Sunday, July 23, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Zigeunerweisen

Is there a better way to start a film than by playing a vintage ten-inch phonograph record? No, there isn’t. That is how Seijun Suzuki commenced his great comeback masterpiece, but to make it even better, he has his characters discuss how an audible bit of conversation on the classic Pablo de Sarasate recording was initially considered a flaw but was eventually recognized as what made the record so special. That disc will play a fateful but hard to explain role in Suzuki’s digitally remastered Zigeunerweisen (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

All the cultural tensions of the Taishō Period (1912-1926) can be found in Aochi and Nakasago, former professors at the military academy, who have gone in very different directions. Aochi (tellingly a professor of German) adopted western suits and lives a life of middle class respectability. Nakasago still wears traditional garb and lives a wild (almost feral) semi-nomadic existence. The ex-colleagues reunite when Aochi happens along just in time to save Nakasago from a lynch mob convinced he murdered the lover he led astray.

He probably did it. He certainly admits it readily enough when he and Aochi stop to enjoy some sake at a geisha bar. Rather boorishly, Nakasago insists a recently bereaved geisha perform for them. Yet, both men will be strangely moved by grieving O-Ine as she performs her hostess duties. Aochi will go back to his modernized, luxury-indulging wife Shuko and Nakasago will follow a blind trio of beggars who sing songs so ribald they would make Missy Elliott blush. When they next meet, Nakasago has married Sono, a woman from a proper family, who is a dead-ringer for O-Ine.

It is highly debatable whether Aochi and Nakasago were ever truly friends, but their fates are certainly linked and to some extent, each has the other’s number. There are people in life you just can’t shake, for better or for worse—in the case of Nakasago, it is most likely for the worse. Of course, the doppelganger duo of Sono and O-Ine is also deeply archetypal. Zigeunerweisen is frequently surreal and it eventually evolves into a literally haunted genre film, but there is something universally relatable about its core I-am-not-my-brother-from-another-mother’s-keeper relationship.

Yoshio Harada gets to storm and rage as Nakasago, but it is Toshiya Fujita who injects all the bile and arsenic as the tightly wound Aochi. Frankly, it is fascinating to watch them dance around each other as they observe the rituals of friendship. Naoko Otani also covers a great deal of ground as the forceful, seductive, and ultimately spooky doubles, Sono and O-Ine. Michiyo Okusu is also something else and then some as the privileged Shuko.

Zigeunerweisen is truly a masterwork, precisely because it is so slippery and hard to pin down, yet still so disconcertingly eerie. The Taishō setting adds further layers of irony and foreboding. After all, the Aochis would inherit the nation from the Nakasagos, but we know where that would lead. Very highly recommended, Zigeunerweisen screens this afternoon (7/23) at the Japan Society, as part of the concluding day of this year’s Japan Cuts.