Double Suicide, 1969, directed by Masahiro Shinoda, written by Masahiro Shinoda, Tôru Takemitsu, and Taeko Tomioka, from the play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu.
It's a truism that film has its roots in theater. Less remarked upon is how shallow those roots usually are: most movies owe more to melodrama and vaudeville than to Shakespeare. And they owe twentieth century drama almost nothing. Okay, there are a few exceptions: the highest of the highbrows might lift from Strindberg, Hollywood occasionally produces schlock Pirandello and very occasionally Pirandello. But tell me, which filmmakers take their cues from Beckett? Who are Ionesco's cinematic heirs? And when's the last time you heard a movie described as Brechtian? If you want to find a school of theater that's had less influence on film than the modernists, you'd have to go back to the truly obscure and neglected. Like, say, Japanese Bunraku puppet plays of the 18th century. But every rule has its exceptions, so allow me to introduce you to the film with the most statistically improbable dramatic heritage of all time: Double Suicide, the one and only Brechtian adaptation of an 18th century Bunraku puppet play.
It's a bold move to try to create Brecht's verfremdungseffekt in film, the most seductive of all media. Shinoda manages it in several ways, starting with the title, which pretty much dissolves any doubt about the film's outcome. It's right up there with M. Night Shyamalan's Ghost of a Dead Psychologist. If that effekt isn't verfremdungs enough for you, Shinoda begins his film backstage at a Bunraku production of Double Suicide. Puppeteers gear up in black robes and hoods while a man who I assume to be Shinoda talks on the phone to "Miss Tomioka," presumably screenwriter Taeko Tomioka. "The lovers' suicide journey will be through a graveyard," he tells her. "I think it's stale," she replies.
When the actual story begins, Shinoda constantly reminds the audience that they're watching a theatrical story with a predetermined outcome. The first time we see beleaguered merchant Jihei, he is crossing a bridge. We see four neat, geometrically composed shots of Jihei walking (none of which contain anything to puncture the illusion that we are observing a real person). Then in the fifth shot, the camera pans down from Jihei looking over the bridge to the rocks below. There, surrounded by puppeteers, the camera finds the bodies of Jihei and his lover.
That bridge is one of the only realistic looking locations in the film. Shinoda's interiors are abstract and theatrical to the point of absurdity. Instead of walls or floors, he uses giant replications of period engravings, like some kind of pop art installation.
Again and again, the audience is forcibly discouraged from identifying with the action on screen, from forgetting they're watching a movie. This is Jihei's home:
You can see in that shot that Shinoda is going to have a problem here: the composition and lighting are too good. It's just as easy to coast along on the images as it is to lose yourself in the onscreen narrative, and that doesn't serve the film's purpose. This is especially dangerous when someone as lovely as Shima Iwashita is in the cast, playing both Jihei's lover Koharu and his neglected wife Osan.
It would take a hell of a lot of obviously artificial sets to keep me from losing myself in images like that. Fortunately, Shinoda has a secret weapon: ohaguro!
I wouldn't call that a Brechtian technique, exactly, but it certainly made me pull back from the screen. Joking aside, Shinoda pulls out all the stops to make Double Suicide as artificial and theatrical an experience as possible: odd compositions, 180-degree-rule breaking, bizarre sets, freeze-frames, and of course, puppeteers running from scene to scene in the background. Even his blocking is overdetermined to the point of distancing the audience. Here's how he handles a simple conversation between Koharu and Tahei, an obnoxious merchant played by Hôsei Komatsu. The camera picks up Tahei on the right side of a wide shot as he enters the brothel:
It pans left, following him across the floor, until he stops so that Tahei, Koharu, and the brothel's madam form three evenly-spaced vertical lines:
Koharu moves forward toward the camera before sitting; Tahei slouches where he is. The frame's symmetry is broken...
And then restored when Shinoda cuts to a different angle.
Note that Shinoda is close to violating the 180 degree rule here: the camera is now on Koharu's right. And the madam's position on the set has changed—although she moves forward at the end of the preceding shot, her left shoulder is still behind Tahei. In this shot, she's clearly in front of him. So the cut makes geometric sense, but it's just awry enough to feel a little off.
To hammer in the point that these are very carefully composed two-dimensional images, Shinoda does something I've never seen before. The madam stands up and walks off screen, crossing between Tahei and Koharu:
She then enters the frame again, from the right, crossing in front of Koharu:
Before sitting down again, in precisely the right spot so that her head takes up the same space in the frame that her body did before.
