O Sister, Where Art Thou?
Prolific writer-director and onetime Kabuki female impersonator (oyama, male actress) Teinosuke Kinugasa gained recognition with A Page of Madness in 1926, two years before his independent production company’s final Crossroads/Jujiro aka Shadows of the Yoshiwara became the first Japanese film to achieve sustained foreign exhibition. The eighty-seven minute jidaigeki or jidaimono historical “about 1850” period piece dispenses with the habitual swordplay and is very seldom seen anywhere anymore except by a 35mm rewarded sold-out Japan Society audience.
On top of the wonderful silent itself was the live onstage accompaniment of Yumiko Tanaka on shamisen, taishogoto and vocals on one side and guest multi-instrument percussionist Satoshi Takeishi on the other. Even their moments of silence were film-impressive in the evening’s total package from the Society’s “The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema” in conjunction this time with Volume 2 of its “The Shamisen Sessions: Vols. 1-4.”
Influenced by the popular wave of Northern European Expressionism, Kinugasa reflects the angled, bottom-lit, skewed dream-nightmare rain-soaked street and interior sets of especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as does the stiff staginess of the players in his tale that in story looks ahead to Von Sternberg’s of Lola-Lola and Herr Professor Rath.
Having only each other in all the world, siblings O-Kiku and younger Rikiya (Akiko Chihaya and Junosuke Bando) subsist in shabby rented rooms up concrete stairs lined with baskets and brooms. Of late he has been staggering in at all hours, having fallen under the spell of courtesan O-Une (Yukiko Ogawa) in the Edo (Tokyo after 1868) red-light district. Scenes at Yoshiwara Club mix revelry and cruelty among both client men of leisure and smirking ladies of pleasure, as the poverty-stricken love-smitten innocent adores her from afar to work up nerve to present her the laboriously fashioned kimono he has swiped from his sister.
Her gorgeous hair upswept, forgiving O-Kiku awaits patiently at home, fawns on him whenever he returns, and is virginally unheeding or ignorant of the leers of their landlord and a local male (Ippei Sohma) who has “found” a police cudgel.
Goaded into a fight at the brothel, Rikiya is blinded by ash thrown in his face by a dandy whom he then stabs (Myoichiro Ozawa). Believing the blindness permanent and the opponent dead, he staggers home to the ministrations of the sister.
Teeth are a reliable gauge of character here, for villains all sport repulsive choppers in black cavernous mouths, and in the unheated studio all the actors’ breath steams realistically, anyway. Desperate to protect the brother who thinks himself a murderer, sister is tempted to sacrifice herself for money to a procuress hag (Yoshie Nakagawa) or to the sexual advances of the cudgel thief who pretends to be a policeman who can shield her sibling from the law.
There is not a “message” here, neither a condemnation of those who prey on others or pass their lives taking or giving pleasure, nor a plea for the dilemma of the destitute who are at their mercy. Justice is not served in this sad story of misplaced love. The female object of desire may show a flicker of doubt, but no one repents, no one learns. Worse, tragically, no one cares.