Double Suicide (Shinju ten no amijima) [DVD]
Screenplay : Masahiro Shinoda, Toru Takemitsu, & Taeko Tomioka (based on the play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1969
Stars : Kichiemon Nakamura (Jihei), Shima Iwashita (Koharu and Osan), Kamatari Fujiwara (Owner of the Yamatoya), Tokie Hidari (Osugi), Yoshi Kato (Gosaemon), Shizue Kawarazaki (Osan's mother), Hosei Komatsu (Tahei), Yusuke Takita (Mogoemon)
Much like the teenage lovers in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the adult lovers in Masahiro Shinoda's Double Suicide (Shinju ten no amijima) find that their love for each runs into a wall erected by a structured society that will not permit it. While Shakespeare's ill-fated lovers were caught in the cross-hairs of familial feuding, the lovers in Double Suicide are trapped in a rigid society ruled by customs that cannot be bent and economic pressures that can be suffocating. The only way out, as the title implies, is for the lovers to take their own lives in a final, romanticized gesture.
The comparison to Shakespeare is apt because Double Suicide is based on a play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu, an 18th-century playwright who is often referred to as "the Nipponese Shakespeare." Chikamatsu was an innovative writer (he is often considered Japan's greatest premodern playwright) whose work was characterized by intense emotion. His 1720 play The Love Suicides at Amijima, on which Double Suicide is based, was originally written to be performed as a Bunraku puppet play. For those not familiar with this form of Japanese theater, Bunraku (also known as Joruri), which was established in the late 17th century as dramatic art for adults, employs large, realistic puppets that are three-quarters life size and are manipulated by three men standing behind them dressed all in black (called Kuroko).
Shinoda maintains the play's theatrical origins by opening his film backstage as the performance is about to begin. We see the Kuroko getting dressed in their black garb as the puppets are assembled and tested, and an off-screen voice, apparently that of the director, discusses over the phone how he will be staging the story. In Shinoda's conception, theater and film overlap in complex ways so that they become, in essence, one in the same. The majority of the film is shot on stagy, theater-like sets, and the Kuroko are often visible in the background and the foreground, acting as silent witnesses to the tragic tale that unfolds before them. Ironically, as puppeteers, the Kuroko would seem to have control over what happens, yet they can only watch, powerless.
The story concerns Jihei (Kichiemon Nakamura), a fairly wealthy, paper mill owner who is married and the father of two children. Jihei ultimately drives himself and his family to financial and social ruin in his quest to buy the freedom of Koharu (Shima Iwashita), a courtesan with whom he has fallen in love. The tragedy of the story lies in the fact that these two adults are unable to fulfill their desire for each other because the society in which they live will not allow it. One can see why this film might have struck a chord with members of American audiences in 1969 who were also questioning the rigidity of social institutions and moral codes imposed from above that limited their possibilities.
Shinoda, who was one of the young directors to emerge in the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s, had already directed more than a dozen features in Japan, but Double Suicide marked the first time Western audiences were able to see his work. In his direction, Shinoda almost collapses the inherently emotional pitch of the story with his theatrical distancing devices; it is as if he is afraid of the film's melodramatic potential and tries to constantly keep it at bay. Yet, his intricate knowledge of the theater (he studied it in college) allows him a fluidity that seems almost contradictory to the staged quality of his mis en scene.
Kichiemon Nakamura and Shima Iwashita, in the roles of the two lovers, keep the audience involved with their passionate, sympathetic portrayals. The eroticism between them is intense, but we understand that there is much more between them than simply physical desire. The fact that we see their lifeless bodies stretched out side-by-side beneath a bridge before the narrative begins proper casts a shadow over the entire film. We know how their story will end, thus every word they utter and every thing they do has a tragic resonance that is hard to forget.
Double Suicide works on its own terms as a highly stylized piece of experimental cinema. Some may find it too stylized to the point of being distracting, but Shinoda's approach is original and quite engaging for those who are willing to approach the film with an open mind. Always at the core, though, is a deeply human story that works on multiple levels, as both social critique and melodrama. The emotional intensity and tragic resonance of lovers who cannot commit to each other speaks across time and cultural divides.
|Double Suicide: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Shot in high-contrast black and white, Double Suicide has a compelling visual quality that is well-preserved on this disc. Transferred in the film's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio from a 35-mm composite fine-grain master, the image is sharp and well-defined, with solid contrast and excellent detail despite some slight graininess from time to time. Some of the black levels tend toward dark shades of gray and there are few instances of barely visible vertical lines cutting through the picture. With those minor exceptions, this is an excellent transfer of a uniquely visual film.|
|The soundtrack, presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, is more than sufficient. There is some evident hissing during the quiet moments, but the spare, haunting musical score by Toru Takemitsu, which uses traditional Japanese instruments, is nicely rendered. The dialogue, all of which is in Japanese (with optional English subtitles in a new and improved translation), is clean and clear.|
|No supplements are included.|
©2001 James Kendrick