Yasuzo Masumura - Seisaku's Wife (1965)

Japan, at the beginning of the 20th century. Okane (Ayako Wakao) is forced to be the mistress of an old rich man. When he drops dead and leaves her an important sum as heritage, she and her mother return to the village of her childhood. There, Wakao is despised and laughed at, and her behavior, an arrogant idleness, does not help. When her mother dies, she gets close the honorable soldier and pride of the village Seisaku (Takahiro Tamura). Against the will of the entire village, they both marry. But soon, Japan declares war against Russia and Sesiaku is drafted to go fight at the front. He leaves behind Okane and we witness her slow descent into madness.

With Seisaku's Wife, Masumura continues his exploration of love as disguised madness. We first meet Okane while she is a mistress in an arranged relationship. The old man who serves her as husband is obviously quiet fond of her. But his family does not approve of his choice and later, after the old man's death, ask Okane to cease all contact with them because they obviously see the relationship as a pipe dream of an old man, incapable of resisting the temptations of the flesh. With Seisaku, they both give in on their passion, although everyone around them ridicule them for their choice. They seal themselves off and develop a kind of sickly co-dependence, a passion for each other that borders on insanity from very early on. When Seisaku must leave the village and go to war, Okane is devastated, not only because she is left alone with people who scorn her, but because she is lonely and desperate and obsessed with Seisaku's love. After six months, he comes back due to an injury. And now comes the punishment part. Seisaku is so dedicated to his military career that he wants to go back to the battlefield right away. But Okane cannot accept that and stabs his eyes with a nail, rending him blind. She is then beaten senseless by a mob of villagers and sentenced to two years of prison. Seisaku on the other hand is now suspected to have done this voluntarily in order to avoid having to go back to war. The people call him a traitor and a coward, his honor is destroyed forever - and all due to his love to Okane.

But the film can also be read as an allegory of a society that has little use for behavior outside of the prescribed codes of conduct. When he first comes back to his village, Seisaku brings a big bell he bangs every morning in order to wake up the villagers and get them to work. From the beginning, Masumura paints the villagers as idle and downright mean gossip mongers, who don't understand a lot about the outside world but are unable to break out of their own routine. It takes Seisaku to shake them up and they are willing to follow because he is an honorable soldier and has authority. But once his love for Okane is made public, the villagers are unable to cope with that and immediately begin to question his integrity. They don't react anymore when he sounds the bell, they laugh at him, they don't take him seriously anymore. It is only when he is drafted to go back to combat, when his respect-inspiring status comes to the forefront and Okane has to step aside, that the villagers have reverence for him again. But when he is attacked by Okane, tying the end of his military career directly to the "whore", like the villagers call her repeatedly, they drop him again like a hot potato and suspend him. Authority figures have to behave in a certain way, the social fabric has to remain intact. Deviations are not met kindly, Masumura seems to tell us.

Either way, passion is a central element to Seisaku's Wife, and the characters all have their hearts on their sleeves.  There is nothing subtle about their emotions, motivations and actions and they all behave in a very straight forward way, typical for any Masumura character. This emotional rawness makes for a fabulously melodramatic story that resists cheesiness and kitsch, proving that Masumura is a master of the genre. The beautifully shot exteriors are a fine setting, and Wakao turns in a very heartfelt performance. Two sequences near the end struck me as particularly successful: the scene where Okane's decision to permanently injure Seisaku is pitted against the festivities for his leave, and the scene when Seisaku imagines his wife in prison which Masumura paints as a vast and dauntingly foggy purgatory, where women roam about aimlessly, carrying massive chains after them.

A very good film.

Yasuzo Masumura - Manji (1964)

Sonoko (Kyoko Kishida), a bored and unhappy housewife meets the young, beautiful and desirable Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao) at a private art class. She paints a portrait of her, telling the principal that Mitsuko has the "perfect face". Sonoko falls in love with her, and the two engage in a secret and forbidden lesbian love affair. But, Masumura being who he is, this is just the starting point to explore how love can spark utter madness, chaos and death. At first, I thought that Masumura shot Manji after Blind Beast, as both films explore the same themes, only that Manji is more focused and poignant, and was surprised to see that Blind Beast came 5 years later. On the other hand, the madness portrayed in Blind Beast is a lot more extreme, so maybe Masumura was more interested in showing the insanity triggered by love than to dig deeper into the relationships that lead to such hydrophobia.

