Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Double Suicide (Shinoda, 1969)

Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide is, as the title might suggest, a film of high melodrama and fatalism. It is based upon a play written for the Japanese theatrical form known as bunraku. Bunraku is a highly sophisticated form of puppet theatre in which the marionettes are much larger and more lifelike than those we might expect to see in the West. While I cannot claim to be an expert of its intricacies, I do know that it shares much in common with kabuki, a theatrical form perhaps wider known to Westerners. An emphasis is placed on a highly presentational performance style and the use of stock character types. The popularity of both kabuki and bunraku may explain why the performances of Japanese actors of the 50’s and 60’s often seems exaggerated when compared to American actors of the same era who come from a theatrical tradition based in realism.

Personally, I am fond of overtly presentational performances and I liked how Shinoda attempted to settle upon a consistent style slightly separated from realism, even though he is using flesh-and-blood actors. The use of people wearing the traditional hooded garment typically worn by bunraku puppeteers is also a nice touch. They do not literally move the actors as they would puppets; however, they do manipulate various props and with their presence create a feeling that the main performers are not entirely acting according to their will. They can be seen as a kind of chorus, always observing and serving as a reminder of societal expectations. Each of the principal characters can easily be defined by a single noun: the merchant, the courtesan, the wife, the mother, the father, etc. The suggestion is that the issues presented within the play are woven into the fabric of society. We see that men are susceptible to falling for available sex, thinking that they can redeem a loose woman, rather than accepting their role as husband and father. We see that money can lead to increased power and influence, even though it is not a trustworthy indicator of morality and fairness. We see how individuals attempting to operate outside of tradition run the risk of being consumed and destroyed.

In the beginning of the film, we hear two off-screen voices discussing how the ‘double suicide’ of the title is to be staged within the context of the film. It must not be presented beautifully as in the kabuki tradition we are told. And yet, when we arrive at the critical scenes, I’m not sure that the filmmakers have lived up to their promise. It is violent, to be sure, but carefully choreographed and elegantly shot. Is the film meant to expose the absurdity of the concept of suicide for the sake of honor? Or does the film hope that we will be emotionally drawn into the tragedy of the two main characters that spend a great deal of time weeping and bemoaning their misfortune? In the end, I was unsure and thus found myself at the conclusion with a feeling of neutrality.

There is much about the overt theatricality of Double Suicide that makes it worth watching. The film contains passionate performances and creative non-realistic staging. However, I am not convinced that these elements are married to a tale that is necessarily worth retelling without a clearer deconstruction of its fatalistic mindset. It may be my inability to fully comprehend another culture, but unlike most great tragedies I have seen, I’m not entirely sure why these characters had to die.



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