An analysis of Masumura Yasuzō film style in "Manji" (1964)
Sex, Drugs, Jealousy, Deceit, Blackmail, Betrayal, Love and Suicide. Masumura Yasuzō’s film Passion (Manji, 1964) has it all and was a film before its time. Masumura helped bring contemporary Japanese cinema in Japan to the forefront of people’s attention and is one of the directors responsible for triggering the Japanese New Wave Cinema in the 1950s-1960s. Not afraid to tackle taboo subjects in film, his repertoire of themes ranges across eroticism, satire, war, crime, capitalism and gender politics. An adaptation of the novel Quicksand by Junichiro Tanizaki. Passion falls well within the category of New Wave Cinema. Japanese New Wave Cinema helped change the stereotypical way Japanese women were portrayed on film in Japan. In this essay, I will look at what defines New Wave Cinema in Japanese Cinema and how the cinematic modernity framework can assess Passion as part of New Wave Cinema and how Japanese woman’s roles has moved to the foreground of dominant characters in Japanese film.
1. About its context
New Wave Cinema is against the definitions of film genres. According to Neale, Genres can function as “horizons of expectation” for readers and as “models of writing” for authors (Neale, 2020: 41) But also Genres may be defined as patterns/forms/styles/structures which transcend individual films, and which supervise both their construction by the filmmaker, and their reading by the audience (Neale, 2020: 12). Film genres is a concept from the film industry, the postwar avant-garde, such as that represented by New Wave directors, is comprised of independent productions that precisely challenged that way of film making. Neale states that genres can be defined by their iconography and motifs such as Violence, Guns, Clothing, Dancing in musicals, castles, coffins or teeth in Horror films (Neale, 2020: 13). But also, genre can be defined by its stylistic and artistic presentation by its Director.
Passion follows the story of Sonoko, a bored rich housewife who enrolled at an Art school where she meets Mitsuko of who Sonoko becomes obsessed with and soon their friendship develops into a lesbian love affair, quite unusual for the Japanese audiences at the time. Masumura Yasuzō directs this presentation without any judgements and remains impartial. Along with unexpected twists and turns to the plot which ultimately end our lovers in a quadruple triangle of love at the risk of dying as part of a suicide pact. The narrative of obsession, jealousy and manipulation of four people trying to constantly outdo each other for the love of one person is accompanied by very cleverly highly stylized aesthetics of shadow lighting techniques which creates a sensual atmosphere and intensity to the film.
New Wave Cinema challenged the status quo of Japanese Cinema in the 1950s, Younger filmmakers challenged the big studios with alternative ideas and approaches to cinema. After World War II Japanese New Wave or Nuberu Bagu as it was named by the Japanese press which was taken from the French Nouvelle Vague explored themes of Violence, Youth Culture, Radicalism, Delinquency, Taboo subjects and Voyeuristic Narratives giving a younger generation of filmmakers the opportunity to explore a new style of filmmaking, experimenting with topics surrounding social and political troubles of post World War II and narratives taking leads from the French New Wave themes, these filmmakers broke from the traditions of classical Japanese cinema in exchange for more challenging productions. Traditionally Japanese films were argued to be fundamentally different from Western cinema due to the difference of Japan’s Culture (Dresser, 1988: 14). An alternative, Japanese Cinema Represents to the Hollywood model is thus a function of culture, a function of Japanese classic culture. Since its origins of cinema in Japan, this has remained unchanged for the intervening millennium (Dresser, 1988: 14). The western world of cinema was changing with new styles of films, this exposure gave Japanese filmmakers more options to explore in their own films with the renewal of the cinematic language took place in the 1960s as New Wave Cinema developed across the world in many different countries at the same time.
