Sunday, April 26, 2020

Mahler's The Song of the Earth and Chinese Poetry

Some of the earliest translators of Chinese and Japanese poetry into a Western language were made by poets who could not read the original sources. They knew no Chinese, no Japanese. The resulting poems have not surprisingly little to do with the originals. Strangely enough, this is a discussion that even now sometimes flares up: should a translator be well-versed in the original language of the work he is translating, or should he be a poet in his own language?
The answer is, ideally, both, but that is indeed a rare combination. But the choice is easy: at all times the translator should be an expert in Chinese or Japanese, otherwise you get poems full of mistakes, or even free verse that floats around on the own fantasy of the translator.

Hans Bethge (1876-1946) is a good example. Bethge was a poet and editor who struck gold when he started re-working previous translations of oriental classics. The first collection, The Chinese Flute (1907), sold 100,000 copies.

Bethge went on to Japan, Turkey, Persia, India, Egypt, and so on, finishing with The Asian Temple of Love. Although more chinoiserie than China, his free versification did have a fresh, musical quality and inspired settings by many composers.

Major among them is of course Gustav Mahler, who used a number of poems from The Chinese Flute for his last song cycle, The Song of the Earth. I got to know Mahler's music, and therefore also the free adaptations of Li Bai, Wang Wei and other Tang-poets by Bethge when I was in high school. I was already interested in China and in fact, had decided to study Chinese and Japanese in Leiden. Motivating factors were my fascination for Daoism, Zen, ink painting and the mystery of the Chinese script...

It was completely by coincidence I bought two Mahler records - there was a sale of mono records at the local record shop. As stereo had finally won the day, mono was being sold cheaply. But I had a mono record player so those mono records were just fine with me. In fact, they had quite a big, bony sound. That is how I came to own this difficult and tragic Mahler piece (together with his Fourth Symphony).

There is not much of the real China left in Hans Bethge, and nothing at all in Mahler, who added almost 50% new text of his own inspiration. The Song of the Earth is pure "Fin de Siecle" Weltschmerz, a feeling completely unknown in the China of 1,250 years ago. Mahler was already ill when he wrote this music and so was his culture. The Song of the Earth was published in 1908, just six years before the war would start that would destroy his civilization, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Let's compare the final part of this sad, resigned song cycle called The Farewell with the original Chinese poems.

Mahler's text is a farewell to life and civilization:
The sun departs behind the mountains.
In all the valleys, evening descends with its cooling shadows.
O look! Like a silver boat, the moon floats on the blue sky-lake above.
I feel the fine wind wafting behind the dark spruce.
The brook sings loudly through the darkness.
The flowers stand out palely in the twilight.
The earth breathes, full of peace and sleep, and all yearning wishes to dream now.
Weary men go home, to learn in sleep forgotten happiness and youth.
The birds crouch silently in their branches.
The world is asleep!
It blows coolly in the shadows of my spruce.
I stand here and wait for my friend; I wait to bid him a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side to enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where do you tarry?
You leave me alone for so long!
I wander up and down with my lute, on paths swelling with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal love - eternal, love-intoxicated world!
He dismounted and handed him the drink of parting.
He asked him where he would go, and also why it must be.
He spoke, his voice was choked:
My friend, on this earth, fortune has not been kind to me!
Where do I go?
I will go, wander in the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I wander to find my homeland, my home.
I will never stray to foreign lands.
Quiet is my heart, waiting for its hour!
The dear earth everywhere blooms in spring and grows green afresh!
Everywhere and eternally, distant places have blue skies!
Eternally... eternally...

This long text is based on two Chinese poems, one by Meng Haoran (698-740) and one by Wang Wei (699-761), which I give here in the expert translation of Stephen Owen (An Anthology of Chinese Literature, Norton 1996). About the first poem by Meng Haoran, Owen remarks that it fits in a tradition of occasional verse, written when one made a visit to someone who was not at home (probably one would leave a copy behind as a sort of poetic name card). Meng Haoran turns this convention on its head by writing from the position of the host about a visitor who failed to appear:
Spending the Night in Reverend Ye's Mountain Chamber, I was expecting the senior Mr Ding, but he did not come.

When evening sun passed over Western peaks,
all the valleys grew suddenly dark.
The moon through pines brought in night's cool,
and a breeze on the stream filled listening ears.
The woodsmen have almost all gone home,
and birds now settle on misty roosts.
The man made a promise to come for the night,
my harp waits alone on the vine-hung path.

(Stephen Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature, Norton 1996, p. 373)
Another important social occasion for poetry writing was parting. Most Chinese poets were government officials who would get a new assignment in the immense empire every three or four years, so partings among colleagues were frequent. The person who was leaving would be accompanied part of the way, and then a farewell banquet would be held. Here is the poem by Wang Wei Bethge and Mahler used. Rather than a conventional parting poem, it seems that the poet is speaking to himself - not successful in his official career, he decides to start living in retirement on his estate by South Mountain:
Parting I get off my horse,
offer you wine and ask you where you are going.
You say that nothing turned out as you wished,
you go home to rest by South Mountain.
Go off then, I will ask nothing more -
white clouds there that never end.

(Stephen Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature, Norton 1996, p. 375)
As you see, there is nothing of the eternal sadness and drama of Mahler contained in the original Chinese poems. They are very good poems - top class in the Chinese tradition - written by free minds who play with literary conventions. And of course they do have real feeling, but very different in intent from Mahlerian Weltschmerz...

What I like about Chinese poetry is the conciseness. That is completely destroyed by the unnecessary padding in the Bethge/Mahler version: the first poem of only eight lines, has been blown up to 24 lines, the second one of six to fifteen.

New images are introduced: the moon as a ship on the blue sky-lake, the pale flowers; the simple "woodsmen" have become "weary men" who seek forgotten happiness in their sleep... We get beauty and eternal love, in the second poem the person taking leave speaks in a "choked" voice, and instead of "resting by South Mountain", Bethge/Mahler have him "wander" in the mountains, looking for his homeland, to say nothing about the fact that the simple "white clouds" (an image strong enough in itself, reminding us of Chinese ink painting) have been turned into an eternal springtime...

Hans Bethge's poems have again words and phrases added to them by Mahler, but it is already in Bethge's adaptation that we find the changes of meaning signaled in the above. 

Now there is of course nothing wrong with that, as long as it is not presented as a translation - which Bethge didn't do, he called his versions "Nachdichtungen." In ancient Japan this technique also existed and was called hon'an (翻案): a free adaptation of an existing literary work into a new one, without the necessity to be in any way faithful to the original. 

That being so, one should of course never turn to Bethge's adaptations to read Chinese poetry; these adaptations functioned in the Chinoiserie vogue around 1900 but today have only some historical value. We should go to the original poems through good translations, or (even better, if possible) read the Chinese text itself. 

On the other hand, the music by Mahler is sublime and The Song of the Earth is a great work of art in its own right. We should not turn to it to find something Chinese: the music, but also the text, is 100% Mahler. But it is interesting to note how cultural misunderstandings can lead to wonderful music...

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Best Twentieth Century Operas (7): "Bluebeard's Castle" by Bela Bartok (1911)

Bluebeard's Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára), written in 1911 and first performed in 1918, by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, is a short opera of about an hour, like Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex; and like Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande, it is also a heavily Symbolist opera. The number of singers is very restricted: only two, Bluebeard (bass) and his new wife Judith (mezzo soprano); there is no chorus. The libretto (in Hungarian) was written by Bela Balazs, based on the French folktale "La Barbe bleue" by Charles Perrault from 1697. With the ballets The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin, this opera is one of Bartok's three stage works.

