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DOUBLE SUICIDE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kichiemon Nakamura, Shima Iwashita
Director:  Masahiro Shinoda
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Color Bars
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  January 30, 2001

Film ***

Owing to the traditional kabuki theatre, Double Suicide is a movie that is based on and drawing its visual style from a 200-plus year old play about a married merchant and a courtesan who love in vain and feel double suicide is the only way they can be together. 

The movie, in fact, opens with the preparations for a puppet show, as the kurago, or black clad puppeteers, assemble their wooden dolls.  The film switches instantly from these scenes to the beginning of the story, which is acted out by human actors, but with the presence of kurago wandering in and out and manipulating certain scenes, seemingly without the character’s knowledge.  Here, director Masahiro Shinoda deliberately blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, as he does by also calling deliberate attention to his use of sets and costumes.  Sometimes, actors enter or exit a scene through revolving walls:  yet another way the film remains decidedly self-conscious about its theatrical ties.

Jihei (Nakamura) is a merchant with a wife, two kids, and struggling paper business.  He has been in love with Koharu (Iwashita) for two years now.  Their love is desperate and emotional:  his only hope to have her is to raise the money it would take to redeem her from her employer, and he has virtually no shot at it.  They decide early on that the only way for them to be together is not in life, but in death (kids, don’t try this at home).

Jihei’s behavior, quite naturally, is a disgrace to his family:  how can a husband and father be so neglectful for the sake of a prostitute?  His wife, Osan (also Iwashita), is heartbroken.  Fearing the potential double suicide, she sends a letter to Koharu to spurn Jihei and thus spare his life.  She does, and Jihei almost washes his hands of her.  Osan believes now that she and her husband will be happy and successful…but in a striking scene, she removes the blanket from over Jihei’s head to discover him weeping for Koharu.

After confessing she instigated Koharu’s infidelity, Osan becomes convinced she will carry out her suicide.  She begs Jihei to go and redeem her by any means necessary.  He tries, but is too late:  a rich mongrel, who had been after Koharu for a long time, has already redeemed her and will be by the next day to collect his prize.  The two lovers steal away before that can happen, and (I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, considering the movie’s title and the DVD cover art), they fulfill their solemn vow to one another.

I’ve never seen a film quite like this one, and I was fascinated by its self-awareness and over-the-top sense of melodrama.  Out of all the Japanese films I’ve seen, this one is easily the most deliberately emotional, with more tears shed during its running time than any other movie I can readily think of.  The melodrama is so heavy handed that even the rich villain looks directly at us as he proclaims with a sneer, “Money is everything!”  Yet, if I understand correctly, Shindoda’s choice is purposeful, maintaining his film’s link to the kabuki theatre traditions.  The liner notes call this movie one of the very few that captured this classical bit of dramatic culture on celluloid, and that made it a much more interesting piece than had it just been a simple straightforward telling of a rather standard love story.

The presence of the kurago always intrigued me, too…as the story itself was less than involving, these shadowy figures wandering in and out to move sets or assist the actors at key moments were less of a distraction and more of a point of interest.  Were they meant to be literal, or did they represent, as puppeteers, a higher hand in control of these events and characters?  I think the answer is open to some interpretation.

At any rate, Double Suicide does represent a departure from the likes of Kurosawa and other more readily famous Japanese directors, and offers something a little off the beaten bath, and certainly an item of curiosity for fans of Asian cinema.

Video ***1/2

The image quality is exceptional, given the age of the film.  Telltale aging signs on the print are quite scarce, and the transfer renders excellent sharpness, balance and contrast to the black and white photography.  The whites are startling, especially with Koharu’s made-up face, and a strong contrast to the film’s deep blacks and shadows.  The image clarity is exceptional throughout.

Audio ***

This is normally where I’d write that it was difficult to discern the quality of dialogue in the audio because it was in a foreign language…not here.  The dialogue is very obviously crystal clear and with strong, dynamic range owing to the melodrama and strong emoting of the actors.  The sore by Toru Takemitsu is both sparse and striking, adding to the range of the mix.  Apart from occasional bits of noise noticeable when the audio falls to silence, this represents yet another example of Criterion taking a simple 1-channel mono track and turning it into something remarkable.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing except color bars…too bad, because I would have loved a historian’s commentary track like the one featured on Criterion’s Seven Samurai disc.

Summary:

Double Suicide takes a standard, old fashioned, tragic love tale and manipulates it into something fascinating by blending both cinematic and theatrical techniques, and making the style a bit more significant than the story itself.  Masahiro Shinoda’s deliberate sense of self-consciousness helps elevate the simple material into something much more intriguing.  With this quality offering from Criterion, fans of unusual or stylistic cinema might find this an interesting night’s watching.