"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players".
Masahiro Shinoda, a prominent figure of the Japanese New Wave, gives the above phrase from William Shakespeare's "As you Like it" (1600), its most literal interpretation in his "Double Suicide" (1969), where Shakespearean tragedy meets Bunraku, the traditional Japanese puppet theatre.
Adapting Monzaemon Chikamatsu's "The Love Suicides at Amijima", a 1721 play originally written for the Bunraku puppet theatre, Shinoda transcends the boundaries of experimental cinema by seamlessly fusing two great forms of art, theatre and cinema, while retaining its traditional Japanese ethos. The story revolves around a paper merchant Jihei, who is madly in love with Koharu, a courtesan. Only Jihei is a married man, with two children and hence their love is a forbidden one. Since Jihei is not financially well off to redeem or buy out Koharu, the two decide to end their lives in a suicide pact, seeing death as the only possible conclusion to their ill-fated love story. There are twists and turns in the narrative that unfolds with an operatic intensity, as it marches towards its inevitable, bone-chilling culmination.
But the tale is an age old one, depicting the classical conflict between duty towards society and personal feelings/desires, and it is not really what catches our attention. What stands out and towers over most other products of cinema is Shinoda's unique vision, his realization of this vision and the medium he chooses to tell this story. And hence, in an opening that throws us off guard, we are treated to what looks like a 'making of' feature of a puppet play with the crew's verbal exchanges regarding certain acts and set design of the play. We are given a glimpse of the Kuroko, the stagehands in traditional Japanese theatre, preparing for this puppet play. The Kuroko are actually people dressed up entirely in black, from head to toe. They are so dressed, for they are supposed to be invisible to the proceedings on stage and are merely there to hand out props to the players, move sets between acts, and assist in quick scene and stage changes.
Post the credits, the story begins, only not with puppets but with human actors, with a deliberate, stagey set design that looks like a stage in a theatre, while retaining the Kuroko anyway, who double up as stagehands as well as puppeteers! Thus, throughout the film, these hooded black figures are omnipresent, sometimes providing a voice-over narration between scenes, or explaining a particular prop in a scene, by literally freezing the action! This device in no way distracts and in fact, makes our jaw drop, for little by little, we realize what Shinoda really intends with this deliberate technique employed in the case of "Double Suicide". The way these figures appear during some key sequences and hand over objects to carry out the next inevitable scene, spell out their role in this entire affair. They are literally the hands of fate, puppet-masters, angels, or Gods, if you must, manipulating these characters and executing their destiny.
There is never a dull moment in the proceedings, and if the acting seems theatrical and the drama heightened, it is only to accentuate the roots of its literary source. The events move at a breathless pace, and there is a rawness as well as an opera-like flourish in the amplified, energetic performances. While the sets are non-realistic, the characters realistic and the drama intensely hyperbolic, the inclusion of the Kuroko give the film its surrealistic touch, and hence makes us witness a stylized, artistic blend hitherto unseen! The sets look grotesque and claustrophobic at times.
In the beginning, we get a glimpse of sets with walls painted with the ukiyo-e style black and white figures. Later in the scenes taking place in the abode of Jihei, there is a strange inkblot background. The central conflict troubling Jihei in his love affair is that between duty towards his family, i.e. his wife Osan and his own personal passion towards the prostitute/courtesan Koharu. In an ingenious casting decision, both Koharu and Osan are played by the same actress Shima Iwashita, Shinoda's real life wife, thus, symbolically giving equal weight to both ends of the spectrum with Jihei in the center, being torn apart. A similar casting choice in which the wife and the mistress is played by the same actress was used in the recent Kim Ki-Duk shocker "Moebius" (2013).
It is noteworthy how the action moves entirely from the claustrophobic interiors of most of the film to the open, spaced out landscapes when death becomes finally inevitable. A metaphorical choice of backdrops, depicting the internal turmoil of the lovers, perhaps, as death symbolizes freedom?
Noted composer Tôru Takemitsu has composed the music for the film and is also credited as a co-screenwriter. No surprise then, that "Double Suicide" illustrates one of the most perfect marriages of sound and visuals. The chiaroscuro lighting effect with sharp cinematography emphasizing the high contrast between black and white enhances the bleak beauty of the imagery, especially in the stunning final frames in which light and dark appear at their most disparate extreme, as dark silhouettes are seen from a distance in a bright background. It is also during this time that the musical score soars up to a hair-raising intensity and overwhelms with its powerful impact.
Apart from the offbeat narrative technique, the performances are a major driving force in cementing the status of "Double Suicide" as essential cinema. Kichiemon Nakamura who appeared in Kaneto Shindo's werecat horror film "Kuroneko" (1968) delivers a powerhouse performance that almost rivals the fantastic Shima Iwashita's impassioned act in a dual role.
"Double Suicide" is a masterpiece of the much revered Japanese New Wave of cinema. It is a rare film that stays firmly rooted to its country's traditions but takes giant leaps with a confidence of winning universal acclaim. Do yourself a favour and witness this bold and beautiful film spectacle. In all probabilities you may have never seen anything like it.