[Bluebeard giving the keys of his house 
to his new wife - Image Wikipedia]

Here is the story of the original French folktale, which was rather changed by Balazs and Bartok. Bluebeard is a very rich but terrifying man with a big blue beard. When he leaves for business, he hands his young wife the keys of the castle. She is allowed to visit all rooms except one, a small storage room in the basement. Over time, the wife can not contain her curiosity and opens the banned room. There she finds the six dead bodies of her predecessors. When Bluebeard comes unexpectedly home, he soon notes that his wife has used the forbidden key. He becomes furious and wants to kill her on the spot. However, she is able to delay his anger and warns her brothers. They attack Bluebeard and kill him.

Much has been written about the meaning of this folktale: is Bluebeard just a monster, a serial murderer? Or is the curiosity of his wife the problem? What do the closed rooms mean - that there are secrets (which are perhaps better kept covered up) in any human relationship?

In the opera, the psychological dimensions are much stronger than in the folktale and often Symbolist images are used, such as flowers dripping with blood. A spoken prologue invites the audience to enter the realm of myth. The scene consists of a large, dark hall in a castle, with seven closed doors. Bluebeard has just brought his new wife, Judith, to his castle. She demands that all doors be opened, to let light fall into the dusty rooms, emphasizing that her wish arises only from love for Bluebeard. Bluebeard refuses and declares that the rooms behind the doors may not be seen by anyone. He begs her to love him, but not to ask questions. Judith perseveres and finally convinces Bluebeard. The doors are opened one at a time; after opening each door, Bluebeard begs Judith to stop.

The first door conceals a torture chamber, covered with blood. Judith is shocked, but keeps going on. Behind the second door is a weapons storehouse and the third door gives access to a treasure room. Initially, Judith is overjoyed by the beauty of the jewels, until she notices that they are all blood-stained. Behind the fourth door a magic garden lies hidden, but here, too, the plants and flowers are oozing blood. When the fifth door is opened, Judith is dazzled by light: here lies the enormous empire of Bluebeard. And, here too, she sees that grim clouds throw blood-red shadows over that kingdom.

Bluebeard pleads with Judith to stop now, but she refuses to give up. Behind the sixth door, a silent silvery lake appears. Bluebeard calls it a "lake of tears," but whose tears is unclear. This is the first room without blood, though.

At the seventh door, Bluebeard refuses to continue. His resistance is violent and he continues to ask Judith to kiss him, to love him and never ask anything anymore about this seventh room. This last door must remain shut forever. But Judith persists, asking him about his former wives, and then accusing him of having murdered them, suggesting that the blood she saw in the other rooms was their blood, and that it were their tears that filled the lake. Are their dead bodies hidden behind this last door? At this, Bluebeard hands over the last key.

Behind the door are indeed Bluebeard's three former wives, but amazingly, they are still alive, dressed in crowns and jewelry. Silently, one by one, they step out. Bluebeard praises them and calls the first one his "wife of dawn," the second one his "wife of noon," and the third one "his wife of the afternoon." And, he continues, Judith, his fourth wife, will be the "wife of the night." He puts a crown on Judith's head, which is very heavy to wear - her head droops under the weight. She begs him to stop, but it is too late. She has to follow the other wives into the secret chamber, and the door closes behind her. Bluebeard remains alone in the vastness and darkness of his castle...

[Bela Bartok - Image Wikipedia]

The message of Bartok's opera seems to be "that loneliness is the essential quality of the human condition" (Opera, The Rough Guide, p. 487). Bartok was an extremely private and introverted man and the fact that he dedicated the opera to his new bride Marta seems - rather ironically - to be a message that she shouldn't pry into his soul.

Bartok wrote disquieting music for this opera, full of anxiety and impending horror; it is often polytonal. The dissonant minor second interval is used to symbolize the blood in the various rooms. Moreover, Bartok characterized the gulf between both characters by writing opulent and grandiose music for Judith, but starkly sober and repressed music for Bluebeard. For the opening of the various doors Bartok composed highly expressive, miniature tone poems. The highlight comes when the fifth door is opened, leading to Bluebeard's kingdom: a huge C major chord for orchestra and organ aptly symbolizes the staggering light bursting from this room.

There have been countless versions of Bluebeard, both as opera (for example by Paul Dukas in 1907, based on a Symbolist play by Maeterlinck), as film, and in literature, but Bartok has given us the best one. The opera should be performed more often, but the Hungarian language may be a problem for many singers (although there are also German and English versions); and as it is rather static, with only two performers, it is often performed in a concert version. There are many versions on disc; my favorite one (which breaks through the lack of incident and with its beautiful visuals and drama is never for one moment dull) is the superb 1988 BBC film version, with Robert Lloyd and Elizabeth Lawrence, and conductor Adam Fischer.

Twentieth Century Opera

Friday, April 24, 2020

Shutter Moment: Gion hairdresser

This hairdresser in the Gion area of Kyoto has dressed out her modern hairsalon with a traditional inuyarai, a screen of bamboo strips to protect the lower part of buildings from fouling by animals or people. Somehow, it does not fit... on the other hand, this is something you could only come across in Kyoto!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Naruse Mikio (Great Auteur Film Directors 6)

Film director Naruse Mikio (1905-1969) is considered, along with Mizoguchi and Ozu, one of the three greatest Japanese directors of his generation. For most of his career he pursued the theme of the social status of women in patriarchal Japanese society, but his films are very different from those of that other "woman director," Mizoguchi.

Born in Tokyo, his family's poverty prevented him from going to university; instead, he became a propman at Shochiku. But where most of his colleagues like Mizoguchi, Ozu, Shimizu and Gosho, in one or two years became directors in their own right, Naruse had to slave for ten years before he was allowed to make his first film. He didn't hit it off with Shochiku's director Kido, and in 1934 moved to rival P.C.L., which soon became Toho. Here he was recognized as a major filmmaker and Naruse even attained some international acclaim when one of his first sound films, Wife, Be Like a Rose! (1935), was shown abroad in the United States.

Naruse remained the rest of his life at Toho, where he was appreciated for the fact that he always turned out high-quality films efficiently and economically (within budget and time - important at Toho which was run like an American studio). After the war, he remained a major force in Japanese cinema with such noted films as Mother (1952), Floating Clouds (1955), Flowing (1956) and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960). In his 37 years as a director (between 1930 and 1967) he produced 89 films.

Naruse, who seems to have been a silent an unsociable man, has been called the "materialist par excellence. [...] His characters battle to satisfy basic physical, social and economic needs. [...] His central characters are single women coping with the problems of making a living, supporting a sick parent or child, finding companionship and sexual partners, seeking ways of reducing their burdens and improving the quality of their lives." (Freda Freiberg in Senses of Cinema)

Characteristic for Naruse are the following elements:

1. Struggle with the world
Naruse's genre is the shoshimin-eiga, the realistic film about the lower middle classes, within which his specialties are the precise delineation of social milieus and of material hardship. His characters are engaged in a constant struggle, a struggle that the frequent open endings of his films indicate is one that will continue. His characters will fight on. Naruse's subtle and profound realist dramas are distinguished by careful observation and superb acting. They are energized by the force with which his characters struggle with the world, leading to an underpinning with a steady onward flow, which is very inspiring.

2. Women's films
Films about struggling women. Naruse shows compassion for the plight of Japanese women in an essentially male-dominated world. The women in his films are full-blooded heroines who do not indulge in self-pity but face the world with gritty resolve (especially when played by Naruse’s frequent collaborator Takamine Hideko). Though they may be handicapped by circumstances beyond their control, they confront life squarely with courageous determination and without delusion.

