It is rare today to find a film as highly stylised as Shinju: Ten no amijima (Double Suicide) – especially one in which the stylisation is so exquisitely sustained across every level of set design, performance, sound and dramaturgy.
Based on a bunraku theatre script written by the most famous premodern Japanese dramatist, Monzaemon Chikamatsu, Double Suicide is a period film set among the merchant class of Osaka. The inability of a merchant, Jihei, to pay out the debts of his lover, the courtesan, Koharu, leads to their decision to seek a shinju – a lovers’ suicide – so they can be together in the next world.
The film’s emphasis on artifice or “staginess” begins in the very first scene, which is set in a bunraku puppet theatre. Double Suicide adopts the conventions and style of these almost life-size wooden puppets, with their visible, black-clad, hooded puppeteers, into the form of the film. Bunraku theatre features the uncanny doubling of the figures of the puppets with those of the puppeteers – the kurogo. Double Suicide foregrounds this tradition, with the kurogo often manipulating, directing and assisting the actions of the live performers. At times, actors will freeze mid-movement and the kurogo will lead the main character through the suspended scene, or they will kneel watching intently through their black veils as an erotic scene plays out its role as the next step towards the inevitable shinju. Some critics have described this ghostly presence of the kurogo as like the hand of fate directing the lives of the characters. While this reading adds a layer of symbolic meaning to the dramaturgy, the impact of the mute physical presence of these figures, and the enigma of their function, produces a level of fascination beyond any question of symbolic meaning (1).
On one hand, the kurogo become one more figurative element in the film’s stunning, high-contrast, black-and-white cinematography, in which locations and sets – brothels, lampposts, windows, tombstones and bridges – are constructed in terms of their graphic properties. This astute attention to the graphic qualities of the set extends to the design of walls and floors and the relationships between figure and ground that the designs establish. In the early scenes in the pleasure quarters, actors pass across walls painted with black and white figures reminiscent of the ukiyo-e woodblock tradition. The lovers’ tryst is filmed from above, the lovers dressed in black and white kimonos, splayed across and merging into the black-and-white figures painted on the floor. As the film progresses, the backdrop of the pleasure house becomes huge ink blotches that provide a graphic cipher of the chaos and breakdown of social order that is unfolding. In Jihei’s shop these graphic patterns, that start out as calligraphic texts scrawled across the walls, become single amorphous brushstrokes with ink drips trailing down the walls. The walls themselves then become mere graphic elements as the kurogo flip them to reveal a new set. This attention to the sensuous quality of surface detail is an element that has often been discussed by critics. Donald Richie, when speaking more broadly, has emphasised the aesthetic values at the centre of much of Japanese art, and its attention to surface pattern or illusionistic realism. Richie links this to the theatrical tradition of the kabuki stage, in which light is full and flat, rather than the chiaroscuro use of light more familiar in European art (2).
Tadao Sato has challenged the assumptions of many non-Japanese that traditional Japanese culture is central to the culture of contemporary Japan. Sato’s claim suggests a need to explore more closely exactly what Shinoda is doing here (3). A detour into the historical context of Double Suicide can help to give a perspective on how the film works with and transforms traditional aesthetics. Shinoda was one of the four original directors of the Japanese New Wave identified in the late 1950s and 1960s. David Desser locates this New Wave in the political context of the massive student protest movement in the 1960s, focused particularly against the renewal of AMPO – the Japan-US Mutual Security Act – and the revival of traditional authority that it was seen to represent (4). Annette Michelson (who has written specifically on Oshima) has discussed the development in this period of the idea of cinema as a tool or weapon for political struggle (5). In Desser’s account, this ideological commitment is filtered through a challenge to the techniques of the realist shingeki theatre, a movement influenced strongly by the European realists such as Ibsen, and which the New Wave directors believed produced a “pernicious” influence on postwar “psychological cinema”. As a former theatre student, Shinoda had done major studies of premodern Japanese theatre, and, according to Desser, looked to the potentially disruptive energies of noh, bunraku and kabuki – before they became incorporated into official culture – as sources to revitalise and reinvent Japanese cinema as a cinema of protest. Desser’s argument is that Shinoda’s is a “dialectical return” to the premodern imagination, seeking to revive its “heterodox tendencies” (6). In Shinoda’s case, he argues, close links with both the Japanese and international avant-gardes and radical experimental theatre provided part of the impetus to radicalise and overthrow psychological conventions.
