Older Japanese movies are a bit of an interest for me. As much as I love current Japanese horror movies, there is always room in my heart for the classic movies, filled with substance. A few years ago, while completing my undergraduate studies, I had the immense pleasure of partaking in an Asian film class. Each week we would meet for our 3 hour class, and settle in to watch yet another amazing film. While not all of them were right up my alley, they all got me thinking about films and their connectedness to life. We had the benefit of having each film paired up with another, which were thematically relevant (Princess Mononoke and Pom Poko, environmental cautions linked with spiritual concerns; Pulse and Ringu, technology as a means to destruction, etc.). One of my favourite pairing was the classic Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi), and Double Suicide ( 1969, Masahiro Shinoda). Here we saw how deviation from the right path, how favouring self over duty and responsibility, led to complete destruction.
Ugestu was based upon the Ugetsu Monogatari, a series of short stories written by Ueda Akinari in 1776. Taking the tales, it created a period drama which reflected real concerns at the time, while twisting it with a sad and meaningful ghost story. I don’t want to go into too much detail, as I do go into it more in the essay below. Needless to say, this is still one of my favourite movies, and I would recommend that you watch it if you have the chance. Similarly, Double Suicide is based on a much older work, The Lovers Suicide at Amijima, a play written by Monzaemon Chikamitsu in 1721.
The Dichotomy of Order and Chaos in Ugetsu and Double Suicide
When a director chooses to adapt a literary or theatrical piece through the medium of film there can be no question that it is done with a specific purpose in mind. This is especially true for the film adaptations of period pieces done by Kenji Mizoguchi and Masahiro Shinoda. Both directors have made bold stylistic choice; they enhance and highlight the conflicting ideas of life and death, and the concerns related to Japanese concepts of the afterlife. By doing this, Shinoda and Mizoguchi emphasize the dichotomy between order and chaos, by utilizing the common concerns and issues of ninjo and giri in the life of the everyday person during times of conflict. Both films play on the idea of familial duty versus personal desire. While both are based on prior works, their respective directors make it clear that such struggles are not limited to the time in which they were originally addressed. Mizoguchi and Shinoda found the core themes of both works, and uniquely approached the common issues of order and chaos through a clever juxtaposition of death, the afterlife, and supernatural elements in order to make a strong impression on a contemporary audience.
Double Suicide, or Shinju Ten no Amijima (1969), is an adaptation of a popular 18th century bunraku play. Shinoda uses a heavily stylistic approach in order to draw attention to the dichotomy between order and chaos, as well as life and death. There is no outright use of the supernatural in this case; instead, Shinoda has embraced an approach based heavily on Brechtian verfremdungseffekt,1 as well as puppet theory later studied and popularized by the likes of Western theatrical theorist Gordon Craig. In Craig’s opinion, the puppet is the most articulate performer, what he calls “an echo of some noble and beautiful art of a past civilization.”2 Craig proposes that the actor should be completely replaced by the puppet, as the puppet is capable of collapsing character and being into a single entity, and thus become the perfect artistic medium.3 Shinoda goes beyond this, and instead of collapsing the characters into the puppet completely, he superimposes the identity of a puppet onto his human actors; by doing this he plays on the universally understood idea of the puppet as a symbol of death, accentuating the Brechtian alienation by using a troupe of puppeteers, or kurogo,to guide the main characters through the story. Though the cast is human and able to move of their own accord, the kurogo control the main character’s major action and decisions throughout the course of the film according to Keiko McDonald, they are meant to be a personification of fate,4 marching the character towards their death and their duty. In all of these stylistic choices, the thin line between life and death is crossed repeatedly; when the main character acts according to giri (obligation or moral duty), chaos vanishes and the kurogo do not intercede. However, when ninjo (emotion or personal desire) reigns, the kurogo are in control, leading the characters from life to death, and blurring the line between the two. Shinoda draws on this most heavily in the final moments of his adaptation, depicting his ninjo controlled characters running across a series of bridges,meant to delineate life from death, and duty from pleasure.
