By Travis Mackenzie Hoover
We like to think that we've got a complete picture of what's going on, or has gone on, in international cinema. In reality, we're getting a handful of movies selected by other people; there's a bottomless pit of directors and films who didn't make the cut, but might have (had curatorial quirks and cultural misunderstandings not hindered their progress). If Elegant Beast—which just showed as a sidebar to the Shohei Imamura retrospective at the Cinematheque Ontario—is any indication, then Yuzo Kawashima is one such unfortunate.
Combining an immaculate, compartmentalized mise en scène with some of the most ambivalent and acid characterizations of human behaviour, Elegant Beast is a knock-it-out-of-the-park winner that ought to prompt a Kawashima retrospective were anybody in fact paying attention.
Elegant Beast (also known as Deluxe Animal, Graceful Brute and The Well-Mannered Beasts) rivals Rear Window in its rigorous exploration of one studio set: that would be the flat occupied by the very cutthroat Maeda family. When we first meet them, they're putting away all of their valuables so as not to seem egregiously well-off to whoever is about to visit. The first shot comes through the window of their sweaty fourth-floor apartment; as we peer in, we see father Tokizo (Yûnosuke Itô, the novelist from Ikiru) and wife Yoshino (Hisano Yamaoka) scurry about hiding the TV and deciding to use a less opulent tablecloth. Even as we enter the flat, we remain at once trapped with the participants and distanced from them. As the three visitors enter—chief among them the irate manager of a talent agency, Mr. Katori (Hideo Takamatsu)—they are watched from an opening in the stairwell by son Minoru (Manamitsu Kawabata), who is the larcenous subject of Mr. Katori's ire.
This sets up the main motifs of the film: hiding and surveillance. After trying to extract the whereabouts of Minoru (and failing under the demurrals of mom and dad), Katori and his associates leave, and sister Tomoko (Yuko Hamada) is introduced. She in turn has to hide from her irate sugar-daddy Yoshizawa (Kyu Sazanka), a writer who's had it with her and her brother's taking him for a ride. And so it goes: someone in the family is always in trouble, and someone in the family is always observing as the lies fly and the emotions pour out. The inability to get a complete identification point makes us both voyeur and accomplice as we watch from one area of Kawashima's compartmentalized frame. And we're forced to initially admire these spongers and con artists as they embezzle and exploit for the sake of the family unit.
But when the family's previous poverty is mentioned—prompting a series of uncharacteristically extreme close-ups of each member's stricken face—it becomes obvious that this is less ribald farce than sardonic commentary. The film's date is 1963: we are one year away from the Tokyo Olympics (and a proud turning point in Japan's cultural identity), when Japan had pulled itself up by its bootstraps to become less a feudal backwater than a modern, industrial nation. But the memory of squalid desperation after the war was still fresh, as were the social and political survival tactics, many of them quite brutal, that allowed the Japanese to claw out of the hole. This is the ideal vantage point for viewing the Maeda family, who know that what they do is wrong and yet do it anyway in order to deny the nadir they reached once before.
But it seems that others want to survive in Japan's postwar recovery, specifically Yukie Mitani (Yasuzo Masumura veteran Ayako Wakao), the accountant for whom Minoru pulled off his larcenous haul. She's a widow with a young child, meaning that she has to exploit the exploiter; turns out that she's been double-dealing with Minoru, Katori, and the lowly taxman (Eiji Funakoshi) who's supposed to be keeping an eye on things. All three men think that they possess her, and all three are used to bilk the agency out of money that she's funneled into a hotel venture. Coupled with Tomoko's exploitation of Yoshizawa, it becomes clear that emotional entanglements are dangerous, ensuring that you might get fleeced if you let your guard down, which is what happens to all the men but Papa, to anyone in the family who expresses interests outside the insular family nucleus.
Elegant Beast is a stunning mix of Buñuelian perversity with a tactile, modern affinity for square spaces and huis clos confinement. One never gets out of the apartment because, in a sense, it's the only place that matters—not only is it the place where familial marching orders originate, but it's the tiny piece of terra firma on which one lives and for which one fights. But one is never exactly in with these people, because we are trapped between two poles: the higher points to which we aspire and the brute need to stay alive. The film becomes an exercise in confused moral relativism: it flings down the gauntlet as to whether we damn these people for their lack of scruples or accept them as the price of clawing out of the pit of chaos at the end of the war. It doesn't tell us what to think, though it's a mite depressed that it's come to this.
Kawashima, of course, is best known in the west as Imamura's non-Ozu mentor: it's from the older director that Imamura finds many of the tropes of desire, survival and cynicism from which he would become famous. One might also suggest that he may have given some chops to Kinji Fukasaku, who would draw similarly cynical conclusions in his postwar-themed yakuza operas. But the cat is out of the bag: Kawashima is a director whose non-existence in the West is a sorrowful grievance which ought to be redressed. I'll be first in line for The Sun Legend of the Tokugawa Era, the other Kawashima being dusted off by the 'theque on March 10; count me in for that and any other titles that might get past the filter of the people in charge.
House contributor Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.