Chikamatsu Monzaemon's play "The Lovers Suicides at Amijima" was made into a film by Masahiro Shinoda in 1969. Its name remained unchanged: "Shinjû: Ten no Amijima", which was translated simply into “Double Suicide” for the foreign audiences.

Shinjû alone translates as:

“Lovers' double suicide.”

and is written in Japanese as:

心中

Monzaemon's play was written as a 'bunraku' or 'puppet drama': the second oldest form of Japanese theatre. The film, however, was part of the cinematic 'nuberu bagu' or 'new wave', and as such it breaks from tradition.

Shinoda employs unconventional techniques to tell the classic story:
We open with him on the phone, arranging how the closing scene of the film should be shot, An idea pioneered by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard in the nouvelle vague. Whilst Shinoda does this, we see the puppet masters preparing and are then thrust into a heavily stylised version of the theatrical play. Here humans act as puppets acting as humans.

The film takes influence from far and wide and consistently asks its audience to suspend their disbelief. Donald Richie argues western cinema is 'representational'. In other words, it attempts to show 'reality': to constantly trick us into believing what we are seeing is real. Whilst Japanese cinema is 'presentational'. That being, it presents another world and is viewed as an art form. This is, of course, a sweeping generalisation; but nevertheless it very often holds true.

For further presentational/representation reading go to Starrynight's theatre related node.

Shinoda certainly creates 'presentational' cinema, and it suits this narrative perfectly. Based on a puppet drama, even western audiences are aware of the constructed nature of the story. Further more, his use of this form is typically 'Japanese'. Put simply, the nuberu bagu, although seemingly radical, is actually based in the same roots at traditional cinema.

Japanese Cinema was never really purely 'Japanese'. It was late to bloom in a worldwide scale, and when it did it was heavily affected by non Japanese products. The Allied occupation furthered this, resulting in films which took bits and pieces from many cultures, before making them 'Japanese'. Shinoda is a good example of this: the first shot of the inner play of "Double Suicide" echo's a shot from Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin", which is interrupted by the 'kurago'. Men dressed entirely in black who traditionally handle the puppets. In this case, they prepare the bodies of our actors for suicide. These men remain throughout the film, often hidden, only moving when they are needed to carry props, change scenery or to manipulate the characters actions.

Shinoda once said that the Kurago realise one of Chikamastu's basic principles: the need to realise the "thin line between truth and falsehood." "They...represent the eye of the camera,...the desire of the audience to force their way deeper into the story, the minds of the characters, and possible even...the mind of Chikamatsu himself."

This film is one of the few which has made me shiver. There is a deep eroticism oozing off the screen, an eroticism that's created through the tensions of the characters actions, rather than sex. Which is incidentally an action that is constantly linked with death, and always longed for. This eroticism is perhaps further through Shima Iwashita's presence: Shinoda's wife. Who plays two characters. One an object, a prostitute and lover of our lead male, Jihei. The other is Jihei's wife. Devoted to him, yearning for him and his happiness. Of course, Jihei is torn between the two. Between the tensions of personal inclination and duty.

"Giri-Ninjo"

It is a vastly important Japanese theme. Something that arises time and time again, and is often coupled with the conflict of:

"Uchi-Soto"

The notion of safeness inside, 'uchi', and dangerous outside, 'soto'.

In Double Suicide, these themes are coupled. Jihei constantly shifts between the two women; duty and personal inclination. Outside is used to punctuate the action. Whenever we see or hear about the harsh, unsafe environment something bad happens. Jihei is safe, so long as he can choose a stance. It is the travelling between the women that tears him apart. The tensions of Uchi-Soto, driven by his conflicting feelings of desire and duty.


Bibliography:

  • Double Suicide dvd
  • an essay by Claire Johnston which appears in 'Focus on Film' issue 2.
  • www.imdb.com
  • http://www.kabuki21.com/glossaire_7.php
  • Donald Richie's "A Hundred Years of Japanese Film"

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