The Maedas believe the family that schemes together, stays together. They are a lazy and rapacious bunch of deadbeats, embezzlers, and con artists, but they will meet their match when they cross paths with an even more manipulative seductress in Yuzo Kawashima’s Elegant Beast, which screens as part of Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao, the Japan Society’s series of newly 4K-restored Kawashima films, starring the great Wakao.
Rather than working a real job, Tokizo and Yoshino Maeda had their daughter Tomoko seduce the famous novelist Shuntaro Yoshizawa, from whom they immediately started borrowing money from, with no intention of ever paying him back. Thanks to Yoshizawa’s recommendation, their son Minoru landed a job with talent agent Ichiro Katori, whom he immediately started embezzling from. Fortunately, Katori’s books are so “irregular,” there is little chance he will go to the authorities. However, the Maedas are shocked and appalled to learn Minoru turned over at least half his skimmings to Yukie Mitani, Katori’s bookkeeper.
It seems Minoru is not the only one who has been redirecting funds her way. Katori, his outside account, and even the tax collector have fallen for her charms. One by one, they will all make their way to the Maeda flat (purchased by Yoshizawa to be his love nest with Tomoko, but appropriated by her parents), hoping to win back either Mitani or some of the cash they ill-advisedly bestowed on her.
Where has this film been all our lives? You will be hard pressed to find a more acidic and cutting social satire than Elegant Beast (a.k.a. Graceful Brute). The screenplay penned by auteur Kaneto Shindo is irrepressibly sly and unremittingly dark. Neither he nor Kawashima or Wakao take any prisoners in their skewering of the striving upwardly mobile post-war generation. Kawashima also keeps it lively despite the potential staginess of the single setting, through the inventive use of off-kilter camera angles and farcical traffic direction worthy of the Marx Brothers.
Wow, is Wakao ever something as Mitani. She ought to rank as one of the top ten femme fatales of all time, but Elegant Beast and most of Kawashima’s work in general is bafflingly under-screened outside of Japan. Likewise, Yunosuke Ito and Hisano Yamaoka make quite the picaresque pair as the unrepentant Maeda parents.
Elegant has all kinds of sharp edges, but it also has considerable visual flair, so it should be a real cinematic treat to see it on the big screen, in its pristinely restored glory. The Maedas are truly a nest of vipers, but they certainly are fun to spend time with. Very highly recommended, Elegant Beast screens this Saturday (12/2) and Sunday (12/3) at the Japan Society, as part of the Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao mini-retrospective.