2. Changing Attitudes
The film industry itself changed dramatically with the introduction of television as attendance suffered at cinemas, along with the emergence of Independent filmmakers working outside of big studios. Technology after WWII also rapidly changed allowing better access to cameras and locations outside of studios. Another factor was the change in the attitudes of young filmmakers rebelling against the normal Hollywood styles of filmmaking and the increased prominence of youth cinema not only in front of the camera but behind it. Youth cinema was considered responsible for the commercial youth cinema of the Taiyōzoku films which premiered in 1956. The term Taiyōzoku or (Sun Tribe) was a name given by the Japanese media to the works of a particular author called Shintarō Ishihara. It was coined to describe the rich, bored, and vicious characters of his works of Japans post-war disillusioned youth, absent parents and an excess of money, leisure and sex (Raines, 2005: 1).
The change in the education of younger filmmakers who were becoming more educated than their peers and had the ability to self-reflect on cinema, publishing film reviews, criticism, theories and essays. New Waves films were sometimes linked to civil rights movements, anti-war demonstrations and fighting for rights of minorities, specifically, in Japan movements closely linked to protests against the Anpo Joyaku the treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. New Wave directors also produced personal films around the idea of author cinema. Filmmakers and film critics discussed the meaning of auteur, led by ideas coming from France about the politique des auteurs (the author theory) from the 1950s, which claimed to develop a camera concept originally coined by the director Alexandre Axtruc (Astruc 1948: 144).
3. A New Female Movement
Masumura Yasuzō was a Japanese director that spent time studying film in Italy at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematogrfia in the early 1950s. After returning to Japan and working in the film industry as an assistant director he finally released his first film in Kisses (Kuchizuke, 1957). Which became one of his most iconic pieces of work. According to Masumura, European cinema presented the human being as a central figure in the ‘reality of life” and this influence can be seen as a core element of the film Passion (Novielli 2018: 92). Women especially are at the forefront of his film Passion. It centres its story around two main women Sonoko and Mitsuko both portrayed as strong successful women. A big difference from the portrayal of women in previous Japanese Cinema. Barret suggests that women’s roles were often pathetic or all-suffering, they were usually virginal girls, and, if they married, they seemed to tolerate sex only because it went with their role. (Barret 1989: 203). Masumura Yasuzō had formed his own ideas about the type of cinema he wanted to make.
My goal is to create an exaggerated depiction featuring only the ideas and passions of living human beings,” he wrote. “In Japanese society, which is essentially regimented, freedom and the individual do not exist. The theme of Japanese film is the emotions of the Japanese people, who have no choice but to live according to the norms of that society. . . After experiencing Europe for two years, I wanted to portray the type of beautifully vital, strong people I came to know there. (Masumura cited in “Give me passion and Ideas”, The Guardian, 2015)
The women in Japanese cinema are a post-war phenomenon in Japanese cinema, censorship of sexual activity was sticky and even kissing scenes were banned, even relationships among unmarried couples were avoided in order to not fall in the pornographic category (Barret 2000, P179). In Passion the two main leads are played by women whose characters are successful in life, Sonoko is rich and has been the financial support for her husband’s business. Mitsuko is the beautiful woman Sonoko becomes obsessed with, Sonoko worships her as if she was a goddess but she is also a master manipulator. Traditionally, Japanese heroines simply obeyed men and were kept at home and away from society; however, if betrayed or disappointed, they could become vengeful spirits” (Barret, 1989: 201). The women characters in Passion break away from the moulds of the Japanese traditional femininity often portrayed in Japanese Cinema, giving them their own independent image on film. In the early years of Japanese cinema, even female roles were played by male actors. The roles women had in the film were either mothers, wives or prostitutes these roles did project masculine impulses but the new roles women played is more linked to an image of ‘modern woman’.
This new archetype was a projection of masculine impulses but at the same time reproduced an image of the modern woman, which was associated with western patterns of femininity (Centeno Martin, 2016: 146). In Passion, Mitsuko represents a modern woman in her appearance dressed in western-style clothes wearing makeup [see Fig 1]. Sonoko attitude towards her independence is displayed throughout the film not only towards her independence as a successful woman but how she deals with the situation she finds herself in later in the film Sonoko is not so easily taken advantage of [see fig.2].
