Elegant Beast (Yuzo Kawashima, 1962)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Elegant Beast.

In this contemporary melodrama scripted by Kaneto Shindo, director Yuzo Kawashima creates a scathing depiction of greed and hypocrisy in a society facing rapid modernization and Westernization. The small apartment of the Maeda family is transformed by inventive and meticulous cinematography into a claustrophobic battleground where cheating, embezzlement, and corruption are natural occurrences and where the Maedas are turned from swindlers to swindled by a beautiful but mercenary accountant played by Ayako Wakao in a virtuoso performance. Little know outside of Japan, Yuzo Kawashima’s Elegant Beast is an underappreciated masterpiece in filmmaking and a bitter statement on what it took to get ahead in post-war Japan.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with critic, filmmaker, and festival programmer Tony Rayns
  • New program with Eric Nyari on the film and its restoration
  • Trailer
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by Japanese film scholar Tomoyuki Sasaki

Yuzo Kawashima’s Elegant Beast (1962) opens with a view into a fifth storey apartment from outside the building. A husband, Tokizo Maeda (Yunosuke Ito), and wife, Yoshino Maeda (Hisano Yamaoka), redecorate the unit to conceal their comfortable existence – hiding the television, laying out a vinyl tablecloth, changing into more modest clothes, putting out a tin ashtray. They are visited by Katori (Hideo Takamatsu), an angry talent agency manager who employs their son Minoru (Manamitsu Kawabata) and who accuses him of embezzling a small fortune from the company. The Maedas deny the accusations but their modest, penitent behaviour is as much an act as their poverty. Katori leaves the flat with his accountant and his ridiculous jazz singer in tow, but we remain with Tokizo and Yoshino. In fact, we remain at the apartment for virtually all of the film, following 24 hours in the lives of the crooked Maeda family as they plot to hold onto their ill-gotten lifestyle.

Both of the Maedas’ children support their larcenous enterprises. Daughter Tomoko (Yuko Hamada) is the mistress of a successful novelist named Yoshizawa (Kyu Sazanka), borrowing money from him for herself and her father and installing her family in the cheap apartment intended by Yoshizawa as a love nest for their trysts. Yoshizawa seems poised to wash his hands of Tomoko given Tokizo’s ever-increasing loans and Minoru’s embezzlement from him as well. Even worse for the Maedas, Minoru has fallen for the talent agency’s accountant Yukie Matami (Ayako Wakao), an icy single-mother with plans to build a hotel business of her own and who has seduced Minoru, Katori, and even a government taxman (Eiji Funakoshi) to collect the needed capital and to cover her tracks. Screenwriter Kaneto Shindo sets the Maedas’ various schemes in jeopardy during one overly hot night, imagining a nest of gloriously amoral vipers and creating a masterpiece in devious dealings and unashamed self-interest.

Set in 1963, the film occupies a remarkable point of transition in Japanese society. The austerity and brutal desperation that marked the end of World War II was not long gone and it re-appears pointedly when Tokizo angrily reminds his family of the poverty and misery they once suffered, a scene that literally brings Elegant Beast to a temporary halt by freezing the Maedas into total stillness. Japan would declare itself on the world stage by hosting the Olympic Games just the next year and the film similarly addresses the nation’s growing international position through Katori’s plan of booking Elvis Presley for a Japanese tour. The thefts from the talent agency threaten the Maedas’ lifestyle, Katori’s tentative Presley tour, and eventually Yukie’s own business plans, and their respective scramblings to keep their interests afloat recall that previous ethic of surviving at any cost, binding it into the consumerism and greed of Japan’s financial and industrial recovery. At least within the compact space of Elegant Beast‘s apartment, Japan’s economic miracle is less the product of democratic reforms represented in the unlikely form of passing American aircraft. Rather, it is the product of mercenary capitalism enacted at the personal level, where swindling and hustling demarcates the line between security and starvation.

