Heat-Haze Theatre / Heat Shimmer Theater
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 06 June 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
Features: Seijun Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy
Reviews: Branded to Kill
Reviews: Fighting Elegy
Reviews: Youth of the Beast
Zigeunerweisen, the first film in Seijun Suzuki’s Taisho trilogy, proved something of a surprise success in Japan, both commercially (this was very definitely unplanned) and critically—it took the Japanese Academy Awards for best picture, director, and supporting actress, and the prestigious Kinema Jumpo awards for best director, film, screenplay, actress, and supporting actress. So, Suzuki teamed up again with producer Genjiro Arato to double the budget for the follow-up Kagero-za.
Again, the setting is the 1920s Japan of the Taisho area, and again a literary work is the source for the screenplay. In this case, the basis is a short story by Kyoka Izumi, a writer most famous now for his idiosyncratic Gothic-flavoured ghost stories, published in the main in the early years of the twentieth century. From this has been fashioned a screenplay which rather resists any attempt at a synopsis—or is it Suzuki’s treatment that deliberately muddies the waters of character and narrative consistency?
The protagonist is playwright Matsuzaki, who one day encounters a mysterious woman, Shinako, on her way to a hospital. This appears to be the (late?) wife of his wealthy patron Tamawaki, and Matsuzaki becomes obsessed with Shinako, pursuing her out of Tokyo into rural Kanazawa, where he is drawn into a love-suicide pact encouraged if not orchestrated by the shotgun-toting Tamawaki. The story is further complicated by the way Matsuzaki’s obsession shifts between Shinako and the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Ine, apparently Tamawaki’s first (also deceased?) wife, and the story reaches its climax — if no great clarification — via a bizarre ceremony whereby dolls are draped in white cloths and hidden sexual organs are viewed and then via a lengthy sequence in a kabuki theatre where performers and audience are all children.
Even this synopsis makes the narrative connections clearer than they actually are. Shinako remains unnamed for almost the first half of the film, as is her identity as Tamawaki’s wife, if Tamawaki’s wife and the “bladder cherry lady” are the same—as they seem to be, except that Matsuzaki tells Tamawaki that Shinako reminds him of a beautiful lady he met long ago: is this the lady from the encounter at the beginning of the film?
So, the details of the story and the precise status of the characters are consistently unclear (as Matsusaki himself is when narrating parts of the story to Tamawaki), which is the point of a film deliberately aiming to replicate a dream-state. This feeling is established right from the start with the film’s second shot (Matsuzaki’s meeting with Shinako), where Shinako is presented frontally, still and facing the audience, standing in the centre of a flight of stone steps. There’s an unreal quality accentuated by the contrast between her pale skin, her light-coloured clothing and the basket of white flowers she is carrying as opposed to the dark greens of the surroundings and Matsuzaki’s dark clothes; and the contrast between her stillness and Matsuzaki’s constant movement. (Although the case on Kino’s DVD claims a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, as with Zigeunerweisen it’s actually full frame, which judging from the composition of this shot, as with the film generally, seems right.)
This is the scene where Shinako asks Matsuzaki to accompany her to the hospital, out of fear of a bladder cherry (whatever they may be!) vendor on the way there. Matsuzaki refuses; but the next sequence shows Matsuzaki at the hospital in conversation with her. We assume he has come looking for her, but in keeping with Suzuki’s general approach neither the connections between sequences nor a character’s motivation are made clear. Furthermore, the construction of the sequence, that is, the matching of one shot to the next, is equally oblique. Consider this series:
A low-angle shot of Matsuzaki searching, interrupted by a strange squelching sound.
A medium-shot from the rear of Shinako turning slightly and sitting down.
A long-shot, a 180°-match on the previous shot, of Shinako facing us in middle distance (the centre of the frame) with Matzusaki looking on from the right.
A medium close-up of Shinako, shot from the side but not from Matsuzaki’s point-of-view.
And so on.
The sum effect is quite disconcerting. Spatial relationships seem awry, or disturbed by such devices as cutting within a conversation from, say, a medium shot to an extreme long shot, both filmed from the same angle. Figures will be placed at the edge of the frame to emphasise the sense of being off-centre, or arrayed flatly in a formal and unrealistic line across the frame. All in all, there’s a fascinating willful aestheticism at play here, but one which works to underpin the dream logic of Kagero-za’s narrative. There are frequent unexplained abrupt shifts from one scene to the next; for example, we see Matzusaki in the alley outside the inn stop, the lighting suddenly brightens unnaturally, and he turns in a circle to the sound of festival drums, at which point there is sudden cut to him standing in a country road with the anarchist, who in fact taps him as if to wake him from one dream state to the next. Or alternatively, a scene never develops, but is simply replaced by a new one.
One brief moment sums up the spirit of the whole film: Tamawaki leaves the kabuki theatre, stands in the alley facing us, his shotgun over one shoulder, and states, “Who talks of realism here?” while laughing gleefully. The bizarre juxtapositions, the lack of narrative consistency, the startling visual tropes are all both the strength and the weakness of Kagero-za. It’s invigorating to allow oneself to be seduced by the flow of images, to give up trying to make logical, intellectual sense of things. But the process ends up being so long drawn-out and frustrating of any true emotional/intellectual investment in the film, that when we finally learn of Tamawaki and Shinako’s double suicide, we’re pretty much unmoved. Matsuzaki may end the film with his declaration that “since I saw my lover in a dream, I have depended on dreams”, but our feeling is more likely to be that in Kagero-za Suzuki himself has depended too much on them.