4. Theoretical Framing
The use of the Cinematic Modernity Paradigm theoretical framework to assess Masumura’s Passion can help to define this film as part of the New Wave movement. Characterising Japanese Cinema into different periods of history was first discussed in Japanese Film Directors (Bock 1978). These were defined as “The Early Years”, “The Post War Humanists” and “The New Wave” It was author David Dresser who identified “Essential Characteristics” (Dresser, 1988: 15) of films produced in each period defining them as “Dominant Paradigms” or Modes of representation” (Dresser, 1988: 15). Dresser goes on to define his own paradigms as ‘Classical Narrative’, ‘Modern Paradigm’ and ‘Modernist Paradigm’ and are a model to consider Japanese Cinema as part of a system called “Japan” to demonstrate how Japanese cinema reflects, is worked on and works upon, Japanese Culture (Dresser, 1988: 16). The notion of paradigms allows for the continuity and simultaneity Dresser’s contribution allows us to assess the New Wave under the theoretical framework of the Modernist Paradigm (Dresser, 1988: 16). It is this Modernist Paradigm that I will use to characterize Passion as part of New Wave Cinema. Some of the features of this paradigm are evident throughout Passion or which I will identify next.
The first being achronological: flashbacks or past burst of characters memories. In the opening scene and throughout the film we see Sonoko sitting talking with a therapist [see Fig.3. Fig.4.]. she begins to tell her story to the therapist and throughout the film we encounter flashbacks for a period of time she is telling her story. Masumura uses lighting in the scenes where she is speaking with the therapist in a way which shadows half the screen and the therapist, so our attention is focused in on Sonoko as she starts to tell her story and narrates each flashback. He uses this shadowing technique again in the scene where Mitsuko, Sonoko and Kotaro are lying in bed after all taking sleeping drugs in an attempt to commit suicide together, Masumura cuts to a scene the next morning where he uses shadow lighting to show only Sonoko in the light as the one that has survived, She wakes up to find Mitsuko and Kotaro dead.
The next feature is Dialectical: No actions aims at well-defined goals. The story unfolds from the art classes into an obsession of a woman she draws in her picture, the obsession turns into a love affair, which eventually ends up in a quadruple love affair and suicide pact between three out of the four people. At the beginning of Passion there is nothing to suggest that the actions of the characters will head towards the suicide pact at the end of the film. There is no evidence of a hero’s quest or redemption so we have to follow the narrative of the film to see where the end of the story will take the audience. With the many twists and turns in the narrative of the film the audience is keeps guessing and makes the experience of watching a little more exciting.
The third feature of the cinematic modernity we can find in the film is anti-psychological: The protagonists do not conform to stereotypes and heroes are not characterised by simplified personalities. While Dresser defines this trait as “anti-psychological” it would make more sense to describe it as “complex psychology”. None of the main characters in Passion are identified with a certain stereotype, Sonoko and Mitsuko relationship develops from friendship to becoming lovers, both developing complex personalities in that love affair with each other and seem to copy each other’s behaviour as the story progresses. At first Mitsuko is the one to show how manipulating she is towards Sonoko, knowing how obsessed Sonoko is becoming, Mitsuko asks Sonoko if she will die for her. Sonoko in her obsession agrees that she would take her life for Mitsuko. This devotion is re-affirmed when Mitsuko call from an inn where she is stranded with no clothes or money with her secret fiancé. Despite Sonoko’s jealousy and hurt Sonoko stills goes to help them an example of how a person can be so manipulated that they will do anything, even when someone has been deceitful. Mitsuko fakes her pregnancy to Sonoko but Sonoko realises that it is all an act by Mitsuko but again she falls back into her trap of being manipulated and resumes her obsession with Mitsuko.
