Manji (aka Swastika, aka Passion, aka All Mixed Up) first published by Film4
Summary: An artfully lurid melodrama of illicit desire, excessive obsession and ritualised death, directed by Japanese New Wave fave Yasuzo Masumura.
Review: The late Yasuzo Masumura was a protean figure in the world of cinema. Though Japanese, in the early 1950s he attended Rome’s prestigious Centro Sperimentale Cinematografia, where he was taught by three of the greats of European cinema – Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Luchino Visconti. In the mid Fifties he worked as assistant to two of Japan’s most esteemed ‘classical’ directors, Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa – but Masumura’s own debut, Kisses (1957), immediately marked him as a member of the Japanese ‘New Wave’. And although the 58 films that he made between 1957 and 1982, including Giants and Toys (1958), Afraid to Die (1960), The Red Angel (1966) and Blind Beast (1969), were all produced within the studio system, they typically came with an experimental, often outrageous quality, falling somewhere between the arthouse and the grindhouse. He was, in short, a director full of contradictions.
No less contradictory is Manji, Masumura’s 28th film, which artfully sets the most scandalous of transgressive eroticism against the stateliest of classical composition. Its packed running time offers a scabrous catalogue of infatuation, lesbianism, adultery, duplicity, phantom pregnancies, blackmail, drugs, blood oaths, menages à trois, suicide pacts and death, but this is all packaged in imagery so exquisitely staid that the film continually resists classification as mere sensationalist sexploitation – or indeed any classification at all. Here, the film’s seductive surface sheen hides turbulent depths, while at the helm is a narrator of questionable reliability. She is Sonoko (Kyoko Kishida), either confessing, or mitigating, or even wholly inventing, her rôle in fateful events of the past, and as she spins her elaborate tale to an unnamed writer (Ken Mitsuda), a series of flashbacks both reveals and conceals what ‘really’ happened.
Enrolled at a ladies’ art school, bored housewife Sonoko absent-mindedly adds the face of fellow student Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao) to her painting of Kannon, the Buddhist divinity of mercy, and soon finds herself drawn into an obsessive and illicit affair with the beautiful young woman. Sonoko can afford to disregard the objections of her husband Kotaro (Eiji Funakoshi), but she feels much more threatened by Eijiro Watanuki (Yusuke Kawazu), Mitsuko’s devoted fiancé. Soon Sonoko and Eijiro have entered an uneasy and unconventional alliance to prevent Mitsuko making fools of them both – but as lie is heaped upon lie, and betrayal upon betrayal, Mitsuko will prove a demanding, elusive and ruinous goddess to Sonoko, Eijiro and Kotaro alike.
Manji is adapted from the 1931 novel of the same name by Junichiro Tanizaki, with a screenplay written by Kaneto Shindo, well known as the director of Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). Its title is the word for a Buddhist swastika, whose shape is imitated by the film’s love quadrangle of characters perpetually chasing one another’s tails, and whose symbology as the principle of love, mercy, and harmony between opposites is reflected, however ironically, in the film’s erotic themes and aesthetic symmetries.
Immaculately lit and framed, with its every moment choreographed to a classical score of strings and piano, Manji is an aesthete’s wet dream – but at the same time there is a tangible tension between its sedate form and its more shocking content, as though something so well-mannered could not possibly also be so perverse. It is a tension perfectly embodied by the performance of Kyoko Kishida (Woman of the Dunes, 1964; The Face of Another, 1966) as Sonoko, whose modesty and grace seem constantly on the point of erupting into a frenzied hysteria. The film plays like a shrill melodrama, full of extreme narrative twists and gob-smacking reversals – but is also a mystery, a discourse on fiction and, with its taboo relationship between a kimono-wearing wife and her young lover in Western clothes and hairdo, an allegory that depicts no less than the wellspring of desire and destruction opened up by the exposure of Japanese traditionalism to modern, foreign values. And, like the painting school where Sonoko and Mitsuko first meet, Manji offers lessons in art – as well as in cinema – that combine Japanese and European sensibilities.
Verdict: Yasuzo Masumura’s marriage of convenience between the demure and the shocking is a classic of modernist cinema.
© Anton Bitel