art school were started deliberately to try and disrupt her matrimonial ambitions. Sure enough that liaison falls through but she neglected to mention that she also has another fiancee, the slimy Watanuki, that she longs to be rid of but can’t seem to shake off. After Sonoko finds out about Watanuki, Mitsuko feigns not only a pregnancy but a bloody miscarriage to get her female lover to return to her. However, Watanuki fights back by trying to form a bilateral alliance with Sonoko to ensure Mitsuko doesn’t suddenly take up with a third party – he even gets her to sign a contract saying that she’ll help get Mitsuko to marry him and in return he won’t interfere with the two women’s relationship even once they’re married.

Sonoko’s husband completes the quartet, becoming increasingly frustrated by his wife’s infatuation with another woman, her coldness towards him and her growing boldness. Sonoko labels Kotaro cold and passionless and claims never to have enjoyed any of their married life together. She’s also been taking illegal birth control medication to avoid having children with him. Trying to be an understanding husband, Kotaro ends up tangled in a web of desire after being seduced by Mitsuko. For a time, the three form an unlikely romantic trio (with Watanuki hanging around disdainfully on the edges) though even between the three of them petty jealousies sap their strength and keep them all guessing as to the exact motives of the other pair.

Just like the four pronged arms of the manji itself, our four lovers lie in a tangled and twisted crisscross of desire, each trying to eclipse the other in the eyes of the radiant Mitsuko. Anything but merciful herself, Mitsuko adeptly plays on the insecurities of the others to keep them all dancing along to her tune. This is not a story of true love, but of misused desires, almost of the inverse of love where lust becomes a weapon of control and self satisfaction. Even at the end, Sonoko can’t decide if she’s been saved or betrayed and if what happened to her was love or a kind of madness. Whatever it was, each has paid a high price for their selfish pursuit of romance or dominance or whatever Mitsuko really represents for them (clearly not the reincarnation of the Goddess of Mercy after all). Years ahead of its time and still just as dark and fascinating as it always was, Manji is a sadly universal tale of the destructive power of love that plays almost like a ghost like story and is likely to haunt the memory long after the screen falls dark.


Manji is available with English subtitles on R2 UK DVD from Yume Pictures.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blind Beast (盲獣, Yasuzo Masumura, 1969)

81dGenRMu-L._SL1500_Never one to take his foot off the accelerator, Yazuso Masumura hurtles headlong into the realms of surreal horror with 1969’s Blind Beast (盲獣, Moju). Based on a 1930s serialised novel by Japan’s master of eerie horror, Edogawa Rampo, the film has much more in common with the wilfully overwrought, post gothic European arthouse “horror” movies of period than with the Japanese. Dark, surreal and disturbing, Blind Beast is ultimately much more than the sum of its parts.

This dark tale is narrated by its “victim” Aki, a photographer’s model and the subject of a currently running exhibition. On paying a visit to the show herself, she finds a strange man caressing a statue of her built by one of the photographer’s students. Somewhat uncomfortable, she leaves the gallery in hurry and once home calls up a massage company help her relax. Once her masseuse arrives, he proceeds to caress her in a strange manner despite Aki’s protestations that she needs it “harder”. Eventually the ruse is uncovered and Aki realises he’s the blind man from the gallery at which point he chloroforms her and drags her back to his evil lair and mysterious studio in the middle of nowhere where he lives with his accommodating mother. The pair keep Aki prisoner until she consents to modelling for blind artist Michio’s latest sculpture project. After trying and failing to escape, Aki gradually falls into a kind of Stockholm syndrome where she finds herself in thrall to Michio and the pair’s sexual adventure enters a path towards the ultimate debasement and depravity…

The opening sequence of Blind Beast is the most surreal in this eerie, bizarre film. As Aki awakens in Michio’s lair she explores her darkened environment only to find the walls are each covered in sculptured motifs of various women’s body parts. First an entire wall of noses followed by mouths, arms, legs and breasts each apparently created from memory by the aspiring sculptor who, in his blindness, has decided that touch is the ultimate, neglected sensation. If that weren’t strange enough, the floor of the studio is taken up by a colossal statue of a woman lying on her back, as Aki finds out trying to escape the room by crawling over its perfectly sculpted breasts.

