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Double Suicide: The Criterion Collection

Despite its popularity in some quarters, prestige Japanese cinema remains unknown territory to serious film students; it is long and vast and lacks a map. While fanboys dash for the latest wretched anime, as jangly as Saturday morning cartoons and as shrill as a radiation leakage alarm, the films of real cinematic masters tend to languish. While buff-oriented magazines drool over the array of lightweight and inept soft porn films that come out of Asia, serious readers can find few books and fewer magazines currently dedicated to Japanese art cinema. Almost everyone seems to at least know of Kurosawa, but the work of Mizoguchi, Naruse, Ozu, Ichikawa, Imamura, and Oshima, among others, remains scattered, if available at all. Many of the movies are there, on videotape (mostly thanks to New Yorker Films), Laserdisc, and now increasingly, DVD, but they are still a very minor segment of disc publication. Among these masters is Masahiro Shinoda, who has been a working director since 1960, and has made over 30 films. He's a great, if somewhat difficult, director with a distinct world view. Double Suicide is perhaps not the best film with which to familiarize oneself with Shinoda's varied oeurvre (most likely such a film would be either Pale Flower or Banished Orin). But thanks to Criterion it's now available on DVD. Double Suicide is drawn from a Bunraku puppet play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu originally performed in 1720. This is a style of theater in which the puppet masters are almost visible on stage, garbed in black robes. In fact, they are also visible in this movie, as representatives of fate, leading the characters on and manipulating them, even though live humans have taken the parts of puppet characters. They are Jihei (Kichiemon Nakamura), a paper merchant, and Koharu (Shima Iwashita), a courtesan he has fallen in love with, to the detriment of his business and family life. Despite the pleas of the family, and the wife's efforts to control the situation, Jihei allows his career to be destroyed. Finally, after a night of sex in a graveyard, the two engage in ritual suicide (technically, what happens is a murder-suicide). Through these means, Shinoda explores again his bleak obsession with the destructive nature of love. This is highly emotional material, but don't expect an invitation to get involved with it. Shinoda keeps his distance, and expects the viewer to do the same. In fact, he does everything in his power to distance the viewer from the material. The puppeteers are visible; the formal beauty of Toichiro Narushima's cinematography emphasizes the formality of the world portrayed, and production designer Kiyoshi Awazu further distances the viewer by decorating the set with blown up Edo period woodblock prints and bits of Bunraku libretti. The music score by Toru Takemitsu, who, along with the other artists and technicians involved, has had a long and fruitful collaboration with Shinoda, is arresting in its icy way. And if that isn't enough, the same actress (who is also Shinoda's spouse) plays both the courtesan and the wife. Douoble Suicide is a powerful film, but not particularly moving; it is an intellectual and formal exercise designed to lay out the director's world view. Criterion's DVD release (spine number 104) is drawn from the company's parallel catalog of Janus films. Disappointingly, this black-and-white full-frame film (1.33:1) is transfered from a print with some minor blemishes, consisting primarily of white speckles. Otherwise the disc has rich blacks and sharp whites. The sound is mono (Dolby Digital 1.0), but is satisfactory for a a mostly visual film with little sound beyond talking and some music. English subtitles are optional and represent a new translation of the dialogue. The disc also has the familiar Criterion color bars. Also included is a six-page fold-out brochure with a an informative critical essay by Claire Johnston reprinted from a film magazine from 1970. The static menu offers 18-chapter scene-selection. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm



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