In contrast, Ugestu Monogatari extensively utilizes the supernatural in order to establish how ninjo and giri affect the relationship between order and chaos in relation to death. Early death was common during the time period in which the original tales composing Ugetsu were recorded, when there was major spiritual and social concern in regards familial duty to the dead.5 As such, the dichotomy between order and chaos is heavily present in Mizoguchi’s use of the supernatural to frame these concerns. Death and the supernatural are once again linked with the idea of giri and ninjo; Lady Wakasa represents ninjo,6 and the concern of dieing before duty can be fulfilled. As such, she is the force for chaos in this film. Conversely, Miyagi is representative of giri,7 primarily concerned with fulfilling her duty and later honoured by her surviving family. This clearly shows that Miyagi is the force for order in this tale. Once again, Keiko McDonald provides a reading of the director’s implementation of the supernatural in order to create vivid contrasts between chaos and order. Mizoguchi utilizes strict aesthetics, reminiscent of Noh theatre, to delineate the supernatural from the mundane; in the case of Lady Wakasa, her movement style and facial expressions are what separate her from the living characters.8
By blurring the lines between life and death, and allowing the afterlife to linger in the physical world, Mizoguchi is making a commentary on the social role of the family, and how duty and giri must be followed in order for the world to reside separate from the yurei and ninjo which arise as a result of conflict and neglected responsibility. However, both order and chaos are represented by death and the supernatural. Instead of relying on the living and the dead to delineate order from chaos, the director has put the emphasis on the manner of death and the treatment in the afterlife, thus showing the audience that while life and death commonly believed as separate, they are actually inextricably linked. In turn, order cannot exist without chaos, or else it becomes meaningless; conflict arises when one chooses to amass wealth instead of caring for personal relationships and duties; Mizoguchi stresses that the line between duty and personal desire is easy to mistake, when desire is supported with faulty reason.
Both Shinoda and Mizoguchi strove to bring to light the common issues concerning the dichotomy of order and chaos; to do this they both adapted period pieces which addressed common social and spiritual issues, and sought to relay their meaning through the use of death, the afterlife, and the supernatural. Shinoda sought to look at the ideas of ninjo and giri in relation to death and the afterlife with his adaptable of Shunji Ten no Amijima; his work succeeded by relying on theatrical aesthetics, and his Brechtian approach in order to reinforce the idea of death as both the ultimate commitment to giri and also the complete victory of ninjo. Mizoguchi used the supernatural in Ugetsu Monogatari to pursue the idea of giri and ninjo, and how it is up to the living to ensure that they fulfill their duty as family in order to ensure that order is maintained in the afterlife; without the living pursuing the path of giri, the dead are forced to remain between worlds, unable to be released from their own desires.
Craig, Gordon. “The Actor and the Über-marionette.” Theatre Theory Theatre. Ed. Daniel Gerould. New York: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2000. pp. 394-401.
McDonald, Keiko I. “Double Suicide: Domestic Tragedies, Classical and Modern.” Japanese Classical Theatre in Japanese Classical Theatre in Films. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994. pp. 208–223.
McDonald, Keiko I . “Ugetsu: Why Is It a Masterpiece?” Ugetsu: Kenji Mizoguchi, Director. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993. pp. 3–16.
1Keiko L McDonald, “Double Suicide: Domestic Tragedies, Classical and Modern”in Japanese Classical Theatre in Japanese Classical Theatre in Films (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994), 214-215.
2Gordon Craig, “The Actor and the Über-marionette.”in Theatre Theory Theatre. Ed. Daniel Gerould (New York: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2000), 396.
4Keiko I. McDonald, “Double Suicide: Domestic Tragedies, Classical and Modern”in Japanese Classical Theatre in Japanese Classical Theatre in Films (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994 214-215.
5Keiko I McDonald, “Ugetsu: Why Is It a Masterpiece?” in Ugetsu: Kenji Mizoguchi, Director (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 9.