3. "Enlightened defeats"
There are no easy victories in Naruse's films, his work doesn't fit in the Hollywood-type "feel good" mode. The endings of Naruse's films often affirm the impossibility of escape: the discontented wife returning to an unhappy marriage in Repast (1951); the aging bar hostess climbing to work once more in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960); the young geisha at her sewing machine in Flowing (1956), etc. Audie Bock, an authority on Japanese film, sums up Naruse'’s oeuvre as follows: "There are no happy endings for Naruse but there are incredibly enlightened defeats."’

4. "Invisible" cinematic technique
Naruse's auteurist films lack the strong formal distinctiveness that characterizes Ozu, Mizoguchi or Kurosawa, but all the same, Naruse's use of cinematic techniques is very sophisticated. Virtually every shot stands out for its carefully composed artistry. The director also utilizes montage effectively. Naruse's films are characterized by the simplicity of the screenplay, with all superfluous dialogue stripped away; unobstructive camera work and an inconspicuous studio set. Naruse’s style has been called “invisible,” one that is in the first place put in the service of the story, of the characters and the emotions in any given scene. The unifying features of his mature films are thematic rather than stylistic. His austere method is concentrated on the everyday drama of ordinary Japanese in their struggle with life’'s tribulations, with a maximum of psychological nuances in every glance, gesture and movement.

We can divide Naruse's career as follows:

1. Silent Films at Shochiku (1930-34)
At Shochiku Naruse made 24 films, of which 5 have been preserved. The content is based on a combination of Japanese shinpa melodrama and Hollywood; the style is Modernist, with some excesses. These are typical early "city films," featuring young modern men and women, and a dynamic style of shooting and editing. Every Night Dreams, discussed below, is a good example, but other interesting films are Apart from You (geisha milieu) and Street without End (about a waitress in a Ginza cafe, with great shots of the 1930s Ginza).

2. P.C.L./Toho (1935-39)
Naruse made 10 films during his three years at P.C.L., all in the style of vernacular Modernism. This became the first period of personal and artistic success for him. The most famous of these films is Wife! Be like a Rose! which was also shown in New York under the title Kimiko.

3. 1940s (War and aftermath)
Naruse's production during and just after the war was less successful and rather uneven. During the war years, Naruse made 13 films at Toho. Like films by other directors at this time, these are mostly atypical costume dramas as well as films set in the ideologically "safe" world of traditional art. The most interesting film from the war years is the comedy Hideko the Bus Conductor with a very young Takamine Hideko. In the Occupation period Naruse made the usual pro-democracy films (10 in total). None of these films is very good, also because Naruse was not able to work with top actresses.

4. Women Films of the Fifties & Sixties (1951-1967)
Naruse came back in full force in 1951 with Meshi based on a Hayashi Fumiko story and Ginza Gessho. He could now work with top actresses as Tanaka Kinuyo, Hara Setsuko and Takamine Hideko. He based six successful films on the popular novels of Hayashi Fumiko and worked with excellent screenplay writers as Mizuki Yoko. Naruse now produced a consistent body of great films, although he was never granted the auteurist position that Ozu and Kurosawa occupied - at Toho, he remained a company man and also had to do some projects that were not ideally suited to him.

The fifties and sixties are sometimes divided as follows:
1950-56: Ginza Cosmetics marked the start of the top period of Naruse’s work, and is followed by such masterworks as Repast, Lightning, Older Brother - Younger Sister, Sound of the Mountain, Late Chrysanthemums, and Floating Clouds.
1956-67: Although there is some falling-off in the quality of the work in this last period, it still includes superb films like When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and Midaregumo.

The best films by Naruse (I make a rather large selection because Naruse is unjustly still relatively unknown):

1. Every Night Dreams (Yogoto no yume, 1933)
Yogoto no Yume ("Every Night Dreams") is a melodrama about the poor, visually influenced by Von Sternberg's 1928 The Docks of New York. In a Japanese harbor town (Yokohama?), a young woman (famous silent star Kurishima Sumiko), abandoned by her husband (Saito Tatsuo, the father in Ozu's I Was Born, But...) and seeking to support her little boy, works as a hostess in a bar patronized by sailors. She seems on the verge of being forced into prostitution. Then the husband suddenly returns to resume living with her, but is unable to find a job. He spends his days playing with their boy. When the boy is hit by a car and wounded, the desperate father becomes a robber (there was no general health insurance yet). Pursued by the police, he finally drowns himself in the harbor. When his wife learns of his fate, she is overwhelmed by grief but urges her son to be strong in adversity as the film ends. The focus on losers (those who are too weak to even try and those who give up) and battlers (those who at least put up a fight or keep struggling) would be typical for all Naruse's films. Yogoto no Yume placed third among the year's outstanding productions cited by the prestigious Japanese film magazine, Kinema Jumpo, behind Ozu's Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy) and Mizoguchi's Taki no Shiraito (The Water Magician) and just ahead of another Naruse film, Kimi to Wakarete (Apart From You). Like in all his silent films, every scene has been carefully composed in a typical Modernist style.

2. Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Tsuma yo, bara no yo ni, 1935)
When Naruse moved to P.C.L., he immediately made five films in 1935, of which one, Wife! Be Like a Rose! won the Kinema Junpo Best Film award. It is a fine comedy, with a lighter touch than is usual for Naruse. The speed is also brisk. The film's lively formal invention is always at the service of the relationships between the characters and their emotions. A bright and modern office girl (Kimiko, played by Chiba Sachiko, usually dressed in a suit), who lives with her mother, a tanka poet who is obsessed with literary creation, laments that her father for the last fifteen years has been staying in the countryside with his disreputable mistress, a former geisha. Kimiko is hoping to marry her boyfriend and her father must at least show his face to her in-laws! She travels to Nagano Prefecture intending to track down her errant father and ask him to come back home. But she discovers that he has found a happier relationship with another woman and their two children, and finally comes to accept that situation. She also sees the disinterested love of the mistress for her father. In fact, the daughter discovers the mistress to be good and the official wife to be the worse of the two. Although the father comes to town to prepare for her wedding, he soon returns permanently to the other family, for that is where he now belongs (and it is clear he has nothing in common anymore with his poet-wife). We find a mature acceptance of life as it is in this Japanese film, rather than a forced moralistic ending in Hollywood-style. Much like Renoir's films from the same period, Naruse displays a great openness to unorthodox models of social relationships and a skeptical attitude to the conventional nuclear family. Wife! Be Like a Rose! became the first Japanese talkie to be shown abroad, in New York, but it had a rather mixed reception, as it probably was too modern and foreign for its viewers.

3. Hideko, the Bus Conductor (Hideko no shasho-san, 1941)
At the beginning of the war, Naruse makes Hideko no Shasho-san ("Hideko, The Bus Conductor"), based on a short story by Ibuse Masuji, and starring the young Takamine Hideko. Hideko works as conductor for a company in the countryside (Yamanashi), where the number of passengers is dwindling. To save the company, she asks a visiting author to write commentaries on local sites so that she can recite these to the passengers during the trip through the countryside. Not only a wonderfully peaceful and pleasant film, but also a remarkable story about a vivacious young woman coming out as a professional. She is a typical Naruse heroine in that she fights back and puts up a struggle, here to keep the bus company afloat so that she doesn't loose her job. And, as in some films from the 1930s, for example Arigato-san by Shimizu Hiroshi, there are great location shots through the windows of the bus.

