Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous: Seisaku’s Wife

The village refers to Seisaku as their "role model soldier." They have much ruder terms for Okane, a former kept woman. Much to everyone’s displeasure, an intimate relationship develops between the fallen woman and the village paragon in Yasuzo Masumura’s Seisaku’s Wife, one of four films starring Ayako Wakao selected for the Japan Society’s Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Three Untamed Beauties retrospective of great femme fatales in Japanese cinema, which screens this Friday.

Marriage has not been good to Okane. Her first was more of a commercial transaction that culminated with her inheritance of a modest nest egg. When she returns to her old family home with her elderly mother, the gossipy villagers shun her, knowing full well her checkered past. However, the straight-arrow Seisaku finds her interesting, which she most certainly is indeed.

Seisaku marries Okane, but since his family refuses to acknowledge it, they have what we might think of as a common-law relationship. Yet, they are happy for a while. Of course, there are storm clouds on the horizon, including a brewing war with Russia and the enormous social pressures Okane must endure.

Never a director to shy away from controversial material, Masumura mixes a robust cocktail in Wife, incorporating the fallen woman drama, a scathing depiction of small town narrow-mindedness, a protest against gender-based double standards, and a pointed critique of Imperial Japanese militarism (set in this case during the Russo-Japanese War). Yet it is Wakao’s film, body and soul.

Okane is definitely a femme fatale. Emotionally overwrought and unpredictable, she represents a dangerous presence throughout the film. Yet, she is also deeply human and painfully vulnerable. She is after all, the sum product of her hardscrabble environment and exploitative relationships. In a powerful and richly nuanced performance, Wakao is absolutely enthralling as the defiant but insecure Okane. (Truly, nobody could keep up with her in Masumura’s audacious films.)

Layering passionate heat atop a story of high tragedy, Wife is compulsively watchable art cinema. It is also another fine example of the perfectly attuned collaborations between Wakao and Masumura. Currently not available on DVD in America, Wife should not be missed when it screens at the Japan Society this Friday (4/2) as part of their enormously entertaining (and challenging) Mad, Bad, and Dangerous retrospective.

Photos © Kadokawa Pictures, Inc.