Eijiro’s character, a sly and manipulative character who is the impotent fiancé of Mitsuko shows his own complex psycho tendencies. In the scene where Sonoko tells him Mitsuko is lying about her pregnancy, his behaviour becomes erratic and this is where Masumura uses different camera angles to draw us into the scene. First a shot above Sonoko looking down on Eijiro as he grovels for her to sign a contract that they will both share Mitsuko in love [See Fig.5.]. Cut to a second shot which switches to Eijiro looking up to Sonoko, this gives us the point of view of Eijiro begging to Sonoko to sign the contract as Sonoko views him as an incompetent individual [See Fig.6.].
In addition, Masumura doesn’t stay true to the 180-degree rule of editing, this adds to the sense of uneasiness in the storyline. The rule maintains that the actors are always shown on screen, facing the correct directions, such as facing each other in conversation, by not following the rule actors flips from one side of the screen to another which confuses the viewers’ perception. Masumura also limits the sets and locations to ones indoors which helps give a stifled atmosphere to the film. During the film, rarely are scenes shot outside except for when Sonoko and Mitsuko walk in the woods. Masumura has a way of helping the audience connect to their own emotional satisfaction to the film. The quick cuts, camera angles and editing, a line with Eijiro’s erratic behaviour drawing the audience into the scene. Passion is by no means pornographic in nature, the scenes of Mitsuko naked towards the beginning of the film are portrayed in an artistic way that we connect with Sonoko’s obsession of her beauty. Fleeting camera shots of Mitsuko’s naked body that are never fully exposed are always done in a tasteful way help satisfy the audience connection to Sonoko obsession of Mitsuko. Kissing scenes in the film often start with one camera angle showing both Sonoko and Mitsuko kiss but are quickly cut away to behind one of their heads pulling away out from the kiss. Masumura cleverly placed cuts make it not such a risky film, perhaps in doing so in line with censorship but still close enough to shock the audience.
In his film Passion, Masumura has the audience in the palm of his hand he has the ability to shock and draw them into the story emotionally not only through narrative but visually as well but at the heart of the story is humanity. Passion is beautifully filmed with the almost perfect framing of each shot highlights of bright colour in a grey setting depressing setting [see Fig.8.]. As an example, the red pieces of paper holding the sleeping powder really draw in your attention to the scene see [Fig.9.]. Scenes with over the top acting also grab one’s attention and often are uncomfortable to watch but show the extent of the human psyche and the length someone will go to manipulate someone are tools Masumura used to push boundaries. He uses of camera angles and quick-fire shots add to the intensity of the film. Masumura is a cosmopolitan director who challenged the normal ways of filming, bringing in his own modes of thinking and film techniques to enhance his storytelling.
New Wave Cinema in Japan gave the opportunity to women to be seen in strong lead characters roles with a European artistic look quite different from the American “Girl next door” version of women in the 1960’s. It also gave a sense of equality and empowerment to women in Japanese cinema but also highlighting the cultural changes in attitudes in post-war Japan. Passion has a frantic narrative that rarely comes up for air as it races towards its dramatic ending. Masumura use of shadow lighting and camera angles, vibrant use of colour throughout capture the sensuality of his subjects, he plays with voyeurism and sexuality and the highs and lows of human desire and the exploits of love between woman and the consequences of those desires. This representation in terms of narrative and style epitomises the innovations led by the New Wave Cinema and makes Passion fall well into the theoretical framework defined by Dresser as the Cinematic Modernity Paradigm.
[*] This article is one of the results of the Collaborative learning of film analysis in transnational and interuniversity environments project, developed in the academic year 2019/20 among the students of the subject Teoría e historia de los medios audiovisuales of the Degree in Media Communication (Grado en Comunicación Audiovisual, Facultad de Comunicación y Documentación, Universidad de Murcia) and the Japanese Studies Program of the BA Film and Media of the School of Arts of the Birkbeck Collage (University of London).
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