4. Ginza Cosmetics (Ginza Gesho, 1951)
Ginza Gesho ("Ginza Cosmetics") depicts a few days in the life of a Ginza bar hostess, and is a sort of precursor to Naruse's later When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. Tanaka Kinuyo plays the bar hostess, an unmarried woman (or widow) with a young son, and it is interesting to see her playing against type: she is a somewhat rough-and-ready, hard-drinking and chain-smoking hostess. The film also brings on one of Naruse's trapped characters, as the hostess is unable to escape from her hard life by catching a suitable husband. Ironically, when she is together with a suitable man and trying to show herself from her best side (no smoking!), her son disappears and she leaves to search for him, entrusting her would-be partner to her younger sister. Sister and partner hit it off so well, that then and there they decide to marry - and Tanaka Kinuyo accepts this with resignation.

5. Repast (Meshi, 1951)
Repast is a nuanced psychological masterpiece on the home life of a childless couple, a low-salaried clerk (Uehara Ken) and his wife (Hara Setsuko) living in Osaka. The wife begins to realize that all those years of marriage have given her no feeling of self-realization and she starts weighing her options - which are however rather meager. The situation is brought to a head by the arrival of a niece, a young woman, with whom her husband starts flirting. The wife returns to her family in Tokyo, seeking a job, but in the end resigns herself to going back to her husband. Naruse portrays life in post-war Japan in an almost documentary fashion, particularly in his location sequences. This is the first of six films that Naruse in the coming decade will base on the novels of Hayashi Fumiko. He even made a film about her life, Horoki (A Wanderer’s Notebook, 1962). This film was Naruse's return to critical esteem sixteen years after Wife! Be like a Rose!.

6. Mother (Okasan, 1952)
Okasan ("Mother") by Naruse Mikio was one of the most successful of postwar shoshimin-eiga. A daughter witnesses her widowed mother (with three children), a tenacious, aging woman, struggling to keep the dry-cleaning business left by her husband going and avoid poverty. Melodramas about maternal love and sacrifice, so-called "haha-mono," were popular since the early fifties (Daiei made scores of sodden sentimental ones with actress Mimasu Aiko, "the mother of Japan" - these films about mothers suffering for the sake of their offspring apparently took their cue from Henry King's Stella Dallas, but it is also an age-old Japanese theme). Naruse's film is an ironical variation on the "mother" theme. There is a voice-over from the daughter who talks in a funny and loving way about her mother, but who in reality manipulates her. Casual viewers may miss this, and it is not put into words in the film, but after the death of the husband the mother is helped in her laundry by an uncle. There is a suggestion that she would not be averse to him staying and marrying her and this feeling seems to be reciprocal. But by her attitude the daughter makes clear she is against her mother remarrying, and the mother therefore consciously lets the chance slip by. This is selfishness of the daughter, for the mother has a hard time alone; and the daughter has already a boyfriend so will soon leave the house. Another interesting point is that the death of the older brother and the father are both almost elided, in contrast to other "mother" films where they would be milked for sentimental effect.

7. Inazuma (Lightning, 1952)
Based on a novel by Hayashi Fumiko and featuring the director's frequent muse, Takamine Hideko. In contrast to the previous film, this is a story about a weak-willed mother with four children by different fathers - a rather dysfunctional family, at least as the three eldest children are concerned. The youngest, unmarried daughter tries to break away from the sordidness around her, but in the end cannot help being kind to her pathetic mother. In Naruse's films the inner conflicts of the characters are subtly indicated by the absence of prolonged eye contact or by glances filled with a hidden flash of disgust. 

8. Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto, 1954)
After the well-known novel by Kawabata Yasunari, one of the writer's masterworks. The heroine of this film (Hara Setsuko), a young bride, finds relief from marital distress when her husband slights her for another woman, in the friendship with her father-in-law (Yamamura So). The husband is again played by Uehara Ken, as in Meshi, now an active philanderer. The youthful enthusiasms of the wife are crushed by the unfeeling husband and only the aging father-in-law is moved by her sadness. Mizuki Yoko, who was responsible for the scripts of other masterworks by Naruse, has shifted the emphasis of Kawabata’s novel away from its male point of view and focus on the psychology of the elderly father-in-law, to the feelings of the daughter-in-law. This daughter-in-law is increasingly (silently) angered by her husband's bad behavior (he has a child by his mistress), so much that when she notices she is pregnant, she has an abortion without consulting anybody in the family. In the end she leaves her husband; the final scene is set in Shinjuku Gyoen Park, where she has a farewell meeting with her father-in-law. 

9. Last Chrysanthemum (Bangiku, 1954)
A film about the loneliness and disillusion of three aging geisha, struggling to retain their dignity in a cold and unfeeling world, a subject Naruse had already touched on in Apart from You (1933). Naruse again demonstrates his deep understanding of female psychology in these sharp portraits of women who are experienced, proud and disillusioned. Forced into retirement by age and financially struggling in their meager second careers, these proud but flawed women persevere through economic hardship, alienation from their adult children, and personal heartbreak. Permeated with a general feeling of regret and sadness. Based on three short stories by Hayashi Fumiko.

10. Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955)
Naruse's most popular but also somewhat melodramatic film. Set in a post-war devastated Tokyo and a society that is in dissolution, the film shows us the tenacity of an ill-fated woman, Yukiko (Takamine Hideko), in love with a worthless married man, Tomioka (Mori Masayuki), she met in S.E. Asia during the war. After the war, Tomioka returns to his wife and family; when Yukiko follows him, he appears a completely changed man. The novel is set in the poverty and degradation of bombed-out Tokyo, where everybody suffers the pangs of hunger. Yukiko accepts every sort of humiliation at Tomioka's hands - even when he takes up with another mistress, or leaves her simply behind when he has a job transfer. To survive, she has to turn to prostitution - at all stages of her life she is manipulated be men. She keeps following her lover, all the way to the remote island of Yakushima (the edge of postwar Japan), where she finally dies. In the chilling last scene, Tomioka carefully puts lipstick on her dead lips. Based on a novel by Hayashi Fumiko. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

11. Flowing (Nagareru, 1956)
A film about the decline of a geisha house on the Sumida River, based on the expert novel by Koda Aya. The events are seen through the eyes of the middle-aged maid Rika (Tanaka Kinuyo) who begins to work there at the start of the film. We witness the slow dissolution of a once viable way of life in a time of economic hardship, and also the decline in status of the geisha after the war. The long-established geisha house run by the proud Otsuta (Yamada Isuzu) is heavily in debt, and the mistress desperately tries to save her business. In that, she is assisted by her practical daughter Katsuyo (who is not a geisha and wants a regular job; played by Takamine Hideko), but the forces opposing her are very strong. There are various subplots, but the structure of the film is unified through the use of the architecture of the house. The title "Flowing" points literally at the Sumida River flowing at the back of the establishment, but also at the uprootedness of the characters - and perhaps also to "the flow" of money that is so important in the film, as survival depends on it.

12. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki, 1960)
A film set in the milieu of bars and hostesses, and the men who visit such bars. Keiko (Takamine Hideko) is a beautiful hostess who manages a bar in Tokyo's Ginza district as the "mama-san" although she does not own it. In her behavior, she is demure and conservative, seldom showing her feelings; she is always impeccably dressed in kimono. She is in her thirties (she is a widow) and it is therefore time to settle down, by either acquiring an establishment of her own, or by leaving the water trade through a second marriage. Her present bar is on the second floor, and every evening she has to climb the stairs. She hates the look of those steep stairs, and the grind work that awaits her at the top of them, but once she is inside her bar, she shows an impenetrable smiling face - a professional accessory - and can take everything that comes her way. She also keeps her style and her independence. In her own words: "Around midnight, Tokyo's 16,000 bar women go home. The best go home by car. Second-rate ones by streetcar. The worst go home with their customers." But as the films shows: this type of work is hard and it is difficult to find security. Every man in her life deserts or disappoints her, but in the evening, resigned but tenacious, she again climbs the stairs to her bar to spend another night serving selfish and exploitative customers.

