Junichiro’s uncertainties of a lesbian love



Adapting Tanizaki Junichiro’s Manji to film is not an easy task, especially for its structure and literary nature. It has been, however, masterly achieved. Basically, the setting is a monologue by a widow, Sonoko, relating the past events to an aged writer, an almost-implied author representing own Tanizaki’s alter ego. Thus, everything starts from the end and we presence a reconstruction of the facts as seen from Sonoko’s eyes.

Of course, many of the words in the book become scenes with real characters in the film, and some others are just skipped through ellipsis, but still, widow and writer’s presence is implicitly omnipresent in the telling of the story.

I suppose that at the time of the book’s publication (first serialized in Kizo newspaper from 1928 and 1930) or even at the premiere of this first-of-four movie version in 1964 by Yasuzo Masumura, the most salient theme was to be the transgressive lesbian love between two main characters. The public’s reception of the work in both moments must have been very different since the Japanese society and morals had changed so much in those more than 30 years, partly because of the American influence after WWII, the same way Japan changed to a great degree from 1964 to 2006, when the last version to date was shot.

Indeed, more than just a homosexual story, both book and film represent the destructive dependence created around the figure of Mitsuko, the young women elevated to goddess by everyone in contact with her, and the infatuation of upper-class people with dull lives, who lose control of their feelings and actions at the hands of Mitsuko’s machinations. But not everything is so obvious: narrator Sonoko, the impulsive young housewife –not that young in the film-, looks sincere and seems to be a reliable teller, although her version of the facts must be taken carefully. The almost-mute narrator, an attentive, impartial and silent writer-counselor in the film, shows Sonoko’s words literally without judging their veracity, and presents physical evidence provided by her in the form of letters, contracts, etc., for the implicit reader-viewer to form his/her possible reconstruction of the facts based on the written-visual objective data. In that sense, Sonoko’s narration keeps the intrigue of the story, at the same time that makes guilt fly from avid-for-tragedy and dramatic Mitsuko to debious Watanuki to her intelligent but fainthearted husband Kotaro to herself.

All characters undergo a transformation of their personalities as if influencing each other and lose their innocence toward a fatal denouement. Jealousy, as related to low self-esteem and the fear of being deceived, constitutes the driving force of novel and film. The four main characters, including Kannon-like Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao is no doubt the best and most attractive actress of her generation), suffer that mixture of blind love, lust and envy to pathological levels, which paradoxically provides them with stamina for their personal fighting.

Although an apparently universal story, Tanizaki adds the Japanese peculiar theatrical nature to the narration with constant allusions to suicide, either individual or collective, as a form of sublime love; the lovers’ frequent weeping and the sexual game with the おねえちゃん oneechan older sister have also this Japanese signature.

Okuribito, burakumin and lessons of forgiveness



Most human societies and their respective religions have tried to cope with people’s sorrow and fears when dealing with death. The three big monotheistic religions imagined heaven as a place where the departed souls enjoy solace in the company of the Creator. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, invented samsara or transmigration of the souls along the 6 existing worlds, depending on the person’s behavior when in the Earth as a human being. The Japanese accept the latter, adding a touch of animistic Shinto’s beliefs, especially the ones concerning the concept of impurity (death and everything in contact with it). Hollywood-awarded おくりびと Okuribito Departures, as well as the uniquely original あぶらくさすの際 Aburakusasu no Matsuri Festival of good and evil, explore funeral services, ceremonies and their implications for society.

The obsessive dedication of the Japanese to regulate かた kata the process of doing anything in most aspects of life extends to death ceremonies, where in the 49 days when a deceased person is to be judged for reincarnation, the bereaved families follow the Buddhist rituals in the most rigorous fashion, starting with the 死に水 shinimizu moistening the departed relative’s lips with wet chopsticks, following with the 湯灌 yukan washing mouth, nose and anus with hot water, the 経帷子 kyoukatabira white kimono, the 死に化粧 shinigeshou make-up, and so on. Indeed, those are Okuribito’s former cellist Daigo’s functions, whose role is masterly interpreted by Masahiro Motoki, although the actor’s physical appearance –and especially his pectorals in a couple of scenes- are more proper of the ex-teenage-idol that he was in the 80’s than of a tranquil musician retreating into the countryside with his plain and stereotypical Japanese wife.