From here, we go to a shot that is ostensibly from Tahei's point of view; but the camera is closer than he is, giving us this striking framing of Koharu's head. Note the way the madam's head and the edge of the stairs balance the shot.
They turn towards the camera simultaneously, maintaining the frame's symmetry:
And then we get the one shot in this sequence that could belong to another film, a direct eyeline match between Koharu and Tahei:
Followed by another nicely composed deep shot: note that the madam and Koharu are much farther away from each other than they were before.
So what's so bizarre about this sequence that it warrants breaking it down shot by shot? For one thing, there's no master shot. The opening shot that pans left as Jihei enters the brothel is the closest thing to a master, and Shinoda never returns to it. When he does return to a wide shot, it's from a different position. I would be quite surprised if the actors ever ran through the entire scene in one take. Second, if you try to map out where everyone is in three-dimensional space, you quickly realize that people are moving between shots. On a first viewing, the overall effect of these changes between cuts is just a vague sense that something is off about the way the scene is shot—a more subtle version of Scorsese's water glass in Shutter Island. The point is that the blocking doesn't make a whole lot of sense in three-dimensions. In two dimensions, on the other hand, everything snaps into precise shape. Which can't help but remind you that you're watching two-dimensional projections of light, not prostitutes and their clients in a brothel.
So why do this? Why go to such great lengths to keep the audience from identifying with the characters, from losing themselves in the story? Well, if you don't identify with the characters and get lost in the narrative (and trust me, you will not be lost in Double Suicide's narrative), you are much more likely to think critically about how and why it is constructed the way it is. Brecht's goal was always to point out the underlying social and political structures, and most writing about the film (e.g., Aaron Cutler's notes on a Shinoda retrospective) ascribes similar motives to Shinoda. As Cutler puts it, the film "pushes its social injustice so forcefully that the only response is to want to push back." I think that might be true of The Love Suicides at Amijima, but I'm not convinced it applies to Double Suicide. Maybe the distancing effect worked a little too well on me, but the societal pressures bearing down on Koharu and Jihei seemed as artificial as the sets—and half as well constructed. Koharu and Jihei aren't doomed by their society. It's the puppeteers who build the gibbet.
The great innovation of modern tragedy is the illusion of choice. No matter what Oedipus does, he brings his fate inexorably closer, but, star-cross'd or not, Romeo and Juliet's deaths have considerably more to do with chance—if only that messenger had arrived in time! But surely we lose something important when we trade fate for happenstance. Maybe it could have all turned out differently for Romeo, Juliet, Koharu, Jihei. But that wouldn't make a very good story—something in us needs these things to go badly.
So how do you write a tragedy in an age where people believe "Invictus?" It's a little too late in the day to go back to theism or predestination. We're all genetically fated to grow old and die; that's a tragedy, but it's not a story. I am increasingly convinced that David Simon is correct: "the triumph of institutions over individuals" is the natural form for contemporary tragedy. Institutional inertia is as close as any of us will get to fate. The genius of Double Suicide is that it suggests that narrative itself is an institution. As the film moves towards its inevitable conclusion, Shinoda goes out of his way to suggest that the puppeteers are conflicted about what they're doing. There's no reason to show that conflict if you're interested in dramatizing a clash between personal desire and societal duty in 18th (or 20th) century Japan. There's every reason to show it if you want the audience to ask why we tell ourselves these kinds of stories; what we get out of watching Koharu and Jihei march off to die. As the double suicides promised in the title become more and more inevitable, there are increasingly frequent shots of one of the puppeteers (Shinoda himself?) looking on in anguish. But still he moves the sets and props around. These stories have rules.
- There's a graduate thesis or two to be written about Shinoda's decision to cast his real-life wife Shima Iwashita as both the dutiful wife Osun and overtly sexual prostitute Koharu.
- Hôsei Komatsu plays Tahei as kind of a jovial asshole, so it was a surprise to look over his IMDB résumé and see what appear to be mostly crime films (and the intriguingly named Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41). But there's one scene where he unleashes the crazy and you can see why you'd cast him as the heavy.
- There's a brief interview Shinoda and Shima Iwashita gave at UC Berkeley here. I was struck by this passage:
There is a famous photograph of General MacArthur standing with the emperor and that made it absolutely clear that the emperor was no longer a god, and also it was obvious that that was conscious effort on the part of the Occupation to make that statement.He was a teenager when that photo was taken. You're never too young to ask yourself who's telling a story, and why.