13. Scattered Clouds (Mideragumo, 1967)
The last film (the English title is often changed into "Two in the Shadow") by Naruse, made two years before his death. Tsukasa Yoko plays a widow (Yumiko) who falls in love with the driver, Shiro (Kayama Yuzo), who accidentally killed her husband in an accident. She gives a beautifully restrained performance which indeed symbolizes the end of an era. The sedate pace and slow-burning kind of passions in the film have evoked comparisons with Douglas Sirk and Wong Kar-wai. But it is not surprising that it takes a long time for Yumiko's feelings to change towards the man who after all was responsible for her husband's death. Shiro, a professional driver, has been cleared of wrongdoing, but does feel guilty for what has happened, particularly when Yumiko is disinherited by her husband's family. A delicately understated and poetic film.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Edogawa Rampo on Screen (2)

Further to my Edogawa Rampo on Screen (1), here are six more interesting films based on the stories and novels of "erotic, grotesque, nonsense" mystery writer Edogawa Ranpo.

(6) The Mystery of Rampo (Ranpo, 1994, Okuyama Kazuyoshi & Mayuzumi Rintaro
In contrast to the other Ranpo films, this a mixture of one of his stories, “The Appearance of Osei” (tr. Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader, Kurodahan Press, 2008), with a new plot featuring Edogawa Ranpo himself. In other words, Ranpo's imagination comes to life! In the beginning we even see Ranpo's actual house and the kura (storehouse) which served as his library (these still exist; they are under the management of Rikkyo University, and partly open to the public on designated days.

The film was made by Shochiku to celebrate its 100th anniversary and also the 100th birth year of Edogawa Ranpo. The initial director was Mayuzumi Rintaro, but producer Okuyama Kazuyoshi was not satisfied with the end result and therefore with his own hand reshot 70% of the film (the interesting anime fragment of the Osei story at the beginning of the film was also his idea). As the Mayuzumi version was also released, this has become a film that exists in two versions, but all international issues follow the Okuyama version.

We start with Edogawa Ranpo himself as the main character in this film (Takenaka Naoto). Ranpo has just written “The Appearance of Osei,” in which a man plays hide-and-seek with his children and hides in a large chest of which the lid by accident falls into the lock; when his wife (who is often absent because of an extramarital relation) finds him, after only a moment's consideration she re-locks the chest so that her husband is asphyxiated. In the film, this story is refused publication by the censors as being too outrageous (in reality, the only Ranpo story ever censured was “The Caterpillar,” because it was considered as critical of the military), but afterwards Ranpo finds a recent newspaper article reporting exactly such a murder.

He then visits the murderous wife in question (called Shizuko and played by Hada Michiko), who is the owner of an antique store, and falls in love with her (supposedly she has not been arrested as her guilt could not be proven). From then on, fact and fantasy increasingly start to mingle. While Ranpo stalks Shizuko through Tokyo, she also appears as the captive mistress of a sadistic cross-dressing count (Hira Mikijiro) living in a castle at a rocky coast. Akechi Kogoro (Motoki Masahiro, who also plays the main role in Gemini) parachutes into the castle grounds to investigate and eventually rescue her. But in a scene where the count binds Shizuko's nude body in ropes as in a bondage film, Akechi sits only voyeuristically peeping through a skylight. When the count presses his painted face against Shizuko's bare back, he leaves red markings on her flesh like in the story "The Martian Canals." Finally, Ranpo will appear as a competitor for Shizuko’s love with his own fictional character Akechi...

This poetic film with its extravagant visual beauty is a fitting homage to Edogawa Ranpo. It hits exactly the right atmosphere.

(7) Gemini (Soseiji, 1999, Tsukamoto Shinya)
“The Twins” on which the film is based is one of the tales included in Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination (tr. James B. Harris, Tuttle Books). It concerns a pair of twins from a rich family, the oldest of whom receives the entire family's fortune; the younger in contrast is left without anything. Being a bad sort, he murders his older brother, throws the body down the garden well, and assumes his brother's identity, taking possession of his fortune… and his wife.

Cult director Tsukamoto Shinya (b. 1960) was initially inspired by Lynch and Cronenberg (for example in his first film, Tetsuo, about a man who is transformed into a cyborg). There is often a threatening atmosphere in his work, of everyday settings made strange. He also focuses on violence and forms of perversion, and his films often induce an uncomfortable feeling. Tsukamoto acts in nearly all his films (but not in Gemini), and has appeared in many other directors' films as well.

Gemini in so far is different from Tsukamoto's usual work as it was not his own project, but he was invited to direct by the production company. Tsukamoto is a big fan of Ranpo's work – he also plays the role of Akechi Kogoro in the later Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf – so he must have been happy to do so. The most fundamental change he made was to keep the eldest brother, Yukio, alive in the well. Another addition is a sort of class conflict: Daitokuji Yukio (Motoki Masahiro) is successful doctor, living in comfortable circumstances, who out of feelings of superiority only treats wealthy patients - during an epidemic he even refuses to treat slum people. But the slum doesn't leave Yukio alone: his amnesiac wife Rin (played by the actress Ryo) harbors the secret of being born in the slums and having a criminal background. Then his vengeful twin brother Sutekichi suddenly appears to take over his position and indeed his wife. That goes wrong of course: Rin notices that her husband has changed (Sutekichi is an exact duplicate, but has not been able to study Yokio's habits at night) and she comes to the conclusion that she is dealing with Sutekichi. Imprisoned in the well, Yukio develops animalistic and aggressive qualities – in other words, he grows close to the slum dwellers – and he manages to climb out of the well and kill his false brother. After resuming his life, he now also goes into the slums to heal people - he has become more complete as a human being.

Gemini is an opulent historical film (set in the Meiji period), a rarity in Tsukamoto Shinya's work. With lush colors and exaggerated make-up and costume design (such as the interesting wheel-like hairdo of Rin), this gorgeous fantasy stands in stark contrast to the J-Horror films made in the same period. Note there is a small but interesting role for author Tsutsui Yasutaka as the father of Yukio.

(8) Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf (Moju tai Issunboshi, 2001, Ishii Teruo)
We have already encountered the novella Blind Beast as the second film in Edogawa Rampo on Screen (1). This story is here combined with The Dwarf (Issun-boshi, 1926, tr. William Varteresian in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogoro, Kurodahan Press, 2014), a popular Ero-Guro novel (the first work of Ranpo to be filmed, as soon as it appeared), in which Akechi Kogoro faces off with a mysterious, evil dwarf.

Michiko, a young upper class woman has disappeared. Her beautiful mother, Yurie, calls in Akechi but it seems already too late as the victim's limbs are appearing in various places all over Tokyo. The dwarf has been spotted in nightly Asakusa Park carrying a female arm around and he has also been on the scene in a department store where a mannequin showing the latest kimono fashion boasts an arm which is too real to be true. But the dwarf's repertory of evil is not yet exhausted: next we find him, wearing prostheses to hide his stunted limbs, blackmailing Yurie into a rendezvous... he has been in love with her for ten years, he confesses...