Micho himself is an unsettling though somewhat weakened figure, supported still by his caring mother who is prepared to do “anything” to indulge his “one pleasure in life”. Neither of the pair seems to appreciate the perfectly natural reaction of Aki to being held prisoner or her desire to escape and both are entirely focussed on making use of her in Michio’s new artistic movement which will place touch at the forefront of expression. Aki attempts to manipulate the situation in order to escape, firstly pretending to go along with their plans and then by attempting to place a wedge between Michio and his mother by emphasising Michio’s lack of autonomy and particularly his lack of sexual experience. Eventually she seduces him as a way of building his trust so he’ll let his guard down. However, after an event most would regard as traumatic, she comes to build a grudging affection for the blind sculptor and no longer wishes to leave.

Losing her sight herself, Aki grows ever more obsessed with the sculptor’s touch. As the pair’s relationship becomes increasingly intense they seek out even more vibrant sensations, new paths to ecstasy. Turning to sado masochism firstly through animalistic biting, clawing, and tearing they eventually resort to whips and knives before coming to a conclusion about where their new life of dissipation is leading them. Aki wonders if she had masochistic tendencies all along which the sculptor has “unlocked” with his magic touch.

Literally blinded, the two have entered a realm of sensations which are purely physical. Sexually naive, Michio has mentally dismembered the concept “woman” into a series of neatly separated components which can be assembled to form the physical shape without needing to think about anything which lies beyond the skin. Blind Beast is a romance, in some sense, even if an extremely disturbing one. Michio and Aki don’t fall in love in the conventional sense so much as become obsessed with the physical sensation of mutual touch. Pain and pleasure become interchangeable as the pair’s desire for physical satisfaction exceeds all limits.

Strange and surreal, Blind Beast carries one of the most disturbing final sequences ever committed to celluloid. With its European chamber music soundtrack it feels much more like an arty ‘60s giallo than anything else though in terms of what is actually visible on the screen is actually fairly light on gore or violence. This level of restraint only makes the film more disturbing as does its claustrophobic atmosphere and deadpan voice over. Another characteristically probing effort from Masumura, Blind Beast is among his strangest and most original efforts and is likely to linger in the memory long after its traumatic finale fades from the screen.


Blind Beast is available with English subtitles on R2 DVD from Yume Pictures.

 

Irezumi (刺青, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

91HAEic7eNL._SL1500_Irezumi (刺青) is one of three films completed by the always prolific Yasuzo Masumura in 1966 alone and, though it stars frequent collaborator Ayako Wakao, couldn’t be more different than the actresses’ other performance for the director that year, the wartime drama Red Angel. Based on a novel by Tanizaki and scripted by Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Kuroneko), Irezumi is a supernaturally tinged tale of vengeance and betrayal.

The film begins in the middle as Otsuya, having been abducted and sold to a geisha house, is tied, bound and chloroformed so that a tattooist can mark her skin with the eery portrait of a spider with a human face. Skipping back awhile, it seems this came about as a consequence of Otsuya convincing the mild mannered assistant of her father, Shinsuke, to run away with her. The pair take refuge at the home of a family friend, Gonji, but after his advances towards Otsuya are rebuffed he arranges to have Shinsuke killed and Otsuya sold as a geisha. Shinsuke manages to get away after a bloody fight but he’s a gentle man and the violence of the encounter marks him. Otsuya, by contrast, finds she quite enjoys her new life and gets along OK with her pimp, Tokubei, who urges her to “feed on men”. Otsuya’s lusts become ever more violent with the spectre of the tattoo artist hovering in the background. Is the tattoo itself enacting these scenes of terrifying vitality or merely an excuse for releasing Otsuya’s true nature?

Shot in vibrant colour in contrast to Red Angel and many of Masumura’s other efforts from around the same time, Irezumi makes fantastic use of its lurid atmosphere. Sex and death and violence – hardly unusual themes for Japanese cinema though Irezumi feels like an early precursor to the exploitative pinky violence cycle of the following decade. In keeping with those films, Otsuya is another conflicted avenger, wreaking havoc on venial men who think they can buy and sell a woman’s soul as well as her body. As the violence mounts, Otsuya falls into a kind of mania and at one point exclaims that this isn’t really her at all, it’s all the fault of the spider on her back – trapping men in its silky web only to suck them dry and throw away the husk.

