Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous: Woman of the Lake

A pretty young wife and an older, well-heeled husband are usually a recipe for trouble on the big screen. Indeed, adultery is a frequent occurrence in the Japanese New Wave films of actress-producer Mariko Okada directed by her collaborator-husband Kiju Yoshida. True to form, infidelity and betrayal drive Yoshida’s Woman of the Lake, which screens this Sunday as part of the Japan Society’s Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Three Untamed Beauties, a fascinating retrospective of three bold postwar actresses whose films defied traditional cultural stereotypes for Japanese women.

Miyako Mizuki does not love her husband. Bored, she finds distraction, but not satisfaction in the arms of another man. One fateful night, she allows him to take compromising photos of her, but insists on handling the development herself. Unfortunately, on her way home she is accosted by a strange man, who steals her purse with the negatives inside. Soon enough, the thief turns blackmailer, using the negatives to lure Mizuki to the Katayamazu resort town. However, his ultimate motives remain obscure.

Often seen in a waifish white dress, Okada’s Mizuki looks like a vision of purity. Yet, she is far more complicated than she might appear. It should not be giving much away to say she is indeed dangerous to know, given the title of the film series. Manipulative and vulnerable in equal measure, Okada perfectly calibrates her portrayal, keeping viewers consistently off-balance. It is exactly the kind of challenging performance the Mad, Bad series is all about.

Based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, Lake incorporates elements of film noir and the intimately observed relationship drama, addressing very adult themes with a frankness that still seems provocative over forty years later. Tatsuo Suzuki’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is visually striking, following well within the noir tradition, while Sei Ikeno’s sparse flute themes create a disconcerting sense of apprehension. It is an example of masterful filmmaking.

Like Ayako Wakao whose films launched the Mad, Bad series, Okada was a beautiful and challenging actress, whose roles defied social norms, remaining enormously influential to this day. Having a rare opportunity to see great films like Lake that are not currently available on DVD here in America has been a gift to cineastes. Lake screens at the Japan Society this Sunday (4/18), followed by the series closer, Yasuzo Masumura’s Two Wives, starring both Okada and Wakao.

(Photos © Shochi Co. Ltd.)