This film - his last - was made on an extremely low budget by Ishii Teruo and shot directly on video. That shows. Most of the film looks rather amateurish, both as regards the shooting, the acting and the plot. There has been no attempt to bring the two stories together, we are in fact watching two different films which have been cut together. I would say this film is strictly for fans and completists, who like to see director Tsukamoto Shin'ya in the role of Akechi Kogoro, or the cameo by Tanba Tetsuro at the end of the film. Little Frankie is excellent as the dwarf, and Hirayama Hisayoshi is chilling as the blind sculptor, but the sections based on that novel can’t compare with the lush version by Masumura Yasuzo (film 2 in Edogawa Rampo on Screen (1)). This film looks cheap and that is killing – it is after all visual style that is essential to successfully filming Ranpo's stories.

(9) Rampo Noir (Ranpo Jigoku, 2005, Jissoji Akio, Kaneko Atsushi, Sato Hisayasu & Takeuchi Suguru)
Ranpo jigoku ("Rampo Noir") is an anthology movie based on four stories by Edogawa Ranpo. Asano Tadanobu plays in all four episodes, by four different directors. The four stories adapted are:

- “The Martian Canals “ (tr. Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader, Kurodahan Press, 2008).
The story: The protagonist walks through a shadowy, gloomy forest that seems to have no end, afraid that he is walking in circles. Then he reaches a clearing with a pool of water in the heart of the forest. He now notices he is stark naked, and that his body has metamorphosed into that of his white (presumably Caucasian) girlfriend. He swims to a rock in the center of the pool and then realizes he needs some color in the white and gray world – preferably crimson. He scratches his shiny white body until the blood gushes out, leaving wounds like “Martian canals” on his body. He dances and rolls about like a worm – until his girlfriend, next to him in bed, wakes him up from his nightmare with “My dear!” in her own language. This story shows Ranpo's ambivalent feelings towards Western women and Western culture (as in the story "The Human Chair")...
The film (Suguru Takeuchi): A highly experimental, 6-min film almost without sound in which a stark naked Asano Tadanobu stumbles across a desolate alien landscape to a pool of water. He is all the time plagued by memories of a violent sexual encounter with a woman (girlfriend?) and – as in the story – in flashes he sees his body as that of the woman (the intercultural element has been dropped).


- “The Hell of Mirrors” (tr. James B. Harris in Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, Tuttle Books).
The story:
Tanuma Kan is obsessed by mirrors, telescopes, kaleidoscopes, lenses, and anything that can reflect an image. He uses these optical instruments to peep on others, and builds bizarre devices in a lab in his garden. While his mind becomes deranged, Tanuma builds ever more fantastic creations, such as a glass sphere lined with a single-unit mirror, in which he encloses himself, trying to look into the infinite through endlessly repeated mirrorings. When the narrator destroys the globe, Tanuma comes out of it stark raving mad...
The film (Jissoji Akio): This film has no connection at all with the above story, and with Ranpo only the fact that Asano Takanobu appears as Akechi Kogoro. Although with its many mirrorings and mirror effects it is visually very creative, the story has a rather conventional J-Horror plot about traditional-style bronze hand mirrors which can kill the woman who looks into it by "microwaving her face." The film is set in Kamakura and we meet a tea ceremony teacher and her circle, as well as the young craftsman (Narimiya Hiroki) who makes the mirrors by hand, keeping the old craft alive. Unfortunately, he also has an unhealthy obsession about women, leading to two killings and the appearance of Akechi Kogoro. But it is no easy case as the occult seems involved...

- “The Caterpillar” (tr. James B. Harris in Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, Tuttle Books).
The story: The "caterpillar" is the symbol for Lieutenant Sunaga, a war veteran whose body has been terribly mutilated in battle: he has lost both legs and arms, and can neither hear nor speak. He has only his eyesight left. The lieutenant crawls through the room like a hideous insect, in nothing resembling the handsome man he once was. His wife, who has to nurse him, is filled with hatred for this ugly lump of flesh, but at the same time she is strangely attracted to it. She plays cruel games with her amputee husband, the stress and sexual frustration arouse her basest instincts, leading to further mutilation and ultimate disaster.

The film (Sato Hisayasu): As in the story, a quadruple amputee war veteran (Omori Nao) returns home only to face sadistic abuse at the hands of his resentful wife (Okamoto Takiko). A new element in the film is that a local artist takes a morbid interest in the twisted sexual relationship of the couple (Matsuda Ryuhei, playing a character called “Hirai Taro,” the real name of Edogawa Ranpo), as well as in the glass pots in which the limbs of the soldier have been preserved on alcohol. Nor surprisingly, this segment full of surreal imagery and twisted sexuality is rather hard to watch.

- “Bugs” (no translation available).
The story: Through his friend Ikeuchi, Masaki Aizo, a misanthropist, again meets the love of his youth, the actress Kinoshita Fuyo - but she is now the lover of Ikeuchi. Masaki declares her his love, but she only laughs at him. In the end, Masaki kills the actress, and brings her corpse to the second floor of the storehouse in which he lives. There the body is attacked by bugs and quickly rots away – there is nothing Masaki can do to stop the process.
The film (Kaneko Atsushi): Asano plays a limo driver who is infatuated with his client, a sexy actress (Ogawa Tamaki). The driver suffers from rashes and has an abnormal fear of bugs. In his daydreams he is the lover of the actress, and finally he does kidnap and eventually kill her. When the body starts to decompose, he tries to embalm it but fails and finally it will be devoured by the fearsome bugs… The director is a manga artist and has filled his segment with lush visuals and pop colors – but the convoluted story is hard to follow.

(10) Caterpillar (Kyatapira, 2010, Wakamatsu Koji)
The story “The Caterpillar” (see above) was a few years after Rampo Noir also filmed by Wakamatsu Koji (1936-2012), a director who achieved notoriety in the late 1960s by his violent pink films with strong political messages. His adaptation is a fierce anti-war statement. The ugly lump of flesh of the medal-decorated war hero is considered as a military god by the village from which new men are constantly leaving for the killing fields, until only women, children and the elderly are left behind. But our amputee can only eat, sleep and have sex.

The wife (Terashima Shinobu in a Berlin Silver Bear winning performance) first is shocked, then decides to stand by her man and care for him, but gradually realizes that she also can exploit her husband's condition and so take revenge on him for his brutish behavior towards her in the past. To pester him, she starts pulling him in a cart through the village, where everyone has to pay their respects to the "war god"…

The performance by Terashima Shinobu has been widely praised and is a good reason for seeing this film. On the other hand, Wakamatsu knows no subtlety and his anti-war message has been plunked with fat capital letters in front of the viewer, which is rather tiresome.

(11) Murder on D Street (D-Zaka no Satsujin Jiken, 2015, Kubota Shoji)
This is the story, written in 1925, in which Ranpo's serial detective, Akechi Kogoro, makes his first appearance (tr. William Varteresian in The Early Cases of Akechi Kogoro, Kurodahan Press, 2014). Interestingly, the story is a very Japanese variant of the "locked room mystery." In the traditional Japanese house with its sliding doors and movable partitions, a locked room does not exist - there often are not even locks! But in a busy down-town neighborhood of Tokyo, people are always watching each other - this "mutual surveillance" creates in fact a virtual locked room. The beautiful wife of a second-hand book seller is found strangled in the living room behind the shop, but as various neighborhood people have been watching both the front and the back of the shop, it is impossible that a stranger has slipped in, so we have the equivalent of a "locked room." Even in this classical story Ranpo could not desist from one of his favorite Ero-Guro elements: the murdered woman has died in the heat of a sadomasochistic game...

