Japan / 1980 / Japanese

Directed by Seijun Suzuki

With Yoshio Harada, Naoko Otani, Toshiya Fujita

Still from 'Zigeunerweisen'A well-dressed but slovenly professor of German named Aochi arrives by train, whiskey flask tucked into his jacket, to a nondescript seaside town. He happens upon a crowd of fisherfolk on the beach surrounding the body of a young woman that has been recovered from the water. All fingers point to the a brash and unkempt drifter who haunts the shoreline, who turns out to be none other than Nakasago, a former colleague of Aochi’s who left civilization to wander. The professor intervenes on the brute’s behalf before he can be arrested. Later in a teahouse, Nakasago brazenly admits to having been responsible for the death of the woman, a lover of his who had run away from her husband. The two men spend the night drinking with Koine, a mysterious geisha to whom they both become attracted, first speciously, then painfully, then irrevocably.

Ominous and strange are the three bawdy-singing, blind street musicians who follow one another through the coastal scenes like a demented Greek chorus. A young woman with her elderly husband and young male servant (the former playing the biwa while throwing open her legs for gawkers) pause in their wandering to perform songs like mechanical, half-living marionettes. This troupe appears periodically throughout the film in Nakasago’s conversations with Aochi, as a metaphor for the myopic vanity of male and female interactions. Later, in an account by Nakasago, we see a vision of the two blind men buried up to their arms in the sand, bashing out each other’s brains over the woman, who floats in a tub in the ocean, playing her instrument.

A year after the events of the beginning, Aochi goes to visit an uncharacteristically settled Nakasago and his new wife Sono, the spitting image of the woman they knew in the seaside village. The friend seems to hate the gentle Sono, holding her resemblance to the disreputable Koine over her as a mean joke. Like the other woman, she seems to have an affinity for Aochi but is drawn away by the coarse lustiness of her husband. Aochi stays late into the night, relating to his friend a story about a mysterious, disembodied voice that chimed in one day to contradict a hypocritical remark from his wife Shuko. Perhaps you were the one who said it, his friend proposes. But Aochi does not buy this notion.

When Nakasago takes off again, abandoning Sono to tramp through moor, marsh, and field, Aochi finds himself gradually falling in love with his friend’s wife. She becomes a beckoning specter in his dreams. The two of them spend time together, but she acts very strange around him, like she is trying hard to conceal a supernatural substance or link to the past that he should not know about. Aochi has persistent visions of his own wife having an affair with Nakasago, a notion fueled by the strangely clairvoyant allegations of Shuko’s sister, who is an invalid in the hospital. The wife’s fixation on the friend seems to confirm this, but could be a distortion of the husband’s own supposition. Nakasago is like a personal demon to him, and like a wayward appendage. After Nakasago returns, and only a short period of time after his and Sono’s daughter Toyoka is born, Sono dies of Spanish Flu. Aochi is convinced it is Nakasago who knowingly carried the virus back with him to kill his wife.

Still from 'Zigeunerweisen'Professor Aochi follows his friend into a cave, and the other makes bizarre proclamations predicting his own death. Like the stilted exchanges between himself and Sono, it is no longer distinguishable – if it ever were to begin with – what is happening in Aochi’s imagination and what in reality. Like Nakasago, Aochi cannot repress the memory of their first meeting with Koine, when the two men arrived at a sort of psychological transference that took hold. When the woman returns in the flesh, she carries with her information that she could not have known, discomfiting Aochi incredibly, and dedicates herself to caring for the departed Sono’s (also otherworldly) daughter.

The concert violinist, Sarasate, interrupts his performance to make a comment, indecipherable over the gramophone’s rough scree, that neither of the men can decipher. This episode appears first at the beginning of the film, outside of context, and then is echoed in one scene where Aochi and Nakasago meet up for the first time following the latter’s marriage to Sono. Though ultimately inscrutable, it accentuates the existing feeling of oppressive familiarity (Aochi is awoken from a dream by the voice of the musician, and asks his friend if he said something) and also the impact of these missed, slept-through, aborted, or half-severed moments that linger in the consciousness because, due to incompleteness, they defy understanding. It also recalls the persistent theme of unfulfilled, deteriorated expectations; Aochi’s wife talks about going to see one of Heifitz’s concerts and remembers being disappointed that he didn’t perform the piece “Zigeunerweisen” – not so focused on his own stacatto virtuosity that he cannot also tease his audience. Nakasago meets Koine, marries Sono (both women played by Naoko Otani), and then takes up with Koine again after Sono’s death, forever being frustrated when neither adheres to his expectations, as though they were in turn possessed by a restless spirit who appears fleetingly and then darts away to inhabit another body.

