Masahiro Shinoda’s 1969 screen adaptation of a 1720 banraku puppet play is striking and unusual in a number of respects–for a start, the minimalist sets and what appear to the untrained eye to be on-camera stagehands, all dressed in black, who move props when not simply standing around and watching the action. But those unusual touches pale in comparison to the intensity of the performances. When the story revolves around a married paper merchant who makes a suicide pact with the prostitute with whom he’s in love, heightened emotions are expected. But the raw, melodramatic extremes of the acting travel far beyond even those expectations.
The amped-up line readings and actions initially feel a bit much, but they are crucial in creating the story’s operatic sweep. The title, not to mention a shot near the beginning of the film, leave no doubt as to the outcome of the film, so the power of the piece comes through the execution of all that builds up to it. The apparent melodrama of stars Kichiemon Nakamura (who plays the merchant) and Shima Iwashita (who, in a fascinating choice, plays both the wife and the mistress) becomes palpable emotion that becomes increasingly, disturbingly intense as they come closer to their ultimate fate. The shattering impact of the finale certainly owes a large debt to their efforts, but it’s Shinoda’s unique visionary that makes the entire picture stay with you.
As with all Criterion releases, the image quality of Double Suicide is spectacular; the stark contrast between the bold blacks and garish whites of Toichiro Narushima’s cinematography is as stunning as anything else about the production. Unlike most Criterion discs, however, extras are conspicuously lacking. Given the obscurity of Japanese theatrical traditions on this side of the Pacific, some documentary featurettes or even text background on banraku would have been welcome; alas, the only thing approaching such supplements is an essay in the booklet, which only touches on the subject in relation to the film.
Specifications: 1.33:1 full frame; Japanese Dolby Digital mono; optional English subtitles.