Cult Japanese director Seijun Suzuki follows up his excellent "Zigeunerweisen" (1980), a surreal odyssey in the realms of the unknown, with "Kagero-Za" (1981), which is yet another bizarre fantasy/fable, based on Yōzō Tanaka's screenplay of the Kyōka Izumi novel.
While Suzuki succeeded in creating a feverish dream atmosphere with the right audio-visual elements and an intriguing series of episodes in the life of the protagonist in the first film of his Taisho Roman Trilogy, he lets down with this somewhat tepid follow-up when it comes to recreating the same magical appeal. It is not, however, entirely Suzuki's fault, for he tries his best to tap the script which itself is a little deficient and uninteresting.
Like its predecessor "Kagero-Za" tells of the strange events in the life of the protagonist, this time a playwright by the name of Matsuzaki (Yusaku Matsuda). The events mostly involve a romantic/sexual encounter with Shinako (Michiyo Okuso) who dresses up in Japanese traditional wear, picks flowers from a cemetery and believes that souls of women can be trapped in bladder cherries! Then there is the omnipresent wealthy businessman and bird-hunter, Tamawaki (Katsuo Nakamura) who may have had two wives, one of them being a German who dyes her hair black and darkens her eyes to look like a Japanese woman, but the moonlight reveals her true self! Tamawaki seems to follow Matsuzaki everywhere he goes and is possibly manipulating the events in his life. Things take a weirder angle, as ghostly presences of the dead seem to appear, and love letters written in someone's dreams are sent to our protagonist in real life! Add to that, some absurd situations like a full-fledged party thrown by Tamawaki, replete with hired girls dancing to upbeat music, to celebrate the passing of his wife!
A lot is, of course, left to interpretation (if one should be so interested), for not everything in Suzuki's fantastical universe makes much sense, placed in the logical perspective. Throw real life logic out the window and think only from a half-asleep dream perspective and then one wouldn't be taken aback by the events in the film. Much of what is shown is supposed to be taken at face value as a given. With that goal in mind, Suzuki subjects the viewer to a good number of dreamscapes, full of bizarre oddities that are awe-inspiring.
Spatial inconsistencies, idiosyncratic editing techniques, randomness of dialog, little of which makes any real sense, sudden switching to slow motion and back, are all in abundance. We see a character jump cut from one backdrop to another, when the scene is supposed to happen in a single location. Camera zooms in and out in a fraction of a second. A cartoonish device is employed as well, in which a character appears in a scene in a flash, as if teleported from elsewhere, when his input is required in the scene! Recurring, outlandish images are aplenty but none as scary and nightmarish as those seen in the preceding film.
Rather than being a trippy nightmare, with a goose-bumpy score, unlike its predecessor, "Kagero-Za" takes a more comical angle, although it deals with a lot of serious stuff too. Like a lovers' suicide pact, for example, which also has an uncalled for, emotional angle to it. There is a lot of emphasis on traditional Japanese culture here, including a score mostly comprised of Japanese traditional folk music (with some exceptional moments of Jazz!) and at least two elaborate performances including one especially disturbing, but loud and excruciatingly long Noh theatre-ish act by kids enacting a play with evidently adult themes!
This sequence overstays its welcome along with other things like the introduction of the disgustingly lewd and bawdy vagabond Wada (played by Yoshio Harada, who in fact was one of the best things about "Zigeunerweisen"), and his subplot revolving around hollow dolls which reveal the inner self of the individual they represent. However, embedded within the cavities are some miniature raunchy clay sculptures! This angle of Wada and the dolls with holes lacks any real appeal, even from the surrealist perspective, but somehow finds a way in the main narrative! It is about here that the proceedings nose-dive into a rabbit hole and the narrative balances itself on edge, dangerously close to the line of mediocrity. This final act also includes the aforementioned kids' theatre play that tries to reiterate the actual plot of the film, only to confuse the viewer further!
With recurring motifs, a few extraordinary images that would make sense only in the subconscious dream world, and some gorgeous cinematography by Kazue Nagatsuka, Suzuki tries to salvage the material at hand, but somehow falls short of evoking the same kind of a nervous joy and excitement that resulted after a viewing session of his "Zigeunerweisen". Perhaps the acting leaves a little to be desired as well, and the fact that there is a single narrative thread that attempts to come full circle with a definite conclusion in "Kagero-Za", rather than a series of snippets of memories, dreams and happenings in the life of one individual. The narrative trudges along, and lacks the right amount of dynamics and ingenuity to sustain the length of the film and make it fuller, except when Suzuki intersperses it with occasional off-the-wall imagery that help to bring the viewer right back in tune.
"Kagero-Za" (1981) is a decent offering from Suzuki; patchy, but pleasing to a substantial degree. Sadly, it just doesn't match up to the standard set by its predecessor.