The film drives stock sexual aphorisms (like: corrupted flesh is sweeter – Shuko delicately devours a rotten peach) well beyond the sane reaches of ripe indulgence, rendering them leprous and diseased, superficiality collapsed, and tender union an archeological excavation. Nakasago is carnal to the point where he fantasizes about people’s bones – “the ultimate flesh,” as he says, and imagines perfect, polished bones beyond the corporeal sea. Physical exchanges between characters are never sensual, but anemone-like kisses and parasitic embraces, simultaneously cannibalistic and inhuman.

The woman whom Nakasago murdered before the start of the film arises forever after as things born in the sea – such as eels and mollusks, crustacians and roe, which are treated with unsubtle eroticism – a tumescent world of violence and sexuality that roils at the periphery of our own, and backwashes into our brackish fantasies. The crab comes to represent disease, like the bright red ones that emerge from the body of the murdered woman and try to devour it, in Nakasago’s recollection. We get the sense that both Koine and Sono are afterimages of her, echoes of the violent act that have somehow become tangible out of its wrenching gravity. The two women, who represent a simplistic wife/sex-object binary to Nakasago (one whom he brings into his life but despises, the other who pursues him but whom he does not allow into his life) become bewilderingly complex to the withdrawn professor Aochi, a mirror hall of unfathomable repetition and ceaseless variation for him all at once. They also augur the effects of his friend’s innate misanthropy, which he envies.

Still from 'Zigeunerweisen'Not least among Zigeuenerweisen‘s delights are its encompassing temporal and physical uncertainty, like that of a ghost story – which it never goes so far as to announce itself as. The Taisho period (1912-26), in which the film is set (and two subsequent works of Suzuki’s – Heat-Haze Theater [1981] and Yumeji [1991] – which, together, form a trilogy) is thought of by many as a brief time of liberal democracy and amplified sensuality, that ended with Hirohito’s militaristic ascension. Suzuki posits a complex psychology on the time period, juxtaposing progressive gentleness (Aochi) with animalistic volatility (Nakasago) all the while overburdening the aesthetics of the time (gramophones and bowler hats) for a dapper surrealism like Buñuel’s or Magritte’s, dropped in among the saturated color and quietly shifting sets.

Among the recessed symbols (Aochi wanders down a dark corridor of mirrors containing Sono, as well as random Victorian furniture), scenes of headscratching hilarity (he and Shuko talking over a telephone line to one another, in the same room, and over an indoor maelstrom of white blossoms), and liberally-sprinkled absurdities (notions of bodily distortion, or the bright red bones of Koine’s deceased brother) there is a hermetic, inimitable tone that seems incredible to have been achieved with such seemingly little funding and seriousness. Suzuki’s approach sheathes all the moody, shadowy repose with a shlock sensibility, cartoon textures, shotgun reactions, rectilinear edits and compositions.

Like in Heat-Haze Theater, Suzuki favors characters who are physically as disproportionate as their personalities; Nakasago, gangly and ragged, appears as a wild man out of traditional lore, but one who exploits a noble profile for mercurial, cruel, and selfish behavior. In contrast Aochi is stooped and anonymously oval, with a frowning mustache that skews his whole semblance in the direction of the Earth’s core. He slouches thoughtfully through the picture, his face an illegible plane, looking as though he were continually on the verge of pinpointing a memory or a lost sensation, one whose recollection, once achieved, will prove as baffling as its absence. Like Koine/Sono, the two men more or less represent two distinct faces of the same bumbling personality, society’s renouncer and its announcer.

A common feeling throughout the so-called Taisho trilogy is that of omnipresent portent and menace, the effect of which gets twirled into nonsense by the imagery and narrative (in other words, most of what we experience when viewing the films), both of which are like the cropped imprints of dreams. The deja vu tricks – which, in cinema, don’t actually require any cunning – and the reeling, encircling passages of experience that lead seamlessly into memory, have no sober reality with which they contrast. Are the figures who resurface out of the ether memories or apparitions? And is there a difference? Sono, an incarnation of Koine, is like a caterpillar that sheds a chrysalis that is spiritual rather than corporeal.

Dreaming, being itself a sort of afterlife (or preview of it), ensconces an individual in the realm of death, more so than does sleep – largely because it bridges reality with another existence beyond the dividing line of consciousness. Depending on one’s conception of death (whether it be afterlife or oblivion) dreams could be more connective with death than is mere sleep, which has no world of its own. In this sense, and because there is no apparent demarcation of what happens and what is dreamed, the entire film is apparently set in the world of the dead, the characters fittingly unaware of it.