Kubota Shoji (1974) has greatly changed the story. The locked room is gone and BSDM takes center stage. Etsuko (played by photo model and actress Shoko), the wife of the bookseller, is not early on killed off as the victim here, but instead her mysterious presence dominates the whole film - she is into bondage as is her husband, whose shop is filled with sadomasochistic literature. A student (Kawai Ryunosuke) from a nearby boarding house (Goda from Ranpo's "The Watcher in the Attic") falls in love with her and she teaches him the “art of the rope” (Japanese traditional SM rope-binding or kinbaku, which is very different from Western types of SM). Akechi Kogoro (Kusano Kota) is an armchair detective who just sits in his office, while his wife (Otani Eiko) does all the sleuthing. This film is close to the pink genre, but in contrast to Tanaka Noboru’s artistry, the camera is quite conventional as for a TV film. The film is also too long. But while at first the story seems rather common, there follow some interesting plot twists which keep the viewer's attention.
Note: Murder on D Street was also filmed by Jissoji Akio (1998), an adaptation I have not yet seen.

(This post has been written with input from from my earlier articles Best Japanese Cult Films and The Ero-Guro Mysteries of Edogawa Ranpo.)

Friday, April 17, 2020

Edogawa Rampo on Screen (1)

Although mystery and ero-guro-nansensu author Edogawa Ranpo (1894-1965) was, in contrast to Tanizaki, Kawabata and Mishima, not directly involved in the cinema, he was among the first major writers to have work brought to the screen. His novella The Dwarf (Issun Boshi, 1926-27) premiered in 1927 as a silent film, and many more adaptations of his work would follow. The IMDB counts a total of 60, including TV films.

In the prewar period screen versions were still relatively rare and it starts more seriously after the war, first with another version of The Dwarf, and then in the 1950s with a whole slew of films based on the various stories for young people about the “Boy Detectives Club” and detective Akechi Kogoro.

It is only in the late 1960s that film makers discover the real Ranpo. In 1968-69 there is a sort of "Ranpo explosion," with Black Lizard by Fukasaku Kinji, Blind Beast by Masumura Yasuzo and Horrors of Malformed Men by Ishii Teruo, three truly great films inspired by the author. From this time on, there clearly was also renewed interest in the “erotic, grotesque, nonsense” trend of the late 1920s-early 1930s.

In 1976 Tanaka Nobuo filmed The Stalker in the Attic as a “pink film,” another excellent film in which the director transcended the narrow confines of the genre. The same story inspired Jissoji Akio in 1993, and in 1998 Jissoji also adapted The Case of the Murder on D Slope – and that same story again inspired Kubota Shoji in 2015.

Also interesting is the film version of Beast in Shadows made in 1977 by period-director Kato Tai. In 1995 The Mystery of Rampo (in Japanese just “Ranpo”) was made by Okuyama Kazuyoshi and Mayazumi Rintaro, a poetic masterwork in which Ranpo himself is brought on stage. In 2001 Ishii Teruo makes his second Ranpo adaptation with the low-budget film Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf. In 2005 follows the four part anthology Rampo Noir, with contributions by Jissoji Akio, Sato Hisayasu and others, based on four Ranpo stories, among which "The Caterpillar." That last story also forms the inspiration for Wakamatsu Koji’s Caterpillar from 2010. The above are just the highlights.

Ranpo adaptations have the following in common. In the first place, the “erotic, grotesque, nonsense” elements in Ranpo are heavily stressed and further developed. Secondly, different stories by Ranpo are often freely mixed together in one film (something Ranpo himself also did, for in his later stories he often revised and newly mixed elements and themes from earlier work). And finally, many of these films are “art films,” containing experimental and surrealistic elements.

Below follows a more in-depth look at the best films based on Ranpo’s work. 

(1) The Black Lizard (Kuro Tokage, 1968, Fukasaku Kinji) 
Ranpo wrote The Black Lizard in 1934 (tr. Ian Hughes, Kurodahan Press, 2006); the book was in 1961 adapted for the theater by Mishima Yukio (tr. in Mishima on Stage: The Black Lizard and Other Plays by Laurence Kominz). Detective Akechi Kogoro competes in cleverness with the Queen of the Underworld, the Black Lizard, who has kidnapped the daughter of a jeweler to obtain a precious diamond. The finale plays out in the secret lair of the Black Lizard on a remote island, where she keeps an eerie collection of “human statues,” in fact embalmed corpses...

The film was based on Mishima's play and was helmed by maverick director Fukasaku Kinji (1930-2003), a pioneering yakuza film maker who introduced more realism into gangster movies, leading to the jitsuroku trend of the seventies. Fukasaku became famous for his extremely violent series Battles Without Honor and Humanity, featuring Sugawara Bunta – one of the most acclaimed yakuza movie sagas ever made (1973-76).

Although Fukasaku worked mainly for Toei, in 1968 he was invited by Shochiku to make The Black Lizard, with Kimura Isao as stubborn detective Akechi Kogoro, a character patterned on Sherlock Holmes, who appears regularly in the stories of Edogawa Ranpo. But dominating presence in the film is Japan's most famous drag queen, Maruyama Akihiro (now Miwa Akihiro, popular thanks to countless TV appearances), who - at that time in the prime of youth and beauty - gives a shining performance by playing the notorious female criminal of the title.

The plot is deliciously nonsensical: the Black Lizard is an enchantress who likes nothing better than dancing in a packed house wearing only her jewels. She is a thief, a killer and a sadist. She kidnaps the beautiful daughter of a jeweler in order to obtain the famous "Star of Egypt" diamond. Akechi has been hired to thwart her. While they are dueling with their wits, the two adversaries, kidnapper and private eye, start to love each other – this was an element added to the plot by Mishima. As a result, the Black Lizard jeopardizes her power. The finale plays out in the secret lair of the Black Lizard on a remote island, where she keeps an eerie collection of naked human statues. Here we also have an interesting cameo by a muscular Mishima, playing one of the embalmed humans. A delicious film, pure camp.

Note: This was not the first adaptation of The Black Lizard. An earlier and more straight adaptation was made in 1962 by Daiei with Kyo Machiko in the main role, but I have not been able to find a copy of that film.

(2) Blind Beast (Moju, 1969, Masumura Yasuzo) 
Ranpo wrote The Blind Beast in 1931 (tr. Anthony Whyte, Shinbaku Books, 2009). It is the story of a deranged, blind sculptor who captures a singer and imprisons her in a labyrinth of giant sculptured body parts, before killing and dismembering her and scattering her limbs, head and torso all over Tokyo. But far from being satisfied, the blind killer continues on his sexually-charged spree of amputation and decapitation, all with one purpose: an exhibition of human sculptures which are a bit too life-like for comfort…

The film was helmed by inventive iconoclast Masumura Yasuzo (1924-1986), one of the most important directors of the sixties. Although close to the New Wave, Masumura’s style was more classical than modernist. He is known for his satirical and bleak accounts of Japanese society. Masumura worked for the Daiei studios and in line with the strategy of Daiei, also made many literary adaptations, but he never lost his subversive stance.

Instead of roaming all over Tokyo like the novel, the film takes almost wholly place in the underground studio of the blind sculptor – a claustrophobic setup – and is known for its surreal art direction. A blind sculptor (played against type by popular 1960s actor Funakoshi Eiji) kidnaps a young fashion model (Midori Mako) and keeps her in his cavernous studio, where each wall is covered in plaster sculptures representing parts of the female anatomy. On the studio floor lie two gigantic nude torsos, serving as a sort of couches. It is the artist's dream to sculpt the ideal female form. The young woman has been kidnapped with the help of the sculptor's mother, who also acts as prison guard, but when the sculptor drops the ominous words "my mother is the only woman for me," she shrewdly uses her charms to drive a wedge between son and mother.

