A Wife Confesses (Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

Eclipse LogoIn this complex and pessimistic melodrama, young Ayako Takigawa (Ayako Wakao) stands trial for the murder of her intolerable husband during a mountaineering accident.  Flashbacks of the incident reveal Ayako suspended between her spouse below and the young man she secretly loves who struggles to hold their safety line from above.  By cutting her husband’s rope, she saves herself and the young man, allows her husband to fall to his death, and breaches her cultural duties as both a climber and a wife.  Wakao beautifully reconciles the competing desires of love, sex, and death within her tortured character, while director Yasuzo Masumura skillfully crafts a noir-infused tale of dark passions and claustrophobic oppression.

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Without question, the crown jewel of this proposed Eclipse set would be A Wife Confesses.  While Yasuzo Masumura’s regard in the west is largely connected to films like Giants and Toys (1958) and Red Angel (1966), great movies that have already found their way to North American audiences through hard media releases by Fantoma, A Wife Confesses stands as a masterwork to those who have delved farther into the director’s filmography.  Joan-Pol Argenter calls it “maybe the best one among his early features,” James Quandt describes it as “one of Japanese cinema’s most striking portraits of a modern woman,” and Jonathan Rosenbaum succinctly cites it as “Masumura’s supreme masterpiece.”  Such praise is well-deserved.  Certainly within this imagined collection of titles, A Wife Confesses reveals Ayako Wakao at her most emotionally complex and Masumura at his most composed and inspired.

A Wife ConfessesA Wife Confesses opens on the front steps of a courthouse with various members of the media awaiting the arrival of Ayako Takigawa (Ayako Wakao), a young woman about to stand trial for the murder of her husband.  Ayako is hounded by the media both outside and inside the court building, being peppered with complex questions presuming all sorts of salacious details about her life.  The judgements of the reporters are only the most overt, as both the general populace and witnesses testifying in court seem only too pleased to assume the worst of her character and her motivations.  Ayako’s objectification both legally and popularly, and her struggle (as well as the struggle of those around her) to resist those presumptions and imposed definitions, are the focal point of A Wife Confesses.  Ultimately, its resolution is not an easy one.

The litigation process frames various flashbacks of Ayako’s marriage to Ryôkichi Takigawa (Eitaro Ozawa), an associate professor in chemistry doing research for a pharmaceutical company.  Theirs is a marriage of convenience, one that saved Ayako from the hardships undertaken to complete her own studies and provided the elder Prof. Takigawa with a beautiful young wife, notwithstanding his disinterest with her happiness or their union.  Ayako repeatedly asserts her efforts to be a good wife and commit to their relationship.  In flashback, Ayako’s loneliness is depicted, punctuated by her husband’s demand that she have an abortion when she believes she is pregnant. Still she attempts to make good in the role of dutiful wife even if it is out of at least partial necessity, as her husband advises he can effectively prevent any divorce sought by Ayako.  She finds a sympathetic ear in Osamu Kôda (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), a handsome, young man assigned as Prof. Takigawa’s liaison to the pharmaceutical company.  Kôda is engaged to a young woman, Rie Munakata (Haruko Mabuchi), but something beyond a purely platonic friendship evolves between him and Ayako, a relationship scrutinized in the prosecution of the accused wife.

During the examination of witnesses, flashbacks to the mountaineering accident that killed Prof. Takigawa reveal a complex web of circumstances leading to his fall.  Prof. Takigawa recognizes the emotional bond forming between Ayako and Osamu and arranges a mountain-climbing excursion purposefully designed to torment the two young people, however it is the elder husband who finds himself in jeopardy, hanging at the end of a safety line that constricts around Ayako midway up the rope and pins Osamu to the rocky ledge at the top, bearing their collective weight.  Ayako cuts the line, dropping her husband to his death and freeing Osamu to draw her back up to mountain’s ledge, leading Ayako’s lawyer to contend that a defence of necessity should forgive his client in the eyes of the law.

In A Wife Confesses, the court of law stands as a microcosm of the court of public opinion that similarly judges Ayako, and courtroom proves to be a more forgiving forum than the gossipers and bar stool moralizers who assume that the proximity of Ayako and Osamu and the existence of a five-million yen insurance policy on Prof. Takigawa naturally demands an illicit romance and deficient, even murderous, characters.  Much as the safety line tightened painfully around her by the weight of her husband and the saving resistance of Osamu, Ayako is pained after the fact in the reasoning and motivation for her actions, caught in reflection between her need to obviously relieve herself of the rope’s pain and the more illicit desires to save Osamu and to free herself from her husband’s soul-crushing hegemony.  Ayako becomes admirable in her resolve to accept not just her less admirable reasons for conduct, but to continue pursuing the love and happiness she chose in (literally) cutting her husband loose.  While she bears well the judgements of others, it is Osamu’s insistent questioning and his rejections of her based on the inferences and appearances possibly drawn by others that ultimately undoes Ayako.  A Wife Confesses concludes by revealing only Ayako as being capable of truly loving unconditionally and then having that love treated as an impropriety to be punished by the larger community.

Wife Confesses CourtroomAyako Wakao is nothing less than superb in A Wife Confesses, playing a woman struggling with emotions that are entirely unacceptable to her community.  Her resentment toward her husband, her attraction to Osamu, even her self-interest to survive while in mortal danger, are all perceived as contraventions of the social order that devalues her basic personhood, yet it is only when these condemnations are voiced by the one she loves most does Ayako finally break.  Masumura expresses this oppression most successfully through a crowded mise en scène.  Carefully blocked shots typically place his characters, usually Ayako, in tightly framed spaces, using people and props normally in the foreground to create enclosures that visually trap his protagonists, representing the collective will pitted against Ayako and others.  Alternatively, Masumura employs unbalanced frames (a technique observable across many of his films) that use the negative emptiness of one side to elaborate on the crowding and marginalizing effect on the opposite side of the screen.  Masumura may eschew close-ups, but the highly composed nature of A Wife Confesses nevertheless conveys a strongly proximate, particularly claustrophobic atmosphere, one that perfectly compliments the themes and values contested in his film.

A Wife Confesses is truly a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, standing among the very best works of Masumura.  Ayako, feeling too strongly and suffering too harshly, seems a true character of melodrama punished for being caught between film noir fatalism and social realist consequence.  As a genre castaway, she epitomizes Masumura’s individualist ethic without simplistic idealization and stands as a martyr against the conformist pressures of Japanese culture.  Wakao will play in Seisaku’s Wife and The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka other women who look in at the culture from the outside and while her performances will be no less compelling, her Ayako Takigawa has a depth of conflict that cannot be matched.  Likewise, Masumura’s direction will tone down with these later films, avoiding quite the same degree of expressive construction that marks A Wife Confesses.  For those who want their heartbreak explicit and their angst artfully uncompromised, A Wife Confesses delivers.

Credits:  In addition to the sources previously cited, we should acknowledge Joan-Pol Argenter’s review for Midnight Eye, the review at Brandon’s movie memory, and the various summaries provided for screenings of the film, such as for the touring Japanese Divas film series.

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