Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shinju: Ten no amijima (Double Suicide) (1969)

The last film for my Art of the Floating World class, it was also my least favourite (story-wise, anyway). Based on classic playwright Chikamatsu's The Love Suicide at Amijima (1720), Double Suicide examines the effects of one man's actions in light of Tokugawa moral codes. Poor paper shop owner Jihei (Kichiemon Nakamura) has committed himself to the beautiful courtesan Koharu (Shima Iwashita) at the expense of his family and socioeconomic status. He wants to buy her freedom, but lacks sufficient funds. They speak of running away and killing themselves together (a fairly common practice in Japan at that time), but Jihei's wife Osan (also played masterfully by Shima Iwashita) convinces Koharu by letter to dissuade him from this action, appealing to her sense of sisterhood. Koharu agrees and pretends not to love Jihei so that he can return to his family and shop. It works at first, but word soon spreads that a rich merchant is planning to buy the courtesan, making her his indentured mistress. Koharu plans to kill herself in anguish, and Osan feels responsible for the woman's life but is dragged away by her disapproving family. Jihei has nothing left to lose, and goes after Koharu. Ultimately the story reaches its only possible conclusion: tragedy.

Ok so I wasn't really engaged by the plot. I felt no sympathy for the main character, Jihei, because he was a spineless, helpless crybaby unwilling to atone for the mistakes he's made. He has plunged his family into near-poverty because he spends all of his money on visits to Koharu and neglects his shop. His poor wife is forced to run the business and look after their two young children. I wondered why Koharu loved him, so their relationship was unconvincing to me. I understand that the narrative is a product of Chikamatsu's time period, as well as Japanese cultural confines, so I think my dislike stems from my inability to relate to it- I couldn't help looking at everything from Osan's perspective. The pace was almost excruciatingly slow, made worse by the fact that you know the ending from the very beginning. Some of the good things: I was really impressed with Shima Iwashita's double role! I didn't even realize she played both women. Furthermore, the imagery was dazzling. The crisp lighting, intricate backdrops and costumes, and dramatic camera work are what made the film worthwhile for me. I loved the puppeteer aspect as well- the play was originally written for bunraku (puppet) theatre, and the filmmaker chose to set loose several shrouded figures (invisible to the characters) who showed up from time to time to change sets, move props, or assist the actors' movements. It heightened the visual and metaphorical interest of the film; the characters prove unable to control many of their own actions, mainly due to societal restraints. But in the end, I'd say skip this one unless you are interested in innovative cinematic imagery, tragic love, or Tokugawa culture.

3.5/5

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