In the first scene of Double Suicide, as the camera scans the doll-like figures and visages of the puppets, the image is accompanied by the voice of the director in a telephone conversation with the scriptwriter, talking about the staging of the final death scene, and describing the “fetishism of space” that the scene should work with. This scene cues us in to one way of understanding what is happening in this film. Critics such as Audie Bock have written of the foreclosure of any psychological identification with character, describing the film’s effect as an “icy aestheticism” (7). Certainly, the film can induce a kind of detachment, and the final death scene that gives the film its name is as bleak and uncompromising as any in cinema. However, the flip side of this possible coldness is a rupturing of the conventional dynamics of spectatorship, and a heightened awareness of this “fetishism of space” that can be riveting to watch. Artifice is foregrounded here – as viewers, we are always aware that this is the staging of a drama that we are watching, and the work with space is a key site of the vitality of experimentation in the film.
One characteristic theme of the bunraku theatre, played out also in much of classical Japanese cinema, is a conflict between giri (social obligation/duty) and ninjo (personal feeling/desire). Shinoda uses the theatrical impulse here to stage a drama of the overwhelming, excessive power of eroticism to rupture the stultifying, quotidian demands of social convention, a drama about social repression and the desire for release from it. This opposition is inscribed into the film through the physical presence of the same actor, Shima Iwashita, playing the two female roles of wife and courtesan.
Keiko McDonald has outlined the culturally-coded motifs of freedom and constraint that underpin the construction of space and set design in Double Suicide: lattice windows, grids and checkered walls as symbolic of entrapment; images of water alluding to Buddhist symbols of liberation (8). This work with space, however, has a dynamic of its own, as the film moves from the enclosure of the interior scenes to the vast open space of the film’s ending. Shinoda had done a major study of the shooting style of classical director Kenji Mizoguchi, and the heritage of Mizoguchi’s close attention to mise en scène can be discerned in the way Shinoda works with space. There is a dynamics of spatial energy in operation here in the move from tightness to release, from the crystallised, claustrophobic sets, to the stark emptiness underlined by the relentless, haunting Turkish flute of the suicide scene.
It is indeed revealing that the composer Toru Takemitsu, responsible for the film’s music, also shares credit for the screenplay. The music in the film is sparse, erupting mostly in key moments when the power of the erotic or the intensity of the ethical conflict are at their highest. Shinoda has said that he learned from Takemitsu how to combine images and sound – how to use sound as the punctuation for images (9) – and the taut relationship between sound and image, and the collaboration on the script itself, suggest a conceptualisation of these peak moments as performative knots in which all elements come together, in contrast to the relative thinness of the more domestic aspects of the film. It gives us a way to understand the energetic dynamics of the film.
Shinoda has said that “no Japanese can die for freedom but it is very Japanese to die for aesthetic purity” (10). While many may contest the cultural essentialism of this statement, it gives us a clue to understand Shinoda’s own drive for a crystalline aesthetic expression that gives Double Suicide its potency and makes it one of the truly great achievements of Japanese cinema.
- For a close reading of how Shinoda revises and radicalises the tradition of the kurogo, see Yukihide Endo, “The Revisioning of the Real: Film Director Shinoda Masahiro’s Emphatic Use of Kurogo in Double Suicide”, Nihon Cine Art: http://eigageijutsu.blogspot.com/2009/02/revisioning-of-real-film-director.html.
- Donald Richie, “The Influence of Traditional Japanese Aesthetics on the Japanese Film”, Cinematic Landscapes: Observations on the Visual Arts and Cinema of China and Japan, ed. Linda C. Ehrlich and David Desser, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994, p. 154.
- Tadao Sato, “Japanese Cinema and the Traditional Arts”, Cinematic Landscapes: Observations on the Visual Arts and Cinema of China and Japan, p. 180.
- David Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1988, pp. 24-5.
- Annette Michelson (ed.), Cinema, Censorship and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima 1956-1978, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1992.
- Desser, pp. 174.
- Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, Kodansha International, New York, 1978, p. 349.
- Keiko I. McDonald, Japanese Classical Theater in Films, Dickinson University Press, Fairleigh, 1994, p. 213.
- Donald Richie, “Notes on the Film Music of Takemitsu Toru”, Contemporary Music Review vol. 21, no. 4, 2002, p. 7.
- Shinoda quoted in Bock, p. 347.
Shinju: Ten no amijima/Double Suicide (1969 Japan 142 mins)
Prod Co: Art Theatre Guild/Hyogensha Dir: Masahiro Shinoda Scr: Taeko Tomioka, Masahiro Shinoda, Toru Takemitsu, based on the play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu Phot: Toichiro Narushima Prod Des: Kiyoshi Awazu Mus: Toru Takemitsu
Cast: Kichiemon Nakamura, Shima Iwashita, Hosei Komatsu, Yusuke Takita, Kamatari Fujiwara, Yoshi Kato