Traditionally, those Buddhist mortician ceremonies used to be performed by an until-recently-discriminated Japanese minority, the so-called 部落民 burakumin, a kind of an under caste with origins from the Middle Ages and with jobs that had physical contact with the “impure” death of animals and people, i.e., butchers, executors, undertakers, leather tanners, etc. Although legal discrimination has disappeared, there’s still a strong social stigma about this minority (in the past also called 穢多 eta lots of filth) and their traditional jobs: the only mention of the more politically-correct word 被差別部落民 hisabetsu burakumin, is a taboo in the Japanese society. If you don’t believe me, try to get a clear opinion about the matter from a Japanese national. Still facing marriage and employment discrimination –the same way you don’t want your family involved with “impurity”, the possessive and paternal Japanese companies don’t want them around themselves-, at least from the 80’s it has become illegal to investigate a person’s ancestors’ origin so that the information can be used to discriminate him or her. However, until what point this prohibition is really enforced, nobody knows: in some cases, neighborhoods are so clearly associated with burakumin origins that a simple address can lead to the questioning of the candidate’s moral intrinsic value, as if it were a modern version of 16th and 17th century’s Spain, obsessed with “purity of blood”, free from Muslim and Jewish “filthiness”.

In Okuribito, when Daigo, the protagonist, suffers the rejection of one of his childhood friends, and his own wife abandons him when he refuses to stop performing such a “filthy and embarrassing job”, there is an implicit denounce of the still-alive prejudice and unmentionable taboo in 21st century’s Japan.
But in the hands of intelligent director Yojiro Takita, the reproach becomes a lesson when dedicated and caring Daigo shows friend and wife that there is nothing to be ashamed of in preparing the dead for funeral and cremation.

Housewife Mika has her own opportunity to redeem her previous bigotry introducing the other big theme in the movie, that of forgiveness, more related to the Christian tradition of sin in a free-of-will West than to indulgently-Buddhist but at the same time strict Japan, full of implicit and elaborated rules in most spheres of life. In Japan, when an individual leaves a group –whether it’s a school club, a cooking lesson or a company-, s/he is automatically frowned upon by the rest of the group members and the previous status of 内 uchi inside the group is switched to 外 soto, an outsider. In occasions, s/he is resentfully tagged as someone not having been able to endure hard times or having looked for his/her own benefit and not that of the group. But when the system where the individual is trying to escape from is the family, forgiveness is unimaginable, especially if there are children. Two stories of family abandonment are shown in this movie. A middle-aged woman working in the funeral parlor as a secretary laments her leaving behind a 6-year-old to run away with her lover, and explains that no matter how remorseful she is, forgiveness is out of the question: “会いたいに決まっているけど会えない Many times I thought of going and meet my grown-up son, but I just can’t”.

This movie shows us both the suffering and deeply ingrained psychological trauma of the abandoned child –stories like these ones are not uncommon in the recent Japanese cinema, 誰も知らない Daremo shiranai Nobody knows (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2004), 菊次郎の夏 Kikujiro no natsu Kikujiro’s summer (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)- but also the human side of those immature adults running away from a world of responsibilities and eventually regretting their behavior. To forgive someone, even for a serious affront or negligence, we first need to understand the person and the circumstances, and try to relativize the damage among all the good actions, including having given birth. And that is the implicit message in this touching film by Yojiro Takita, which will force you to make use of your Kleenex a few times while watching it, unless you are the insensitive type.




