The Executioner: By the Neck By David Cairns
Designing for del Toro By Eric Skillman
Despite the richness of the theatrical tradition in Japan, there have been few adaptations from stage to cinema: the novel has always been favored. Apart from aragoto, a sword-playing genre (and the perennial versions of the play The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin), the influence of the kabuki theater has been fairly marginal, the assumption being that kabuki modes of acting and staging are generally unsuited to the cinema. However, it appears that younger Japanese directors have found in kabuki a way of exploring different levels of reality. Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief reproduces a primitive form of kabuki as his central dramatic device. Shinoda’s approach to kabuki is, in a sense, more traditional: It is his very use of these traditional elements which is the mainspring of Double Suicide.
This film is a close adaptation of Chikamatsu’s 1720 doll-drama The Double Suicide at Ten No Amijima, and traces a basic conflict in Japanese drama, giri-minjo, between social obligation and personal emotion in the bourgeois milieu. Jihei, married with two children, falls in love with a courtesan, Koharu. As there is no possibility of being together in this world, Jihei sees the only solution as double suicide. When Koharu appears unwilling to die with him, he temporarily abandons her. Eventually, following a mandated divorce, Jihei and Koharu commit suicide together.
As in all Chikamatsu’s work, the individual is inevitably sacrificed to the social system, embodied in the family. Characteristically, his lovers can only find transcendence in death; their ability to control their own lives is non-existent. Mizoguchi in Chikamatsu Monogatari adapted Chikamatsu’s vision to some extent—death for his lovers becomes a kind of fulfillment when compared with the wretchedness of their lives. But Shinoda retains Chikamatsu’s view of death as the ultimate protest against social structures (an extremely faithful interpretation of the original play).
However, Shinoda has succeeded in revealing an entirely new level of meaning through his mise en scène. The film begins with the kurago (the men dressed entirely in black who traditionally handle the puppets) assembling the bunraku puppets in preparation for the performance of Double Suicide while someone gives final instructions over the phone. The film moves into the ostensibly real world of drama, live actors taking over for the puppets, though still manipulated by the kurago. Shinoda has said that the kurago realize one of Chikamatsu’s basic principles: the need to realize the “thin line between truth and falsehood.” “They . . . represent the eye of the camera, . . . the desire of the audience to force their way deeper into the story, the minds of the characters, and possibly even . . . the mind of Chikamatsu himself.” At times they manipulate the characters, drawing them nearer their inevitable fate, shown briefly at the beginning of the film, when Jihei crosses a bridge, under which the camera reveals his body lying next to that of Koharu. This emphasis on the artificiality of the drama serves the purpose of distancing the audience in a Brechtian fashion. The audience cannot identify with the individual characters, and is therefore forced to observe, much the same way as the kurago. This second use of the kurago brings about the film’s deeply disturbing effect. As the tragedy mounts, Shinoda constantly makes us aware of the kurago’s anguish—his continual close-ups of the masked faces reveal their awareness of their own helplessness. Their enforced silence mirrors that of the audience, and signifies a mounting despair.
Shinoda’s major concern is less the conflict between duty and personal inclination than that between ethics and eroticism. Throughout the film, eroticism is seen as being inextricably linked with death (the final lovemaking scene takes place in a cemetery). In earlier scenes, the physicality of sexuality contrasts sharply with the extreme artificiality of the interiors; in such a society sex can only offer fleeting transcendence. Ultimate transcendence can only lie in death itself, which is symbolized at the end of the film by a huge, phallic bell that the kurago toll before the double suicide.
Also interesting is Shinoda’s purely allegorical conception of women. The actress Shima Iwashita plays the part of the courtesan Koharu and that of Osan, Jihei’s wife. In a sense, the societal tensions that Chikamatsu depicted—between duty and personal inclination—have been internalized by the Koharu-Osan character, reflecting the rapid, traumatic emancipation that women have undergone in Japan since the end of the Second World War. The mutual respect felt by the women is constantly stressed, as if, in fact, they were conflicting aspects of personality. Koharu’s consideration for Osan is so great that even before she is about to die, she allows Jihei to cut her throat, leaving her to die alone in a field of grass while he climbs to the top of the hill to hang himself. Only after they are both dead can their bodies lie together. The only thing which links them in death is the sash that Jihei takes from her body to hang himself with.
Chikamatsu’s play ends on a human note, with Jihei’s brother and child coming to look for him. Shinoda’s ending is far more abstract and despairing, with shots of empty streets and houses intercut with crowds of people. Against this, the sheer horror of the lovers’ mutilated bodies attains real meaning.
One of the first feminist film theorists, Claire Johnston (1940-1987) was the author of Notes on Women's Cinema (1973). This essay first appeared in Focus on Film #2, March/April 1970. Reprinted by permission of Tantivy Press, Ltd.