She succeeds admirably and with mum safely under the kitchen floor, the artist is sort of sexually liberated, so that he can find the inspiration for his ideal masterpiece. From her side, the woman has started to love him, too. They loose themselves in ever more transgressive lovemaking, finally cutting off each other’s limbs and dying in ecstasy – a story that with its weird and intense sadomasochistic relationship reminds one of In the Realm of the Senses. Visually inventive, this is a true classic of erotic horror. 

(3) Horrors of Malformed Men (Edogawa Ranpo Zenshu: Kyofu Kikei Ningen, 1969, Ishii Teruo)
This film is based on two Ranpo novels, Strange Tale of Panorama Island (1926, tr. Elaine Kazu Gerbert, University of Hawai'i Press, 2013) and The Demon of the Desert Isle (1929-30). From the first novel two themes have been borrowed: that of the doppelganger and appropriated identity, and that of the creation of a utopia on a desert island. From the second novel we have the theme of filling an island with freaks, by stunting the growth of children and surgically graft foreign body parts unto them.

Ishii Teruo (1924-2005) started as director of B movies at Shin Toho, before transferring to Toei where he made gangster movies like Abashiri Prison with Takakura Ken, which spawned a long and very popular series about a good-hearted yakuza. Ishii also made exploitation films as Joys of Torture (1968) in the zankoku (cruelty) genre and was known for his colorful, stylized art direction, despite the often savage themes.

Horrors of Malformed Men starts with a man (played by Yoshida Teruo) suffering from loss of memory, who escapes from a mental asylum. A folk song from the Hokuriku area sounds familiar to him so he travels to the Noto Peninsula. In a newspaper, he sees an obituary of a wealthy estate owner who looks like his doppelganger - he decides to impersonate the man, pretending to have suffered from suspended animation. This creates some difficult situations - he discovers he has not only a wife, but also a mistress! The father is hiding out on an uninhabited island where he performs atrocious surgeries to turn normal human beings into monstrosities ("malformed ones"). This is where the founder of Butoh, Hijikata Tatsumi, comes into play, making the film a valuable document. We get surrealistic scenes of Hijikata sliding among the rocks - avant-garde theater meets B-exploitation flic. The film ends with detective Akechi Kogoro appearing as Deus ex Machina, after which everything ends with literally a big bang.

Malformed Men combines exploitation, perverse family relationships and experimental performance art into one bizarre and sadistic whole. The film was (and is) controversial in Japan because of its exploitative portrayal of disfigured “monsters,” but it has also been praised for its visual imagination.

(4) The Watcher in the Attic (Edogawa Ranpo Ryokikan: Yaneura no Sanposha, 1976, Tanaka Noboru)
This “pink film” combines two short stories, “The Watcher in the Attic” (1926, tr. Seth Jacobowitz in The Edogawa Rampo Reader, Kurodahan Press, 2008) and “The Human Chair” (1925, tr. James B. Harris in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Tuttle Books). The first story is set in a boarding house, where Goda Saburo, a young man bored with life, discovers that via the large built-in cupboard in his room, he has access to the unused attic which runs above all the rooms. He finds a new voyeuristic pastime by spying on his fellow boarders through cracks and knots in the thin wood. Just for a thrill, he decides to murder a boarder who has the habit of sleeping with wide open mouth below one such a hole in the ceiling. And in “The Human Chair” a man hides in a Western-style armchair to stealthily enjoy the erotic thrill of women sitting down on his knees.

The Watcher in the Attic was made by Tanaka Noburu (1937-2006), who after his apprenticeship with Imamura Shohei and Suzuki Seijun, became known in the 1970s for the erotic melodramas he helmed for the Nikkatsu studios. Despite the disreputable new genre in which he worked, Tanaka became known for his visual inventiveness and atmospheric location work. That is also true for the present film, which contains the in the pink genre usual nudity, but is also done very tastefully in a beautiful period style – the film is set in the summer of 1923.

Ishibashi Renji plays Goda, the bored voyeur who spies on the sexual conduct of the eccentric tenants in an apartment block. As in Ranpo's story, he is enticed to become a murderer when he realizes how easy it would be to drip poison into the mouth of a sleeping man. The stimulus to kill comes from a new character added by Tanaka Noboru: Lady Minako, a wealthy aristocrat played by pink film veteran Miyashita Junko. This lady – who lives in a rich mansion - has rented a room in the shabby building for secret trysts with lovers. One is a Pierrot, whom she kills during lovemaking. This inspires the peeping Goda to his own grotesque murder in order to prove to her that he is her soul mate. In the meantime, Lady Minako continues to kill her lovers one by one – including her chauffeur who hides in an armchair to reenact the “Human Chair” story. Goda becomes obsessed by her and eventually the two become partners. The film ends apocalyptically when the Great Kanto Earthquake strikes, killing both of them during their lovemaking.

In the last scene we see the maid of the now destroyed apartment building trying to use the water pump in the courtyard: but it is only blood that spurts out. Tanaka drives the ero-guro elements in Ranpo's fiction to their extremes in an orgy of voyeurism, lust and murder. This is one of the best and most stylish films to come out of Nikkatsu.

(5) Beast in the Shadows (Edogawa Ranpo no inju,1977, Kato Tai)
The novella Beast in the Shadows was written by Ranpo in 1928 (tr. Ian Hughes, Kurodahan Press 2006). It combines classic detective elements with the erotic and grotesque and also contains the doppelganger motif we so often find in Ranpo's fiction. When a detective novelist is asked for help by an alluring young woman named Shizuko, he gets entangled in a real murder case. The truth is elusive and ratiocination ultimately leads nowhere in this world of doppelgangers and mirrors. The well-structured novella is counted among Ranpo’s best work.

The film by period director Kato Tai (1916-1985) keeps relatively close to the novel. Kato Tai mainly made films about Edo-period yakuza; his most famous works are Tokijiro of Kutsukake: Lone Yakuza (1966), as well as the Red Peony (Hibotan Bakuto) series with Fuji Junko as a female Robin Hood. As Alexander Jacoby writes (in A Critical Handbook of Japanese Directors), Kato developed a personal style characterized by wide and low angles, looming close-ups and exaggerated deep focus compositions – nothing subtle, but effective in accentuating the solitude of his protagonists (Jacoby, p. 103).

Aoi Teruhiko plays traditional (puzzle) detective novelist Samukawa Koichiro. Oyamada Shizuko, the wife of a wealthy businessman and ardent detective novel fan, is played by Kayama Yoshiko. Wakayama Tomisaburo is Samukawa’s publisher, who both helps and hinders him by constantly reminding him about the looming deadline for his latest work.

During a chance meeting with Samukawa, Shizuko claims she is receiving threatening letters from a jilted lover who also is a detective novelist who apparently writes Ero-Guro mysteries (i.e. in the style of Ranpo himself) under the pen name Oe Shundei – but his address and real identity are unknown. The letters contain many intimate details, as if Shundei has been peeping into her bedroom from above the ceiling (like "The Stalker in the Attic") and observing her relation with her husband. This husband has just returned from England and has brought back both an English mistress (aptly named “Helen Christie”) and a riding crop that considering a nasty wound on Shizuko’s shoulder is not only used for horses. The sadomasochistic relation suggests that the husband could himself be masquerading as Oe – however, when he is killed and his body found floating in the river Sumida, that option has to be struck out. Samukawa feels as if he is not writing a mystery, but enacting one, in a battle of wits with the elusive Oe Shundei...

A beautiful, atmospheric movie with a strong erotic undercurrent that does full justice to Ranpo's novella.
Note: Inju was also filmed by Barbet Schroeder in 2008.

(This post has been written with input from from my earlier articles Best Japanese Cult Films and The Ero-Guro Mysteries of Edogawa Ranpo.)

Continued in Edogawa Rampo on Screen (2)