Saturday, September 7, 2013

Yumeji (1991)

Cult Japanese filmmaker, Seijun Suzuki collaborated with producer Genjiro Arato once again, to come up with a third film almost 10 years after 1981's "Kagero-Za". This three-film set is what later came to be known as the Taisho Roman Trilogy of films, all being surrealist psychological dramas with elements of the supernatural, set in the Taisho period.

"Yumeji" (1991) takes the philosophy of the first two films to a new level by building its unreal story around a character from real life. This is a semi-fictional (more fiction, than fact, quite obviously!) account of real life Japanese artist/painter and poet, Takesiha Yumeji. Thus "Yumeji" becomes a unique hybrid; a surrealist psychological thriller cum biopic!

Regardless of whether there are similarities with the actual life of the artist Yumeji or not, screenwriter Yozo Tanaka has spun a rather interesting yarn revolving around the eponymous central character. After a soulful title track in the credits that sets a melancholic as well as a sad-ghost-story mood, "Yumeji" begins on a shockingly off-kilter note with a sequence of images and scenes that are disorienting enough to make you feel ill at ease. It is almost like an overdone nightmare sequence, with Yumeji (portrayed by Japanese glam rock artist Kenji Sawada) who at first seems to be chasing a woman in red, perched upon a tree, and then ends up in a chair with a long pistol, while a faceless man with a top hat rambles some words about seeing the woman’s face, and asks Yumeji to shoot him!

The first ten odd minutes are filled with such visual as well as verbal randomness. Conversations between characters don't make much sense and scenes and backdrops change at the drop of a hat. There are talks of Yumeji eloping with his lady love, his artworks appear on a pillar of a train station as he touches it (!),  and eventually, instead of eloping, he ends up having sex with another woman in a ramshackle dwelling. The woman herself is an animated, clown-like woman while Yumeji is an eccentric, flamboyant, moody playboy who breaks into a song or a poem and sometimes, suddenly gets hysterical or acts like a buffoon! After the jarring beginning, the plot starts to take shape in an isolated location in Kanagawa, where Yumeji encounters different women, and comes face to face with a murderer being hunted by the police and various ghosts and apparitions, including the spirit of the person whose widow he seduces!

In the tradition of the first two films of the trilogy, in "Yumeji", the lines between dream and reality are blurred. What is real and what is imagined (either within or outside of a dream), is left to the viewer to interpret. Suzuki unleashes his trademark idiosyncrasies of filming style and editing, and invites you to have a ball with the madness on the screen…if you are ready for it! With beautiful cinematography by Junichi Fujisawa (although it doesn't match up to the radiating brilliance of the first two films, which were cinematographed by Kazue Nagatsuka), we are subjected to a colorful canvas of a dream universe on celluloid with a bizarre story at its center that lends some food for thought despite its incoherent nature. 

As the story proceeds, it is not just the backdrops and scenes that shift, it is also the mood and tempo of the narrative! While at times, "Yumeji" appears to be an enigmatic horror story with some creepy images and a haunting background score to go along, halfway through, it changes tone and turns into a slapstick comedy with a mad bunch of characters resorting to absurd lunacy. The bunch also includes the murderer on a horse, carrying a scythe in a great slow motion sequence with nary a sound apart from the galloping of the horse, that does not sync with the slow speed of the scene! This scene is a testament of how Suzuki wants to just let his imagination run wild with his scene composition and not adhere to convention in the least!

After an intriguing first third, it is the sequences in the second third of the film that seem to ramble on aimlessly and border on the tedium. But before one could write off the film as yet another exercise in a boisterous display of self-indulgence and pretense, Suzuki brings things back on track in the last third with an interesting twist and a new direction to interpret the story thus far! It is at this juncture that several questions could make way into an enthusiastic viewer's mind. A sudden change of events and the inclusion of some key scenes make us question Yumeji's psyche and his art inspirations. Did his art manifest in his dreams/hallucinations, or did they in fact give him inspiration to produce new art? As he struggles with his own personality and its variations, and also the insecurities stemming from the presence of his peers/competitors, Yumeji makes a rapid descent into insanity…or does he?

To expect any concrete answer out of "Yumeji" is absurd (no pun intended!). The idea is to give in to Suzuki's wild imagination and enjoy it in its hallucinatory glory. There is some sublime music to go along too. Watch out for the clever little scene with a glass replication of what seems to be falling rain drops, with a forlorn looking Tomoyo (Tomoyo Mariya) in a bridal gown, against Shigeru Umebayashi's haunting music piece "Yumeji's theme" that was later used as the central theme in Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love" (2000).

"Yumeji" doesn't break new grounds stylistically, nor does it surpass the first film of the set "Zigeunerweisen" (1980), which still remains the best of the three, but it certainly provides for a solid film experience.

Score: 8/10

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