In the history of Japanese cinema, few filmmakers have been more highly regarded and discussed than Yasujiro Ozu. Indeed, his work has arguably had a determinate role in how Western cinephiles conceive of pre- and postwar Japanese culture. Yet Ozu’s point of view was decidedly traditionalist, presenting a limited view of mid-century Japanese life. Japan Society’s recent film series “Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao” presents a compelling counterpoint to Ozu’s vision of Japanese society by way of three films directed by Yuzo Kawashima, all of which were released around the same time as An Autumn Afternoon (1962).
Kawashima’s work has rarely been screened in the United States. A major influence on filmmakers such as Shohei Imamura, who worked for the director in the early ‘50s as an assistant and went on to work with him as a co-screenwriter, Kawashima preferred working on comedies and farces—always with a contemporaneous edge and with an eye on the youth of the time. He made more than fifty films in the nineteen years of his career, before his sudden death at the age of forty-five. As the title of the series suggests, these are the three films of his that feature the legendary actress Ayako Wakao. Her performances are greatly enhanced by Kawashima’s audacious sense of where to place the camera, to best express his characters’ psychological turmoil and to search for a new perspective on how Japanese gender roles as well as family structures could be both portrayed and critiqued. Her collaboration with Kawashima started with Women are Born Twice (1961), in which she plays a Tokyo geisha who slowly grows to become more aware of her social position and what she truly wants for herself.
Elegant Beast (1962) is the most interesting and subversive of the three films in the series. The film takes place almost entirely inside an apartment in the Tokyo suburb, in which a family lives: father (Tokizo Maeda), mother, (Yoshino) and son, (Minoru, the “elegant beast” that the title refers to), who works at a musician management company that produces gigs for TV and plans to bring Elvis Presley for the first time to Japan. The film opens with the parents struggling to hide their most precious belongings, changing fine clothes to less fancy ones and hiding a Renoir painting, as they are about to receive a visit from Minoru’s boss, who’s accusing him of embezzlement. The parents deny the accusations while their son hides in another room, waiting for his boss to leave. Wakao appears here as one of the company’s accountants, Yukie Mitani, silently handing over proof of the son’s misconduct.
As the film advances we see that the family is trying to avoid poverty while keeping their morality intact. Everyone is in on their schemes, even their younger daughter (Tomoko), who casually drops by to tell them that a famous novelist with whom she was having an affair has kicked her out because Tokizo, her father, has borrowed over a million yen off him for his gambling addiction, without ever repaying. The film finally reveals that the amount of money that Minoru has embezzled is much more than what he has shared with his family, as he has had a romantic affair with Yukie Mitani, giving her money with which she has secretly built a hotel so she can retire from the accounting business and live off the rent the building would give her. Wakao’s performance contrasts strikingly with the constant shouting, big gestures with arms and hands, and speech intonations that are more common in a yakuza or samurai film, as she remains calm throughout, controlling without seeming especially assertive, her facial expressions barely changing while harshly evaluating those around her. It’s this quiet demeanor that emphasizes her status as a woman who knows what she wants, as she has come to the conclusion that she doesn’t need to be with the son anymore (this happens in a particularly striking scene where the son says that they’re alone, but both his sister and mother are in different places of the house, listening in, hearing how they had sex and how he is now being humiliated), nor at her job, since she’s got enough to finish the hotel, taking the advantage that she was given and making a path of her own.
The film also features some incredible images, with Kawashima’s Director of Photography Nobue Munekawa (who would go on to lens other contemporary pop culture heavy items like the Gamera films) putting cameras inside cabinets, behind staircases, through neighbors’ windows, disrupting the inherent monotony of the film’s single-location setting. The camera angles around and focuses at times on quiet moments between the family members, as strange as they are for a family like this, the father smoking while he reads about horse races, the mother serving beer and fancy food for his children, the son speaking about how he had sex with the accountant last night, and the daughter explaining how she really couldn’t get pregnant from the writer. The script is suffused with bile, the characters criticizing the American military’s presence within the city, as well as their place in a middle class that won’t let them flourish if it weren’t for the scams that they do, all of this while revelling in this family’s fundamental amorality. It could be argued that Elegant Beast is a crucial precursor to the work of directors like Sion Sono, who have explored the same hidden face of the Japanese family by way of expressionistic acting and inventive imagery.
The Temple of Wild Geese (1962) on the other hand, has a more superficially classical appearance, being a period piece that takes place in the ‘20s shot in black and white by who would later shoot the entrancing masterpiece Sword of Doom (1966), Hiroshi Murai, which gives it a classical look. But at its core, it makes the case that Japan is a place that has always been rotten. Provocatively, the film portrays the revered institution of Buddhism as a dishonest sham, its members portrayed as sinful, lusty, and even murderous. Wakao plays the mistress of the chief priest of a temple whose walls are covered with paintings of geese and whose voracious sexual appetites are equal to the cruelty with which he treats his protégé, Jinen, whose religious education he has taken charge of while he receives his formal education at a nearby military school. The film starts controlled and calm—but as the emotions of this trio of characters become more and more extreme, as the repressed Jinen gives in to his darkest instincts, the chief priest becomes more violent, and Wakao’s character shows her compassion, trying to break into Jinen’s innocent exterior—so do Kawashima’s formal decisions: dizzying camera movements, extreme close-ups, and even a shift to color in the film’s epilogue, which focuses on the paintings, as if to make the connection between the magnificence and fame that surrounds them and the dirty deeds done therein.
Ayako Wakao’s career languished after the mid-60s. She had fewer and fewer appearances in film and TV, leaving this as the shining point of her craft, where she mastered all the implications of her classical characters that she had worked through her earlier career. This brief series provides a way into an unknown auteur who, in his time, rode the wave of the new Japanese cinema, along with an actor whose time in the spotlight was all too brief.
JAIME GRIJALBA is a freelance film critic (MUBI, Kinoscope), and filmmaker. He's been part of the Locarno Critics Academy. He's currently fan-translating the Raul Ruiz diaries.