Shinjū: Ten no amijima

Shinju - Ten no amijimaSynopsis: Many films have drawn from classic Japanese theatrical forms, but none with such shocking cinematic effect as director Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide. In this striking adaptation of a bunraku puppet play (featuring the music of famed composer Toru Takemitsu), a paper merchant sacrifices family, fortune, and ultimately life for his erotic obsession with a prostitute.

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Shinjū: Ten no amijima 8.0

eyelights: its theatrical-cinematic crossover style. its challenge of societal conventions. its discussions of the value of women.
eyesores: its simplistic, trite plot.

‘Shinju: Ten no amijima’ is a 1969 motion picture rooted in the Japanese play ‘Shinju Ten no Amijima’. it tells the story of a shop owner who has fallen in love with a courtesan and who, unable to leave his spouse and two children, commits to a suicide pact with his lover so that they can be together forever. It’s your classic doomed lovers story.

Except that it’s more than that.

It opens to the sight of a bunch of bunraku puppeteers preparing for a performance, with a voice-over phone conversation between some of the film’s production crew about the sets, what they’re trying to evoke in the film, …etc. It’s a jarring way to start, but it sets the stage for the picture’s surrealistic overlap between theatre and cinema.

The tale begins with our protagonist, Jihei, walking over a bridge. Beneath it is a couple, laid to rest, surrounded by men concealed in black garb, looking almost like ninja. These men are actually kuroko – who, in bunraku, are stagehands. This scene not only foreshadows Tahei’s fate, but it also introduces the kuroko as the hands of fate.

You see, this is what truly makes ‘Shinju: Ten no amijima’ so fascinating to watch: while the plot is your standard ill-fated lovers tale, it features this additional element of seeing the kuroko guide the characters invisibly, either with gestures or by interacting with the set in minor ways. This suggests that Jihei and Koharu’s fate is pre-ordained.

Personally, the only thing I’d retained from my first viewing of this picture, some 15 years ago, was the sight of the kuroko shadowing Jihei and Koharu as they try to sort their lives out. It’s such a strange sight, but one that is so full of meaning, contextually: with a simple motion, the hands of fate guide these two lovers to their end.

And even assist them in the doing.

This crosses the line between reality and fantasy, but, it in the process, also make one wonder about one’s own self-determination. How much of our lives are pre-determined? How much control do we have over them? Personally, I like to believe that we’re lucky enough to live in a society that allows us much freedom (or at least, the appearance of it).

Just how much power do external forces have on us, exactly?

The line between reality and fantasy is crossed in other ways, such as 1) when Jihei blows out a candle, freezing the rest of the cast in place and time, so that he wanders about the red light district unimpeded, or 2) when he tears his home apart in frustration, then breaks down the wall and walks into the next set. In a way, his whole life is a play.

I truly relished those bits.

I also quite enjoyed the manner in which the tale challenges traditional views of women. For starters, there are discussions about the value of women, how they could then be bought and sold like cattle. But there’s also the fact that both Koharu and Osan (Jihei’s spouse) are honour-bound to one another despite being rivals. There are no “cat fights”.

That pleased me – especially knowing that the play is from the 18th century, because it means that there were already concerns about women’s roles in society. The fact that the film was made during a surge of the second feminist wave is also telling, because it suggests that the filmmakers wanted to question women’s roles in society at the time.

It’s also interesting to note that Koharu and Osan are played by the same actress, Shima Iwashita. Was that intentional, or a mere convenience? Were the filmmakers trying to suggest that the two were different sides of the same coin? Is this why both were in relative peace with the knowledge of each other’s existence…?

The filmmakers also pushed boundaries where sexuality was concerned: although ‘Shinju: Ten no amijima’ is hardly explicit, it is notable for showing Jihei going down on Koharu on two occasions – something you would hardly expect at the time and from an androcentric society. Here, Jihei’s love and passion is expressed in giving, not taking.

Personally, I think it’s pretty bold for its time.

Ultimately, though, what I like most about ‘Shinju: Ten no amijima’ is its overall style. While it’s not especially stylistic, there are enough touches in it that give the end result a sort of surrealistic, if not metaphysical, quality that helps it transcend its well-worn genre. This motion picture is a rare example of style also being the substance.

Date of viewing: February 3, 2016

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