Although Yasuzo Masumura was a major influence on directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, his work has been incomprehensibly neglected in the West. This is a man who was a precursor of the Japanese New Wave and a pioneer of the kind of extreme cinema that has made Takashi Miike famous, a wildly imaginative filmmaker who has no less than 58 films to his credit and is responsible for some of the most savagely beautiful, erotically-charged images ever committed to celluloid, and yet he has been treated until now as little more than a footnote in film history. Thanks to Yume Pictures some of his films are now being released on DVD for the first time in the UK, making his work available to a new generation of cinephiles.
One of these releases is Manji, a feverish tale of obsessive lesbian love, adultery and manipulation. The bored housewife of a passionless lawyer, Sonoko enrols in a women’s art school. When, one day, the women are given the task of painting the Goddess of Mercy, Sonoko’s picture so closely resembles Mitsuko, the school’s beauty, that it triggers rumours about the two women’s relationship. Deciding to ignore the gossip, they become friends. But unhappy that only the Goddess’ face in Sonoko’s picture looks like her, Mitsuko offers to pose naked to allow Sonoko to paint her whole body. During the session model and painter are irresistibly attracted to each other and they embark on a passionate affair. But while her husband grows increasingly suspicious, Sonoko for her part discovers that Mitsuko has another lover. Soon Manji is no longer simply the story of a lesbian affair: Sonoko, Mitsuko, the husband and the lover become entangled in an intricate web of love, lust, jealousy and deceit.
If the plot sounds rather melodramatic, well, it is. But what sets Masumura’s work apart from overwrought, sensationalist soap opera is his deliberate use of excess to dynamite the norms of conventional society. ‘My goal,’ wrote Masumura in a 1958 essay, ‘is to create an exaggerated depiction featuring only the ideas and passions of living human beings… In Japanese society, which is essentially regimented, freedom and the individual do not exist. The theme of the Japanese film is the emotions of the Japanese people, who have no choice but to live according to the norms of that society.’ In Masumura’s work lurid melodrama is a liberating force: it is what allows him to explore the feelings and desires that fall outside the boundaries of good taste. The jaw-dropping scene in which a hysterical Sonoko, driven mad by desire, furiously tears the sheet that hides Mitsuko’s naked body, perfectly encapsulates Masumura’s approach. It may seem fantastically over the top, but only extreme, fanatical emotions can drive Sonoko to reject the repressive code of conduct imposed by her society. And if there is such a strong focus on deviant sexuality in Masumura’s work, it is simply because sex is the domain where the most personal – and the most powerful – emotions are expressed. In a highly regulated society that places the collective good above everything else sex becomes the vital expression of individual revolt. Under someone else’s direction, the lesbian affair and love triangle of Manji – and the amputee sex of Red Angel or the sado-masochism of Blind Beast – would be the worst of exploitation cinema. But in Masumura’s work, unorthodox sexual desire is the irresistible force that spurs individuals to rebel against the strictures of convention.
In the male-dominated, chauvinistic Japan of the time, nothing could be more shocking than assertive, let alone transgressive, female sexuality. In such a context women’s desires carry an even greater rebellious charge than their male equivalent so it is little wonder that they take centre stage in Masumura’s cinema. In Manji, both Sonoko and Mitsuko firmly tell their respective male partners that they are free and won’t be tied down. They explore a kind of love from which men are excluded. Both feel some contempt for the men in their lives, one being sterile, the other a lacklustre lover. Both are entirely in control of their bodies – Sonoko knows of a way of avoiding pregnancy – and both express their desires explicitly and without shame. In a society where women are expected to be content with their roles as passive, submissive housewives, Sonoko’s sexual demands and her outspoken dissatisfaction with her husband are nothing short of revolutionary.
Rejecting the compromises of a society that only offers politely disguised unhappiness, Masumura’s characters are fanatically fighting for l’amour fou – for an absolute, radically binding emotion that leaves no room for concessions, comfort or convention, the kind of love that leaves physical as well as emotional scars and can only end with the death of one or both lovers. In Red Angel, nurse Nishi would rather brave the dangers of the front line than be separated from the doctor she loves. In Manji Sonoko manically repeats that she’d rather die than forfeit her love for Mitsuko. In Blind Beast the lovers take their passion to physically degrading extremes. In Masumura’s world, life is only worth living if it is lived to the full, with the utmost intensity, even if that intensity is ultimately crushing. Self-destruction is the inevitable and worthwhile price to pay for an instant of absolute love and unbounded freedom.
Love is a double-edged force that contains both liberation and enslavement, an idea that is evoked in the title: ‘Manji’ is the name of the Buddhist swastika, which represents the balance of opposites. A left-facing Manji, symbol of love and mercy, appeared on the original poster of the film – it has been eliminated from the UK DVD cover, possibly to avoid confusion with the Nazi symbol. Mitsuko, increasingly identified with the Goddess of Mercy, is an inscrutable, ambiguous figure that is the source of both the fulfilment and the destruction of her lovers. They become entirely subjugated, accepting the sleeping potion Mitsuko gives them every night to keep them under her control, even though it leaves them mentally and physically diminished. All is sacrificed on the altar of love, the self being the ultimate offering. While only the excessive emotion of love can free individuals from the norms that bound them, its force may also destroy the very sense of self it helped create.
For Masumura love is also deeply connected to art. Sonoko admires Mitsuko’s body as she would a painting. Just like the blind sculptor in Blind Beast who is able to ‘see’ the beauty of a statue by running his hands all over it, Sonoko’s interest in art is deeply sensual. This is not just one of the major themes of Masumura’s work but crucially, it is also how he conceives of his own art. For Masumura, art, like love, is a powerful sensory experience. While showing very little nudity, Masumura infuses Manji with a deep, dark, warm eroticism, teasingly capturing bodies just emerging from behind screens or garments, yearningly tracing the light on nude, honey-hued skin with the eye of a lustful painter. Masumura’s filming is vibrant with desire, burning with the same passion as the characters’, and it is through the tactile beauty it creates that it communicates its most subversive ideas and intense emotions. For all this Masumura deserves to be recognised as a true master of cinema.