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

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The Whale God (Tokuzo Tanaka, 1962)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Whale God.

criterion logoA small Japanese village is obsessed with killing a monstrous whale that has decimated its hunting parties. The town’s wealthiest man offers his land, position, and only daughter to the individual who can kill the demon whale. Shaki, a popular young man whose family has been massacred by the beast, steps forward vowing to slay the whale and avenge his relations, but his efforts are complicated by a brutish stranger to the village also intent on killing the monster and collecting on the promised riches. Based on Koichiro Uno’s award-winning novel published the previous year and scripted by visionary writer-director Kaneto Shindo, this loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick captures the madness and danger of whaling and combines it with period drama and kaiju monster effects.

Disc Features:

  • New, high definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with Japanese film critic Tadao Sato
  • New interview with Japanese-literature scholar Jeffrey Angles
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by critic, novelist, and musician Chris D.

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The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (Yasuzo Masumura, 1967)

Eclipse LogoDomestic rivalry finds unexpected expression in Yasuzo Masumura’s The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka, the true-life story of the Japanese physician who first developed general anesthetic for use in 1804 and the women who competed to be his test subjects.  Hanaoka (Raizð Ichikawa) has little attention for his imperious mother (Hideko Takamine) and his dutiful wife (Ayako Wakao) while he searches for the precise formula for his herbal anesthetic.  Screenwriter Kaneto Shindo and director Yasuzo Masumura step away from the expected conventions of the bio-pic by focusing on the doctor’s spouse Kae, portraying her commitment and sacrifice to her husband’s endeavor as the truly heroic act of this dizzying tale of love and obsession.

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Seisaku’s Wife (Yasuzo Masumura, 1965)

Eclipse LogoIn this riveting examination of mad love and social obligation set at the eve of the Russo-Japanese War, Okane (Ayako Wakao) returns to the small village of her youth where she endures the scorn and rejection of the townsfolk with sullen distemper.  When Seisaku (Takahiro Tamura), the village’s “model youth,” returns from military service, the beloved patriot strikes up an unlikely romance with Okane, marginalizing himself in the process.  Based on a story by Kojiro Yoshida and written by Kaneto Shindo, Seisaku’s Wife is a sensual tale of rebel love and wild obsession standing against the strict military demands of Imperial Japan.

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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

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