27 June 2011

Manji (卍, 1964)

The impassioned voice of Kiyoko Kishida in the lead role of Sonoko Kakiuchi dominates the narrative of Yasuzo Masumura’s 1964 classic feature film Manji (卍, 1964). Just as in the original novel Quicksand (Manji/卍, 1928-30) by Junichirō Tanizaki, the story is told from Sonoko’s point of view to a man she refers to as “sensei”.
Sonoko is stuck in a loveless arranged marriage to Kotaro Kakiuchi (Eiji Funakoshi). The marriage is childless because Sonoko is secretly taking measures to prevent pregnancy, and she fills her empty days with art. She attends art lessons at a local women’s college. During life drawing classes, it is brought to Sonoko’s attention that she has become the subject of gossip because instead of drawing the model’s face, she has been drawing the face of beautiful fellow student Mitsuko Sido (Ayako Wakao).

Sonoko is brought to her knees by Michiko's unadorned beauty

The two women develop a friendship with each other that blossoms into a full-fledged love affair. The passion Sonoko feels for Mitsuko is so strong that she brazenly conducts the affair in her own marital bed and defies her husband’s wishes for her to end the relationship. It does not take long however for cracks to appear in what Sonoko believed to be a perfect love. She soon discovers that Mitsuko has a secret fiancé Eijiro Wakanuki (Yuusuke Kawazu), a man whose impotence leads him to behave in a jealous, irrational manner. This awkward ménage-à-trois becomes even more complicated when Mitsuko also draws Sonoko’s husband into the fray.
Michiko embraces Sonoko.

It’s a frenetic narrative that rarely stops for air as it races towards its dramatic conclusion. Set among the Osakan upper classes, we rarely see a glimpse of the city streets as the story for the most part unfolds in the interiors of the Kakiuchi home or in anonymous rented rooms. The use of interior spaces and frequent use of close-ups adds to the stifled atmosphere created by the oppressive passions of the four narcissistic lovers. The Japanese title “Manji” is the Buddhist swastika with its four arms representing each of the four lovers. Sonoko also uses Mitsuko as the model for her painting of the Goddess of Mercy, which serves an ironic function in the plot as Mitsuko turns out to be anything but merciful in the way that she skillfully manipulates her lovers.
Sonoko and Michiko's love letters.

In the wrong hands, Tanizaki’s story of obsession and jealousy could have easily been turned into a tawdry film exploiting love between women. Masumura avoids this thanks to Kaneto Shindō's poignant script and his use of highly stylized framing. Love scenes are rendered in fragments with each frame carefully composed with the elegance of an oil painting. The pureness of Sonoko's love for Michiko is emphasized through one of the few outdoor scenes in which the two women stroll through a verdant forest and pause in front of some Buddhist statues.  Throughout it all, the tremulous voice of Kyoko Kishida as Sonoko reminds us that with all the lovers’ threats of suicide at the very least one passionate woman will survive the maelstrom that is Manji

This post is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Garbo Laughs. To read more LGBT posts from the blogathon click here.  This film is widely available on DVD (Fantoma in the US, Yume Pictures in the UK - who have interestingly dropped the swastika from the poster).  Click here to order from Japan (no subs).