The Wives of Yasuzo Masumura

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple affordable editions.  Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

Eclipse LogoBest known for his unsentimental portraits of stubborn individuality bordering on madness, Yasuzo Masumura and his alluring queen Ayako Wakao constructed tales of strong-willed women resisting the repression and abuse of Japanese society.  In these exaggerated tales of obsession and desire set in the restrictive confines of traditional marriage, Masumura explores the tragedy of true love and devotion, the liberating power of eroticism, and the sacrifices demanded by corporate living and Japan’s post-war economic miracle.  Wakao is irresistible in these four films, playing inviolable femme fatales whose sexuality and dedication leave them unmanageable to the culture that surrounds them and cruelly punished for their inability to conform.

The Most Valuable Wife (Saikô shukun fujin)

A formative work between Masumura and Wakao, the Mihara family’s three sons operate a trading company, with the eldest pair already married to daughters of the Nonomiya family, but when the Miharas’ youngest son Saburo (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) and the Nonomiyas’ youngest daughter Kyoko (Wakao) refuse to do the same, they raise the ire of their ambitious siblings.

A Wife Confesses (Tsuma wa kokuhaku suru)

Cited as one of Masumura’s masterpieces and the film that launched Ayako Wakao’s career, Wakao plays a young widow on trial for cutting her uncaring husband’s safety line during a mountaineering holiday and murdering him to pursue the affections of a younger man (Kawaguchi) and collect five million yen from her husband’s life insurance.

Seisaku’s Wife (Seisaku no tsuma)

In this antimilitarist portrait written by Kaneto Shindo and set during the Russo-Japanese war, a sullen woman (Wakao) ostracised in her small farming village falls into a mad, obsessive affair with the town’s favored son (Takahiro Tamura), a relationship that ultimately dooms them both.

The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (Hanaoka Seishû no tsuma)

This portrayal of true-life physician Hanaoka Seishu (Raizô Ichikawa), the first doctor to use general anesthetic, pits his ardent but suffering wife (Wakao) and his harshly devoted mother (Hideko Takamine) as competitors offering themselves as subjects for his surgical experimentation.

With notes by Jonathan Rosenbaum

*          *          *

Yasuzo MasumuraAnother post, another discussion about an under-appreciated Japanese director.  This time, we cast our attention upon Yasuzo Masumura, a studio director who became a progenitor to the Japanese New Wave and a cult filmmaker to the West.  Masumura grew up watching movies for free, having a childhood friend whose father owned a theatre.  In his late teens, he studied law at Tokyo University, but a late draft into WWII cut his post-secondary education short.  Upon his return to Japan in 1947, Masumura finished his studies, then became an assistant director at Daiei where he financed his studies in philosophy, graduating in 1951, and won a scholarship to study film at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale Cinematografico.  In Italy, Masumura worked with Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Michelangelo Antonioni, developing a friendship with the latter.  He returned to Daiei in 1953, working on second units with Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa, and Daisuke Ito.

Masumura’s work through the 1950s and early ’60s anticipated the Japanese New Wave and inspired Nagisa Oshima in particular (although Oshima would later withdraw his endorsement of Masumura on the basis that the director was insufficiently explicit in his political and cultural criticisms).  Despite his experience in Italy, Masumura maintained that social realism was problematic in the Japanese context, placing undue emphasis on social pressures and leaving a sense of hopelessness and defeatism for those individuals within the culture.  In a 1958 essay, Masumura stated:

My goal is to create an exaggerated depiction featuring only the ideas and passions of living human beings. … In Japanese society, which is essentially regimented, freedom and the individual do not exist.  The theme of the Japanese film is the emotions of the Japanese people, who have no choice but to live according to the norms of that society.  The cinema has had no alternative but to continue to depict the attitudes and inner struggles of the people who are faced with and oppressed by complex social relationships and the defeat of human freedom. … [But] after experiencing Europe for two years, I wanted to portray the type of beautifully vital, strong people I came to know there, even if, in Japan, this would be nothing more than an idea.

Against charges that his bleakly despondent films favoured exaggeration and implausibility over sentimentality, Masumura embraced the criticisms, writing:

a. Sentiment in Japanese films means restraint, harmony, resignation, sorrow, defeat, and escape, not dynamic vitality, conflicts, struggle, pleasure, victory, and pursuit … I buy the straightforward and crude expression, for I believe the Japanese restrain our desire so much that we tend to lose sight of our true mind.

b. There is no such a thing as non-restricted desire.  A person who thoroughly discloses his or her desire can only be considered mad … [And] what I would like to create is not a stable person who cleverly calculates reality, and safely expresses his or her desire within the calculation.  I do not want to create a humane human being.  I want to create a mad person who expresses his or her desire without shame, regardless of what people think.

c. What interests me is a conflict between expressions of naked desires which cannot be mitigated by the environment.