In Blind Beast, Masumura portrayed love as a debilitating state, almost like a disease that sucks the life out of the pitiable people who fall pray to such an illness. Manji seems to offer that love is nothing more than a power struggle and that alliances and rivalries are the only thing that seem to matter when it comes to romantic relations. To speak with Buck 65, it's "sexual want and its perpetual tug of war" Masumura and screenwriter Kaneto Shindo are interested in, and there seems to be only two outcomes for this: madness or death. Throughout the film, various characters conspire in order to deceive the others (first Sonoko and Mitsuko against Sonoko's husband, then Mitsuko and her husband against Sonoko, then the two women against both their husbands, then Mitsuko's husband and Sonoko against the two others, then the two husbands against the two women, until finally Sonoko, her husband and Mitsuko form a threesome that seals the deal on their damnation) and each time they promise eternal faithfulness to each other, and that they will commit suicide if they can't live up to their word. 

Of course they never can and it is only by using the other in order to justify their own deeds that they seem able to survive. Simultaneously, with each bound to another relation, the characters seem to lose their shit a little more, until they appear to be possessed both by the maniac desire they have for each other and the obsessive wish to escape their feelings. Some characters try to get some order into things, as with Mitsuko's husband who negociates contracts with the others that are supposed to regulate their love sick behavior, or Mitsuko who constantly employs drugs to limit the scope of action of the others or herself. But, love being an almost unnatural state of hormonal lunacy, humans can do what they want, once Amor's arrow has pierced their hearts, they are doomed. 

Visually, Manji is highly stylized with beautifully composed shots, and expertly edited sequences that can be as long as 5 or 6 minutes, during which Masumura heightens the tension by an increasingly expressionistic framing. Kimonos and traditional inns can be found as well as contemporary automobiles and suits, so that it is never really clear when and where the action takes place. The characters act at times erratic and then romantic, so that the performances vary from intense melodrama to down to earth or, in Mitsuko's case, creepy. The plot moves along swiftly, the twists are always satisfying pay-offs to the sometimes overly elaborate set ups, in one sentence, Manji is a highly entertaining viewing experience that is highly recommended.

Yasuzo Masumura - Red Angel (1966)

It is 1939 and the Sino-Japanese war is in full swing. Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao), a young nurse, is sent to Manchuria where she experiences the war in all its facets first hand. She is raped by soldiers that the war has turned into nothing more than beasts, she helps amputate more legs and arms than anyone can count, removes bullets from soldiers that are barely alive, helps a doctor she is in love with to overcome his drug addiction and even holds her own in the final climatic battle. Written by Ryozo Kasahara and based on a novel by Yoriyoshi Arima, Red Angel has to be counted among the great war movies and is without a doubt the best film of Masumura I have seen so far. It is a tuff, bleak and pessimistic movie, but emotionally very honest, thought-provoking and erotic. It will not leave anyone indifferent.

Shot in hauntingly beautiful black and white, Red Angel has an episodic structure and uses Nishi's encounters with different patients to explore how the war affects the men and society as a whole in different ways. Through all of the suffering, violence and despair, Nishi truly remains an Angel, a supernaturally humane entity that tries to help where she can, even though Masumura and his screenwriter Kasahara never suggest that there could be something like a positive outcome. On the first night she does her rounds, Nishi is gang raped. Later, she takes pity on a soldier who lost both hands. She gives him sexual favors and takes him out to the city in order to make him feel better. In the end, he commits suicide because her kindness is too much for him who can't muster up any optimism for his life. In a terrific sequence at the end, Nishi helps Dr. Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida), whom she falls in love with, fight his heroine addiction. When it finally seems like they both could have a future together, he is killed by the enemy.

Through all of this, there is biting social commentary. The young soldier who lost both his arms will not be able to go home, because he symbolizes Japan's defeat in the war. He is used on the battle field, gives literally all he has to his country, and is finally disposed off. When someone finally shows him some form of appreciation, the contrast with his life prospect is too much for him to handle. War cripples men to such an extent that even love (heralded as the universal remedy for everything) can't help them. It dooms them even more. As with Dr. Okabe, he has to deal with a shortage of blood supplies and medicine and amputates leg after leg, arm after arm. He is torn by guilt because he knows what this means for the men, but the circumstances force him to act that way. There simply is no escaping this hopelessness. So he turns to drugs. "I'm a doctor", he says. "But I can't do anything here. Without the shots, I can't go on living. It's the same as soldiers. They kill men and try to forget by thinking it's patriotism. That helps." Powerful stuff.

Red Angel, though less formal than Masumura's films I have seen so far, is expertly filmed, the shots composed carefully, with an inquiring camera and relatively calm but poignant editing. As always, there are no close ups of the actors, the camera maintaining a sort of observant distance, which, like with Blind Beast or Irezumi, can be a problem, but doesn't prevent us here from being instantly sucked into the story and emotionally involved with the characters. The score is beautiful. The final battle sequence does not fall short of any battle scenes I have seen in contemporary movies, except that there is no CGI.

Highly recommended.