Or, at least, that’s the message that director Shion Sono seems to be sending to the audience in his previous to last film 恋の罪 Guilty of romance, recently at Japanese movie theaters and which was presented in Cannes last May. This time, too, we get the usual share of sex and violence, which his filmography overflows with, apart from some more notes of the bizarre, including Clockwork-Orange aesthetics, balloons of pink ink exploding against naked bodies performing sex, an insane, ceremonious and coarse おばあちゃん grandma, and school-girl mannequins hiding a dismembered human body.

But the really interesting thing about this movie is the depiction of an extreme master-slave relationship in the form of a marriage: former idol Megumi Kagurazaka turned Shion Sono’s iconic actress performs the housewife’s everyday perfect routine of preparing tea with pathological precision, placing the husband’s slippers at the entrance at the millimeter, waiting mutely and frozen next to him for his next order while he is reading, candidly soliciting from him permission to execute oral sex when he pleases so, and so on; everything with the fear of making one day a mistake and suffering a psychological punishment by the egocentric and authoritarian writer that Izumi has for a husband. All this might seem completely unreal but I couldn’t avoid thinking about a young co-worker of mine, who quit her job at 26 to become the 主婦 shufu homemaker of a man she hardly knew in Tokyo, and whose main duty became to prepare 3 different お弁当 box lunches for her strict husband’s day and to make sure that everything at home suited his short-tempered personal taste. That’s why I felt a strange feeling of déjà vu when seeing those scenes.

Going back to the movie, in a surprising but unavoidable turning point of the story, it comes what wouldn’t have an easy justification by any feminist theory but which seems to be a revealing lesson for housewife Izumi: the rediscovery of her own body as a sexual magnet for men, not as a symbol of masculine depravity and female degradation but, on the contrary, as one of psychological liberation from her oppressive marriage. It’s especially memorable her scene in front of the mirror practicing naked the offer of sausage free samples to imaginary clients for her part-time job at the supermarket: いらっしゃいませ。試食いかがですか?美味しいですよ!

The next step into prostitution for Izumi will come from the hand of a female university professor, Makoto, with a multiple-personality disorder due to a too predictable childhood trauma which seems a too literal reading from out-of-fashion Freud. She introduces Izumi to the flourishing world of デリヘル delivery health in the Shibuya district of the 1990’s and lectures her with a particular motto: “恋がなければセックスをしたらお金を取れ If you have sex without love, ask for money”.

The triple theme of the film -marriage, sex and infidelity- is rounded, as in a Natsuo Kirino’s novel, by a third character, Kazuko, a police-woman who brings suspense to the film in the form of a third-person limited narrator. Schizophrenically tough at work and affectionate at home, she keeps a secret third life herself, too.

The world of Japanese housewives is an endless source of ideas for this director but it also prompts social debates in Japanese society about the convenience of this institution, close to extinction due to the economic situation –fewer and fewer families can economically afford to have a no-money-making spouse-. Housewives portray the most traditional Japan –some would call it backward- and they can give rise to harmony and happiness in a family or to a repression magazine about to explode. Shion Sono shows us that second possibility.

Recently, I had dinner in Osaka with a young couple soon to be husband and wife. They told me about the 結納 yuino or engagement ceremony that had taken place the previous month at the bride’s home. Apart from a diamond engagement ring costing as much as 750.000 yen, the groom had to give her future wife 1 million yen as a symbol of the pass of the woman from one family to the other, as if a purchase would be taking place. Astonished as I was, they claimed the celebration to be a custom still popular in Japan, and carried out in at least one third of nowadays’ weddings. Her sister would later tell me how much she wished the couple happiness forever and ever, although she also contemplated the possibility that the bride would end up bored of a monotonous life indoors. At one point, alone with the groom for a few minutes, half-jokingly and with a considerable lack of tact from my part, I told him that after the diamond, the 結納金 betrothal money and the apartment he had just started paying, getting divorced would be out of the question. Trying not to show his evident discomfort, he answered dryly: “僕は離婚しない I won’t get divorced”. Good for him. I just hope his young and lovely wife doesn’t become one of Shion Sono’s characters.

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