In short, as Shigehiko Hasumi observes, Masumura was a “European-oriented intellectual artist” who was pessimistic about Japanese society being insufficiently modernised, “especially on the level of individual consciousness.”  When transferred onto film, Mark Peranson observes that Masumura’s perspective translates into movies that are “about the freedom to do whatever the fuck you want, and the ramifications of taking this attitude when society won’t accept it.”  And, for clarity, those ramifications are usually punishing.

Interestingly, Masumura’s iconoclastic figures are generally women, leading to Masumura’s reputation as a “woman’s director.”  As Hasumi describes, “His male characters accept the falsely modernised system of Japan … But his female characters refuse instinctively to be integrated into it.”  Yet Masumura resisted comparisons to his mentor Kenji Mizoguchi, asserting in an October 1970 interview in Cahiers du cinéma:

I don’t try to portray women.  It’s just that women are the more human.  Men only live for women, all their lives they carry their burden the way a horse pulls his carriage, and then they die of a heart attack.  Only by focusing on women can we express humanity.  I don’t choose women so I can talk about women.  I’m not a specialist of women’s issues like Mizoguchi is.”

Ayako WakaoAyako Wakao stands out as the prime figure for Masumura’s expressed humanity, starring in numerous films for the director and all of the films included in this proposed set.  Perhaps expressing a turbulent relationship with the actress, perhaps outlining the very humanity and individuality the director admired, Masumura notably described Wakao in the Cahiers article as “selfish and calculating … she’s hardly a pure-hearted woman and she knows it.”  Wakao is spell-binding throughout her work with Masumura.  Always gorgeous, Wakao conveys in these films a kind of earnest compulsion to follow her conscience that reveals itself in a hard edge running beneath her beauteous appearance.  More often, this compulsion discloses itself as a kind of burden upon her characters, one that leaves them at times enraged and other times pitiable.  Accordingly, there is great complexity in Wakao’s performances, her characters often finding themselves torn between their personal desires and individual moral sense on the one hand and, on the other, the demands of the society at large and of their loved ones unable to stray as far from the norm.

While less frequently hailed as one of the great lead actress of Japanese cinema, Wakao deserves such praise. Masumura’s “cinema of fanatics” (to steal an expression from Jonathan Rosenbaum) minimized the director’s reputation (and likely the reputation of Wakao as well) in his native Japan until Daiei organized a pair of retrospectives starting in 2001.  As a result, a new generation of Japanese cinephiles has since embraced Masumura.  In North America, the Fantoma label had released some of Masumura’s better films, including Giants and Toys (1958), Afraid to Die (1960), Black Test Car (1962), Manji (1964), Red Angel (1966), and Blind Beast (1969), but many of the director’s best works still remain unavailable on this side of the Pacific.  In looking to the Criterion Collection to remedy this problem, we’ve specifically avoided the Fantoma titles, although they could all stand their own high-def editions.

The Most Valuable WifeThis set is organized around (1) the iconic collaboration of Masumura and Wakao and (2) the happy coincidence that so many of their best films contain the word “wife.”  As usual, most of these titles could merit a stand-alone release and deserve a spine number and a wacky “C” of their own, but Criterion seems comfortable in collecting much of their Japanese cinema into Eclipse sets and we’ll follow suit.  In the interests of full disclosure, we’ve only seen unsubtitled portions of The Most Valuable Wife, but given the quality of Wakao and Masumura’s work, we’re comfortable including it in this proposed set.  For the time being, we’ll forego a post on The Most Valuable Wife and when we have a chance to see it in full at some future date, we’ll fill in this gap at that time.

As far as an Eclipse set’s packaging colour scheme goes, we’d prefer a pale peach on black design.

Credits:  A big debt is owed to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s articles on Masumura, championing the director as a Japanese master deserving of further discovery and appreciation.  We naturally selected Rosenbaum to provide the liner notes to this proposed Eclipse set based on his articles “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” “Discovering Yasuzo Masumura: Reflections on Work in Progress,” and “Masumura’s Madness + sidebar (Among the Missing: 10 Key Masumura Features,” as well as his “Dialogue Between Shigehiko Hasumi and Jonathan Rosenbaum on Howard Hawks and Yasuzo Masumura (Tokyo, 3 December 1999).”  We also owe a notable debt to Tom Mes’s “Yasuzo Masumura: Passion and Excess.”


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