Tuesday, December 8, 2009


The Film: Double Suicide (104)
The Director: Masahiro Shinoda (Samurai Spy (312))

What Is It?: An almost Shakespearean tragedy of unhonored love and the trappings of medieval Japanese culture. Also, if you couldn't read between the lines (or the title) a bit of a downer.

The Experience: I thought this film was going to take me a month at least, but I threw on my enormous studio headphones (what I like to refer to as my "Criterion Headphones") sunk myself in to the leather green couch of our kitchen and plowed through the first forty minutes. Though it took me a week, I wrangled a bit of "Criterion Time" (my life, ruled by this Quest!) and bushwacked my way through the second half. Only took me a week and several late fees at a local video store.

Quick Notes:

1. Somehow modern, somehow traditional.

This, in many ways, is a very traditional Japanese film based on a very traditional Japanese play (a supposedly untapped reservoir in Japanese culture). There's honor and societal hierarchy and fake samurais and overburdening relatives and the breaking of honor and of course a graphic, blood-gouting double suicide. On the other hand every set looks like a Japanese Warhol Factory and the film starts with someone talking on the phone. There's slo-mo paper chucking, freeze frames, and a handful of other visual cues wrested from the experimental arms of the 1960s. This is Japan, but filtered through the art-film explosion of that amazing decade, and wow, at times it just leveled me with inspiration and, quite honestly, confusion. You're going to have to stick it out through this entire film Criterion Kids, but it will be well worth it.

2. I think I might be obsessed with gender.

Somehow, over the course of the last year or so, gender has become a common way I view films. In the past I'd just look for nudity and explosions, but all of sudden, I'm analyzing the way different cultures and different eras portray the interactions between men and women. It's like every film I see has some sort of eye-opening moment where midway through a mental analysis of the way women are portrayed as the strong-willed characters in the film, I rub my eyes and think, "where did that come from?" I credit Alex Healy for this, my most recent mental development.

3. Speaking of gender, strong-willed women abound!

Double Suicide (104) revolves around the story of a spineless jelly-fish of a fish merchant, Jihei (Kichiemon Nakamura), and the women he loves, his wife Osan and the beautiful courtesan Kahura (both played by Shima Iwashita). Here's the thing, both of these women are badasses, complex, honorable characters that are angry, and sad and happy and a little more angry and passionate and intelligent and benevolent and on and on. Jihei on the other hand is a sniveling wretch who can barely muster himself out of his bed. He's in some deep shit at several points in the film (trying to save the lives of his wife and lover) and all he can do is mope about, throw paper around and then kill himself (and have loud passionate sex in a ... cemetary). Osan and Kahura keep this slippery eel of a man, to a certain degree, on the path he needs to be, but even they can't help but succumb to his limp-wristed chicanery. It's interesting to finish watching The Lady Eve (103) a film dedicated to the standard man-is-rich, woman-is-wife tropes of the 1930s, and see just how far gender culture had evolved.

4. Yes, there are black-hooded puppeteers in nearly every frame.

They're called kurago, and are an ancient Japanese play device used to move props. In Double Suicide (104) they play the role of a strangely interactive Greek chorus. At times they play a traditional role, moving props and such, but to a greater degree they become our eyes in to the events unfolding. One lone rogue of a kurago even seems to fall somewhat in love with our main characters, following them through their tragic final night, even addressing the camera near their last moments. Shinoda claimed he was trying to realize the "thin line between truth and falsehood" a theme that runs throughout the film. What it made me feel was like I was watching a play on acid. I didn't feel closer to the characters or stronger in my role as an audience member, I just felt like someone had spiked my punch, and I purple caterpillars were going to start crawling out of my ears. But, hey, isn't film great?

5. A complex film about the trappings of honor and family.

This is a heavy of a film. A dialogue-heavy, theme-heavy, mood-heavy, mind bomb of a film that starts slow, burns slow, and wrenches the emotions out of your body slow and painfully. Jihei and Osan and even Kahura are characters ruined by the Japanese tradition of "saving face." There was, and perhaps isn't, any room for error in medieval Japan (as evidenced by a line about how samurais had to kill themselves if they forgot their swords) thus when Jihei becomes obsessed with a prostitute his only options are to redeem here (and then have a 'tute living in his abode) or forget her forever (an act he can't and won't do). Osan, his wife, on the other hand has to honor her husband, and even though she's angry and sad and wrecked by his infidelities, she still fights to save his life, and then when Kahura's life is threatened, fights to save hers. It's almost as if the double suicide of the title is Masahiro Shinoda's final thought on the "honor system" of the era, and that final thought would be: fuck it, when we're tied this tight, it always ends poorly.

Final Thoughts: I thought this film was going to be a one way ticket to Sleepytown, but after settling in with it and a glass of wine, I found myself amazed at the complexity of character and their interactions. It's a beautifully written, and filmed, piece of cinema and the deaths at the end, even though telegraphed from moment one, seem so absolutely earned when they finally occur. Not one for a party, but certainly a lovely film to chew on.

What's Next on The Criterion Quest: Spartacus (105)

Wednesday: Cat Dancers

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