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.