Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Practically unclassifiable in terms of Western movies, from its bare outline Yasuzo Masumura's Manji resembles the exploitative sex movies of Radley Metzger. Its subject matter moves from lesbian love to adultery, to multiple sexual relationships tangled in webs of deceit, blackmail and maybe even murder. Austere in scope and pared down to the raw emotions between its four mad lovers, Manji is a contemplative mass of interesting ideas about human behavior.
Housewife Sonoko Kakiuchi (Kyoko Kishida) falls madly in love with fellow art student Mitsuko Tokumitsu (Ayako Wakao), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Mitsuko plays coy, but allows a secret relationship to begin. The affair becomes so intense that Sonoko is soon flaunting it before her uncomprehending husband Kotaro (Eiji Funakoshi). But the supposedly faithful Mitsuko has a male lover, Eijiro Watanuki (Yusuke Kawazi), who she manipulates as cleverly as she does Sonoko. Eijiro wheedles Sonoko into a secret blood contract, to hold Mitsuko for both of them forever. But Sonoko can't hold onto anything. Eijiro blackmails Kotaro, and Mitsuko moves into the Kakiuchi home, using drugs to control Sonoko while seducing her husband. What was a 'pure' relationship for Sonoko has mutated into an insoluble dilemma, a scandalous sexual frenzy revolving around the desired Mitsuko.
While watching Manji Savant kept thinking, "And this is from 1964?" Masumura transcends the entire sex revolution in Western movies with an erotic picture outside and beyond anything I've seen. It's not pornographic at all, and has very limited nudity. It doesn't play or behave like an exploitative picture. Many standard 'meaningful' European films look like cheap pandering in comparison. Precious little time is wasted with anything but the developing psychosexual tangle between its characters. The lesbian theme is confronted directly, without comment or context that would prejudge it.
Romantic tragedies of any sexual persuasion typically make the easy Elvira Madigan case that the lost lovers are pure spirits destroyed by an unfeeling and cruel world. Manji refuses to be so simple. Here, the reckless lovers are totally responsible for their own destinies -- nobody is a completely innocent victim, and even the 'villain' proves to be but a pawn to her own desires. Sonoko, the instigator of the quartet of illicit lovers, has the pure emotional obsession of a teenager. Her desires are inspired by artistic and aesthetic ideas, and she's reasonably sympathetic. But she's also a knot of blind, infantile selfishness -- easily led and manipulated by the object of her dreams. Sonoko dismisses her uncomprehending husband as a useless bother and allows herself to be backed into committing acts that will surely hurt herself as well as everyone around her.
Mitsuko is a game-master, a player of the highest degree. Her goal is the emotional control of her lovers; she encourages the idea that she's some kind of love goddess to be desired but never fully possessed. As in a cautionary, puritan tract, her beauty is a mask onto which others project their fantasies -- she can love (maybe), but only in an egocentric world where all sexual energy is directed exclusively toward her. The scenes where she cons the husband and wife into taking sleeping draughts, so they can't make love at night and betray their 'goddess', are chillingly
American films noir have long established that generally uncorruptable people will nevertheless betray themselves and everything they believe in for Eros. The craven liar Eijiro callously uses Sonoko but is a powerless drone before the influence of Mitsuko. Stuffy husband Kotaro is shaken by his wife's forbidden romance, yet he's attracted to the same love object. Mitsuko seduces him as if he were a flower to be cut, right in front of his drugged wife. Nothing is simple. Kotaro has already shown that his head can be turned by beauty. Sonoko doesn't like Mitsuko's malicious and
destructive games, but has surrendered her right to object, through her earlier acceptance of similar sexual play-acting.
All of this takes place in a controlled environment of bedrooms, assignation hotels, art studios and offices -- but not in a social vacuum. The outside world defines what is proper and acceptable, making Sonoko's group into social outcasts the moment they overstep proscribed boundaries. Mitsuko uses lies about arranged marriages to gain sympathy; Kataro doesn't act because he'll be finished as a lawyer the moment these sex shenanigans come to light.
One aspect of the Japanese setting of the story that needs background understanding is the implied Death Wish that accompanies many declarations of love. The characters in this story seem to subscribe to a cultural concept that amorous
suicide is not just an act of desperation, but a desired thing; -- a way, perhaps, of proving the sincerity and purity of love while defying a disapproving society. Masumura's tale doesn't offer a moral, but it certainly demonstrates how destructive 'pure love' can be ... in the pursuit of her erotic ideal, Sonoko is willing to ruin the lives of all around her. She thinks she's on an adventure of discovery when she's really the pawn of a more sophisticated and calculating User, Mitsuko. In the end, the victory over society reads a lot more like self-deception and defeat. Mitsuko is caught up in the same fantasies she inspires in others. The survivor is left with agonizing doubts about what happened, what didn't happen, and what it all might mean. Are they all fools with no control over their emotions and actions? Or have they boldly pursued their love to its inevitable end?
Yasuzo Masumura's Manji is a thought-provoking show that's beautifully shot, and especially beautifully composed. The obsessive joy of the plain Sonoko is so well acted by Kyoko Kishida (of the celebrated Woman in the Dunes), that she draws the focus of our interest away from the more conventionally beautiful Mitsuko. This is the main achievement of the show -- the story pulls us so deeply into the psychology of the sexual games that the sex itself doesn't dominate. Voyeuristic elements don't undermine the thesis, as they do in most every supposedly 'adult' film about sex, from Last Tango in Paris on. Most of our Hollywood films are still crude peep shows compared to this 1964 dazzler. The honest and direct confrontation of real relationships leaves the conservative moralizing of
everything from Peyton Place to Les liasons dangereuses far behind.
The strangest thing about Manji, like all of the Masumura films, is that it exists at all. Who would have thought this superior body of work was hiding all this time? Who would have thought such a mature, universally indentifiable view of twisted sex relations would come from the Japanese cinema?
Fantoma's DVD of Manji is the best-looking yet of their Masumura collection. The 16:9 image is
practically flawless, and the delicate color brings out the sensual aspects of clothing, printed stationery and skin. The trailer is loaded with spoilers and shots not seen in the film proper, including some lesbian kissing in a wooded exterior that seems lamely conventional when compared to the originality of what was kept in the show.
I can't think of a better choice for the cover of the box than the bare-shoulders double portrait of the actresses.
Manji is the name of the written character that we call a backwards swastika. It has no relationship to Naziism, but the resemblance makes the cover look very sinister. Word of mouth will be needed to get this extremely adult, extremely thought-provoking film the audience it deserves. There are obviously many Japanese cinema fans who've known about Yasuzo Masumura for decades, but as cult discoveries go, he deserves to be the next Mario Bava.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: trailer, Masumura text bio and filmography, photo gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 13, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson