Stylized as it is, a faithful adaptation of Chikamatsu’s 1720 bunraku puppet-drama “The Double Suicide at Ten No Amijima”, Shinoda Masahiro ‘s film “Double Suicide” (Shinjû: Ten no amijima , 1969) is still a quite harrowing Japanese movie. It is highly stylized, even for a Japanese historical melodrama. Indeed, that it is a puppet play is explicit, as it begins with shots of assembling the puppets and setting the stage (and subsequent scenes), though live actors take over the parts
Married merchant Jihei (Nakamura Kichiemon ) is besotted with the courtesan Koharu (Iwashita Shima) whom he cannot afford to buy out of her contract. His wife Osan (also played by Iwashita! who as Shinoda’s wife) is dutiful to an extent that some may find touching, but that I find insane.
It is very difficult to identify with or even much sympathize with Jihei or Koharu. Jihei’s father is more sensible than Osan, but ensures the finale already evident in the title. The most sympathetic character is Osan’s handsome brother, Mogoemon (Yusuke Takit) who undertakes to impersonate a samurai and in other ways tries to ward off the tragedy. One could identify with him, but in a work that emphasizes artificiality and the manipulation of puppets, clearly, one is supposed to maintain the stance of detached observer.
The Japanese obsession with suicide is very alien to me (someone who has tried very hard to stay alive!), but at least intellectually I understand that what seems to me a hackneyed means to the dubious end of self-extinction seems the only way out of meaningless lives for many Japanese (including three of the major 20th-century Japanese writers: Dazai Osamu, Mishima Yukio and Nobel laureate Kawabata). Shinoda retains Chikamatsu’s view of death as the strongest (and often only) protest against a very rigid social structure that always wins and endures, mostly through sacrifices for the family, the microcosm of society.
The film opens with the kurango (puppet master) before the puppets begin to be filmed by humans and ends with him striking a very phallic bell. In between the movie watcher has something of the distant perspective of the kurango, not easily getting involved with the characters who are constructs more than individuals. Jihie attempts to raise the funds to buy out Koharu’s contract, but she is sold to a cartoonish (“Money is everything” proclaiming) ogre, hastening the end for the lovers. (Koharu is willing to die with Jihie, but I am far from certain that she loves him. At least they know each other for a longer duration than Romeo and Juliet!)
The blocking/framing is generally anti-natural with some highly stylized sets. The artificiality/theatricality is heightened by having the same actress, Shima Iwashita (Shinoda’s wife) playing the part of the courtesan Koharu and that of Osan, Jihei’s wife. And her hysterics when she confronts her husband over his affair are way, way, way over the top (beyond the realm of plausible behavior).
Even for viewers not familiar with Chikamatsu’s play (which would be most western viewers), the title of the movie telegraphs the outcome. Though it is grimmer (with a greater physical distance between the corpse than the cover photo suggest) than I expected, there was no suspense about how the triangle would be resolved afforded by the title. Indeed, the corpses appear (under a bridge that the kurango is crossing) very early in the movie.
The movie has a great, austerely haunting score by Takemitsu Toru and superlative black-and-white cinematography by Narushima Toichiro. The Criterion DVD (which had no bonus features, though this is a film in which interpretive help would be most welcome!) provides a crisp picture and clear soundtrack.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray