As early as the Elizabethan era, the play within the play has been a postmodern device for meta-truth-telling. Such is particularly the case for the ingénue actress toiling in a thankless supporting role in a stage adaptation of the Shizuko Natsuki mystery novel published in America as Murder at Mt. Fuji. The events on-stage add ironic resonance to the backstage intrigue of Shinichirō Sawai’s W’s Tragedy (trailer here), which screens as part of the Japan Society retrospective: Pop! Goes Cinema: Kadokawa Films and 1980s Japan.
“I’ve stabbed Grandpa to death” is the familiar opening line of the many television adaptations of Natsuki’s Daburyū no Higeki. Unfortunately, Shizuka Mita will not be reciting them—at least not yet. She auditioned for the role of apparent murderess Mako Watsuji (the “W” of the tragedy), but the company cast her as the maid, while also assigning her prompter and wardrobe duties. The early out-of-town try-out performances are often demeaning, but her former actor suitor tries to buoy her spirits—even while encouraging her to withdraw from show business.
However, Mita gets the kind of big break that could easily ruin her when Sho Hatori, the production’s grand dame leading lady asks the innocent girl to cover for her. Hatori’s rich married patron dies in the saddle so to speak, so she convinces Mita to dress the body and pretend he had been her caller. The resulting publicity will be a double-edged sword, but Hatori will keep up her end of the bargain, elevating Mita to the prime featured role of Mako.
At first, Sawai keeps the production of W’s Tragedy very much in the background, which must have baffled audiences already familiar with the novel and television adaptation just one year prior to the film’s release (at least four more TV miniseries would follow). In fact, the first act almost has a vibe like Fame, even including an ultra-1980s aerobics sequence.
References to Mita’s supposed plainness are a little baffling, given she is played by former idol and Sailor Suit and Machine Gun star Hiroko Yakushimaru, but she is terrific expressing all the aspiring actress’s insecurities and self-doubt. She is openly vulnerable, yet there is a dark edge to ambitious resolve. Yet, nobody upstages Yoshiko Mita, who commands the screen as Hatori, like Lauren Bacall in her Queen of Broadway days.