Technically, Elegant Beast does not open with Tokizo and Yoshino’s efforts to hide their creature comforts. The film first opens with a title shot looking into the suite from the outside while traditional music and vocals play (composed by prolific composer Sei Ikeno). Viewed nearly at eye-level, the apartment takes on the appearance of a three-wall stage, declaring a theatrical, even didactic purpose to the movie. This music makes three more appearances – replacing the pop music that plays on the TV and that Minoru and Tomoko dance to during an unreal sunset, occurring during a confrontation between Yukie, Katori, and Minoru that takes on a dramatically theatrical mise-en-scène (motionless actors, voiceover dialogue, a darkened space save for the individual spotlights trained on each performer), and a final long shot of the apartment block. Even further, Kawashima employs brief shots of an all-white stairwell which occupy a kind of spiritual space that describes the fortunes and mindsets of apartment’s visitors – Yukie ascending the stairs as her plans for independence pan-out, Katori descending the stairs as his financial position worsens and his professional ambitions weaken. These moments of theatrical self-consciousness produce an effect of distanciation in the viewer and transport Elegant Beast from acidic chamber film to full-blown metaphor, elevating the events within the Maedas’ suite into social, cultural, and economic commentary on a changing Japan.

Kawashima’s film is most striking for the sheer inventiveness of his visual storytelling. In what is essentially a one-set film, Kawashima (along with his cinematographer Nobuo Munekawa and editor Tatsuji Nakashizu) wrings every conceivable set-up possible to observe Elegant Beast‘s various schemes and plots. Shots peer over walls, spy through windows and hatches, and look straight down from bird’s-eye views, taking glimpses from clandestine perspectives and sometimes sharing screen-space with secretive observers. Themes of conspiracy and subterfuge dovetail with shots that place characters behind bars (of the kitchen window, of the balcony railing), alluding to their criminality as well as their being imprisoned by their own scheming.

Kawashima’s less audacious but arguably more impressive feat in cinematography is Elegant Beast‘s fascinating compartmentalization of onscreen content. Kawashima frequently bifurcates the film frame using walls and other architectural features, dividing it between the apartment’s constituent spaces and often separating the con from its participant voyeurs. Alternatively, Kawashima plays with planes of action, overlapping pairs of characters in the foreground and background so as to divide them, creating layers of audio-visual complexity that spatially demonstrate the intricate and uncertain nature of the film’s plots. Rarely does cinematic blocking take on such significance, but Elegant Beast is a veritable masterwork in the art of scene arrangement – a perfectly arranged bento box of underhanded behaviour.

Special mention must be given to Ayako Wakao. Wakao is better known for her collaborations with Yasuzo Masumura, however she managed to feature prominently in multiple films by Yuzo Kawashima before his untimely death in 1963. Much as she did with Masumura, Wakao manages to occupy the role of filmic lodestone in Elegant Beast, occupying the eye of storm around which the film’s story turns and collapses. Characters connive to outdo her, but as Minoru’s mother observes, she has far outclassed them in her strategies. Wakao’s Yukie is a wonder to behold – servile and placating to the male egos that surround her, yet gently forceful when expressing her savvy superiority as a hustler. Yukie understands the delicate advantage afforded to her by Japanese gender politics and she plays the role to her advantage, matter of factly informing the men in her life of their precarious positions while also diffusing their bluster with her calm resolve. It is a magnificent character realized by Wakao, recalling Masumura’s description of Ayako as “selfish and calculating … hardly a pure-hearted woman.”

Elegant Beast also goes by many names – Shitoyakana kedamonoThe Graceful BruteDeluxe Animal, The Well-Mannered Beasts – however the film is criminally unknown outside of Japan by any title. Thankfully, a 4K print of the film recently screened as part of a retrospective by the Japan Society celebrating the collaboration of Yuzo Kawashima and Ayako Wakao. MMC! is hopeful that this might suggest that this title is ready for a hard media release, perhaps by the Criterion Collection. Wakao in particular deserves better representation in the Collection and this shamelessly unscrupulous, keenly incisive film would do credit to both the actress and the label. Given the film’s unusual, single-location setting, we suggest a cover treatment by Bulgarian architect Boryana Ilieva, whose painted floor plans of filmic locations would be a wonderful starting point to a cover treatment for Elegant Beast.

Credits: Tony Rayns is one of the Criterion Collection’s go-to experts on Japanese cinema, and so we’ve supposed his appreciation of this film in suggesting an interview. Eric Nyari has provided introductions to Elegant Beast both with regard to his involvement in the restoration and the film itself, and so a piece involving him was also imagined. Tomoyuki Sasaki was chosen to provide a booklet essay given his work on postwar Japan and his past consideration of Yuzo Kawashima’s Suzaki Paradise Red Light (1956).

This post was assisted by articles by Travis Mackenzie Hoover at Slant Magazine, Allan Fish at Wonders in the Dark, and Jaime Grijalba at The Brooklyn Rail.

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