Still from 'Zigeunerweisen'Suzuki, today undergoing reexamination as an auteur of rampant eccentricity (with the focus being on his days of studio-contract drudgery), was quite blasé in talking about dramatic and aesthetic choices, having maintained, even when making these three inscrutable art films, the workaday approach he had as a director of action films for Nikkatsu. His attitudes towards actors as mere line-reciters, and to action as the main driver of the narrative, persisted, but also began to transform starting with Zigeunerweisen in 1980. Working with ‘pink film’ screenwriter Yôzô Tanaka (who scripted a 1977 remake of Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh [1964]) and a familiar crew to produce the films gives the trilogy an oblique continuity with his earlier genre work.

Two factors probably created his desire to make a film that resists generic classification: being fired by the studio, and then having ten years of exile from filmmaking that could be considered imposed or self-imposed. Adapting literary works (like this story, taken from Hyakken Uchida’s short novel) serves as a connection between Suzuki’s late career and the modernist literature that was making a splash (whether liked or loathed) at the time that he was just starting, in the early 1950’s. It also mingles influences of postwar Japanese cinema with the work of Kyoka Izumi (who wrote the novel on which Heat-Haze Theater was based, and some of whose other novels have also been adapted by such disparate filmmakers as Shinoda and Terayama), which appeared during the actual Taisho period.

Stylistically the film and its successors are based on richly contrasting dichotomies, such as the circus-like (the overtly theatrical movements of the three blind buskers) rubbing shoulders with the naturalistic (filmmaker Toshiya Fujita’s eerie non-acting and bashful movements in the role of Aochi), or the Taisho era’s affluent formality reticulated by imported hot jazz. Zigeunerweisen plays on the perceived decadence of the period, which appears aesthetically to be a pivotal time of convergence between an industrializing Japan and the clothes and lifestyles of the West. While this is not the first film in which Suzuki has visited this point in the 20th Century, his hyperstylized treatment is quite a different take on it, a nightmare rendition lending itself to atmospheres rife with elastic eroticism and ghostly flare.

The voice of Sarasate on the record is one that could have come from the air in the room in which it is playing just as easily as from the great beyond and, penetrating Aochi’s dream state, seems to originate in a confluence of the two. Heard even when the record lies still, it is a voice outside of language, or even humanity, that emerges, verbatim, from one’s consciousness as though having been fused to it all along. Is Koine/Sono an actual person or a phantasm tossed up by the ocean, a cruel protraction of violence that lives on in bodily memory? She functions as both – an invader of dreams and an obsession of life. The film and its creators seem considerably less interested in making the answers apparent than using the questions as departure points for delusory storytelling and supernatural images of absurd invention.

2 Responses to “Zigeunerweisen”

  1. Colin said

    Your essay is fantastic– I came across it by googling “Zigeunerweisen Crab,” to see what someone else thought of that marvelous sequence.

    I can’t wait to read the rest of your pieces. Also, I was curious about the idea of the trio of musicians being a ‘chorus.’ At first, this was what I instantly leapt to– a band of musical commentators. But upon further contemplation, I suppose I now think Suzuki used them in an altogether different way– as a sort of roving dumbshow/pantomime, reflecting thematically on the central triangle?

    Anyhow, thank you again for your wonderful piece, on a very challenging movie.

    • chaiwalla said

      Colin, thanks for the encouraging words. I agree that the film is quite challenging. For me it invited a hearty re-watch, only because the first time I saw it I was so stupefied by the atmosphere and the imagery I found it hard to pick through them later to begin to sort it all out.
      It’s a good job that you noticed my characterizing the singers as a chorus, because it was indeed a bit of an automatic description, and not altogether accurate. I’m pretty much with you on what they represent – not commentators really, but indirect reflections of the plots of the film. The later sequences, with the woman in the barrel, or when the three of them are shown as children, seem the most representative of what is going on with Aochi/Koine/Nakasago. I don’t remember specifically what the musicians’ songs were (but that they were rather gross and corporeal in the way many traditional songs are, either in a veiled or literal way) so maybe there’s a lyrical correlation – but probably not; it’s probably more metaphorical than anything.
      Oftentimes with Japanese cinema in particular, I find there are elements I suspect could be well-known cultural references that I would miss out on entirely, unable to identify them as such, versus products of the filmmakers’ imaginations. While this could be the case with the singers, it’s more likely that they are just as I (and, I’m guessing you as well) see them: as one of the more curious pieces to a supremely curious film.
      It’s great to hear your input on ‘Zigeunerweisen’ and I’d love to discuss more of this or other films with you.

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