Whether Otsuya is herself an avenging warrior for the female sex or merely a demonic vision of the ultimate male fear is somewhat up for debate. Her transgressions are intentionally destabilising – she breaks with convention by “betraying” her father when she runs of with Shinsuke and not only that, she does so at her own insistence. Shinsuke himself is far too meek and mild mannered to have ever done such a thing entirely of his own will and is largely swept along by Otsuya for the entire course of the film. Only when he fears she may betray him does he decide to take action. Otsuya’s sexuality in itself is also transgressive, actively pursuing Shinsuke before a formal marriage and then even expressing her enjoyment of her new life in the pleasure quarters – neither attitude is one that is expected of the demure daughter of a noble house. Is she an emancipated woman, or fallen one? The film offers no clear judgement here but presents her both in terms of vengeful heroine and of terrifying villainess.

Along with its rather complicated structure beginning in a media res opening followed by a lengthy flashback sequence, Irezumi is never quite as successful as Masumura’s other mid ‘60s offerings. Though boasting a script by maestro Kaneto Shindo, a noted director in his own right and frequent visitor to the realms of horror, something about Irezumi fails to coalesce. That said, it does offer a visually arresting, generally interesting supernaturally tinged tale and yet another fantastic performance from its talented leading lady.


Irezumi is available with English subtitles on UK R2 DVD from Yume Pictures

Tattoo sequence from the film:

 

Kisses (くちづけ, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

tumblr_nwj79ycwjz1tvmqcgo1_500The debut film from Yasuzo Masumura, Kisses (くちづけ, Kuchizuke) takes your typical teen love story but strips it of the nihilism and desperation typical of its era. Much more hopeful in terms of tone than its precursor and genre setter Crazed Fruit, or the even grimmer The Warped Ones, Kisses harks back to the more to wistful French New Wave romance (though predating it ever so slightly) as the two youngsters bond through their mutual misfortunes.

The film begins as Kinichi and Akiko experience a meet cute whilst visiting their respective fathers who’ve both landed up in gaol. Kinichi’s dad is a politician who’s been accused of “electoral fraud” which he swears is some kind of plot (even though this is the third time he’s been accused of it) whereas Akiko’s father is a government official who’s embezzled a large sum of money in an act of desperation to pay for her mother’s medical treatment. Just as Kinichi is leaving the prison, Akiko is getting into a situation with the rather rude receptionist because she owes something for her father’s room and board. Kinichi becomes offended on Akiko’s behalf and plonks down more than enough money alongside a few choice words for the lady on the counter before flouncing out. Akiko chases after him with his change even though he tells her to get lost in no uncertain terms. Eventually the two end up spending the day together though things turn a little sour towards the end. In this unlucky world, can two crazy kids ever make it work?

In essence, Kisses is an innocent film. Though there may be a few hints of darkness lurking around the edges, its tone is more or less cheerful and fuelled by the idealism of youth. Both Kinichi and Akiko are realists, they’re both older than their years, put-upon and a little desperate but also a little naive. Kinichi’s grumpy and sullen, perhaps nursing a wound from his mother walking out on him. Even when he asks her for the money to bail his father out of gaol she tells him to grow up before treating him like a child by declaring that he himself is collateral on the loan. Akiko’s mother is hospitalised with TB – the misfortune that’s had her father reduced to this shaming state of affairs. To make matters worse it’s not as if she can even tell her mother why her father hasn’t visited for a couple of weeks or explain why the nurse was complaining that their insurance has expired. Her father is also in poor health and likely will not cope very well with remaining in prison hence why she (briefly) considers becoming someone’s mistress or going on a date with a dangerous and unpleasant man to get the money to bail him out.

In any other seishun eiga this situation would be a recipe for a disaster, but somehow it rescues itself from the brink of despair and becomes almost more of salty rom-com than anything else. After the initial cute sea-side and roller skating date, there are crossed wires, mislaid messages and a last minute dash to work out a forgotten address but the film never loses its youthful energy and guileless wit. The world outside might be cruel, but in here it’s just normal, and if a boy and a girl want to blow some time at the races or the beach, who can blame them. They’re young, they’re kind of unhappy but they’ll figure it out and probably be OK which is a lot more than you can say for the usual protagonists of these kinds of film.

Kisses doesn’t have the searing, angry eyes of Masumura’s later work. Yes there is dissatisfaction with the world as it is, but also hope and acceptance, rather than an attempt at rebellion. Neither of the two young lovers is trying to change the world. Forced to be older than they are, both are savvy and realistic but not quite old enough to be fearful or self-centred. Full of youthful nonchalance, Kisses is a tale of innocent romance which is only improved by its layer of ironic whimsy.


