“To a woman, a grudge is akin to love.”
Seijun Suzuki is an astonishingly eclectic filmmaker who has created cinematic worlds spanning multiple genres from pulp crime shenanigans (Detective Bureau 23: Go To Hell, Bastards! and Youth of the Beast) to surreal Lynch-esque dreamscapes (Zigeunerweisen and Gate of Flesh). His embrace of independent cinema in the early eighties led him to craft the Taisho Trilogy comprised of bizarre mystical dramas; Kagero-za is the second in the series. Based on a short story by “Gothic-Japanese” writer, Kyoka Izumi, it is only thematically linked with the other films in the Trilogy and takes place during the Taisho era (roughly, the 1920s).
The protagonist of the film is Matsuzaki, a playwright who meets Shinako per chance on a road. She is on her way to the hospital to visit her husband’s first wife, Ine, who is dying. They have an affair. Her husband is his patron, the rich Mr. Tamawaki, who greatly admires Matsuzaki’s talent. Matsuzaki’s physical obsession with Shinako is oddly mirrored in his mystical obsession with Ine. Ine is German but Tamawaki ordered her to become a Japanese woman; dark contacts for her blue eyes and a dark wig for her blonde hair. When Ine dies, Matsuzaki is certain that he spoke with her after her death; he is plagued by this uncertainly for the rest of the film. At Ine’s funeral, we meet Mio, Tamawaki’s former chambermaid. Mio muses to Matsuzaki at one point, “Which one of his wives died? The old one, or the new one?” Matsuzaki is disoriented, unable to make sense of events. When Mio learns of the affair between Matsuzaki and Shinako, she warns Matsuzaki of Tamawaki, “You’ll end up dead. If his dog bites him, he kills it.” She tries to stop him from seeing her with dreadful foreboding, but he ignores her admonitions. Matsuzaki meets Tamawaki on the train to meet Shinako. Tamawaki recounts finding a letter from Shinako; she writes she will die with her lover in Kanazawa. “I want to see how they will die,” Tamawaki says, because, “I’m bored.” During this entire sequence, Matsuzaki struggles to stay on his feet as the train shifts violently (Tamawaki is unaffected by it) as if the tension within him is too great to bear. Tamawaki is fully aware of Matsuzaki’s secret and continues to goad him, eventually revealing that he is behind the entire plot. All manner of surreal imagery ensues.
“It sounds like fate,” Tamawaki says at one point and indeed it seems that these characters are, theatrically, reliving their destinies with each other, explaining every detail in a kind of reverent dream. This dream, consisting of vague, disconnected memories and strange imagery, is more akin to an awed recollection as there is a focused context of these images. During an improvised children’s theatre scene which appears in the last third of the film, a child says, “Ine…she disappeared from the hospital. She knew she’d die. It was her fate.” It is truly odd moments as this that summon all sorts of Lynchian facets (complete with dwarves and helium voices). If all of this sounds episodic and only vaguely linear, then you have a pretty good idea of how all of this information is presented to the viewer. Water is a recurring theme throughout the film, beginning with the opening credit sequence and continuing on with rivers and baths. And then there’s the enigmatic bladder cherry lady. Who is she? Shinako fears her and Matsuzaki later visits her. She sells women’s souls, Shinako claims she bought one, Matsuzaki requests one. The old woman musingly tells him the transaction of souls is only a children’s game. He later witnesses a ceremony where souls are represented as sex organs in dolls. The film is a ghost story after all.
Such a film in Suzuki’s catalog is testament to his versatility as a filmmaker. It has such an incredible editing style that some sequences are simply breathtaking in their simplicity, such as the lovemaking scene early on in the film and the sex organ doll scene. The cinematography is, for the most part, pretty minimal but extremely effective. Music is also minimal, only intruding when it is absolutely necessary that the audience be removed from the natural world; and this is Suzuki’s primary focus of the film: to remind the viewer that the world is absurd and mysterious, and always dangerous. “The dream changed my life.”
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