Kisses is available with English subtitles on R2 UK DVD from Yume Pictures.

The only (short) clip I could find only has Russian subs…but it’s of a song which is very pretty.

A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story (武士の献立, Yuzo Asahara, 2013)

A-Tale-of-Samurai-Cooking-teaser

I kind of love this photo because he already looks so annoyed 🙂

Review of period romantic comedy/drama with a side serving of culinary delight A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story up at UK Anime Network.


It’s a little known fact but though all samurai carry swords, some of them hang them up when they get to work and serve their lords with meat cleavers and skewers in the relative safety of the kitchen rather than the noisy chaos of a battlefield. Of course, a retainer’s job is to serve the lord in whatever capacity is expected of him, though some maybe happier with their dictated fates than others. In A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story (武士の献立, Bushi no Kondate), it’s not only a conventional romantic tale between two initially mismatched people that the title alludes to, but also how one may fall in love with a path in life that was once deeply resented.

Back in feudal Japan, Haru (Aya Ueto) is an orphaned maid servant to a prominent samurai house. She was briefly married, but embarrassingly enough was “sent back” because her new husband and his family found her far too headstrong for their household. The daughter of a pair of restaurateurs, Haru has a keen sense of cooking of her own which sees her catch the attention of a visiting famous cook, Dennai Funaki (Toshiyuki Nishida), when she is the only person able to guess the real ingredients in his “mock crane” dish. Instantly smitten, Dennai makes her a proposal – albeit one for his son who is set to take over the family business but has no real aptitude for cooking. Yasunobu (Kengo Kora) is his second child whose fate was sealed on the death of his elder brother and though he would rather be a more conventional kind of samurai, he is the only heir to this kitchen empire. Can Haru’s cooking skills raise a fire in Yasunobu’s heart for his unwanted destiny or will they both be subjected to a lifetime of cold dinners?

A Tale of Samurai Cooking is definitely much more “period drama” than “samurai movie” though it does share a little of the historical intrigue of your typical “jidaigeki”. Set in the Edo period of feudal Japan, there are plenty of sudden reversals of fate where one house jumps ahead of another which then falls out of favour, sometimes with tragic consequences. However, though those these events inform the drama they are really just the backdrop to the true story of the very grown up (though extremely chaste and innocent – this is a U rated movie!) slow burning love story between Haru and Yasunobu. Though it’s a very charming and old fashioned sort of romance, it’s also true that Kengo Kora and Aya Ueto don’t have a tremendous amount of chemistry and their love story is pretty subtle and one sided until very late into the film. Of course, the audience knows how this sort of film has to end, but the film does rather rely on this fact.

Yasunobu is at heart a kind man undergoing very difficult circumstances. Having had to let go of the life he wanted that was so nearly his following the death of his older brother, it isn’t a surprise that he’s generally sullen and extremely resentful that his father has arranged this marriage for him with a slightly older woman who’s already been married once before, not to mention the fact that it’s all because she’s better than he is at this thing he’s now supposed to do for the rest of his life. Yasunobu doesn’t even like cooking, he thinks it’s “woman’s work” and had devoted his life to the art of the sword. Luckily, Haru’s perspicacity extends beyond her palate and she’s quickly figured out what’s going on with Yasunobu so she can turn him into the ace cook his father needs him to be. Haru’s influence opens up his wilfully closed eyes to the rewards of both good women and good cookery which is part way to saying that food cooked with love can heal a broken heart, but it’s equal parts changing times and a young man growing up.

As films about food go, A Tale of Samurai Cooking certainly has a fair few mouth watering dishes on display but perhaps lacks the hearty fare of something like the comparatively more sensual, though equally comic, Tampopo. In truth, its overwhelming quality is a kind of inoffensive niceness and perhaps for some tastes could have done with a little more spice though like the best Japanese cuisine offers its own rewards precisely because of its subtlety. It’s a perfectly nice light meal, but you’ll probably wishing you’d gone for something more substantial come bed time.


 

I went a bit overboard with the food metaphors, which is maybe what you get when you spend your food budget on movie tickets. I regret nothing.

Anyway this is showing at the Curzon in Mayfair until tomorrow, though they did say it may extend if there’s enough interest. It’s also going to be screened at the Genesis Cinema in Mile End and the Everyman and apparently will open in Ireland from 9th January. Yume Pictures will then release it on DVD in 2015 if you aren’t near a cinema that’s showing it, or you can even watch it on Curzon Home Cinema right now.