JAPANESE SUMMER: DOUBLE SUICIDE Movie Review
First, there was James Dean. Rebel Without a Cause aptly designates an entire class of young rebellious protagonists. Who do they rebel against? Where do they even live? Nobody cares, as long as they have cool hairstyles. This plight was not exclusive to American cinema, and the disease was quite successfully exposed by director Nagisa Oshima in his 1967 film Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Delinquent and young is all you need to be glamorized. The added layer specific to Japanese culture is the obsession with suicide pacts, especially among lovers. However, if we consider how Romeo and Juliet are romanticized in the West, the combination of youth, violence and death seems to have a universal appeal and attract morbid voyeurism. This is strongly satirized by the movie title itself: it clearly reads exploitation.
The subject of the film is both simple and bizarre. Nejiko (we find out her name only in the final scene) is roaming the streets laughing joyously, looking to bait some men after a breakup. She runs across a nameless man with a death wish and tries to convince him to become her lover. He is, however, only passionate about dying. Nejiko (portrayed by Keiko Sakurai) takes of her clothes, but her statuesque body has little effect. Some yakuza members interrupt them: they buried their weapons arsenal right on the spot where Nejiko is trying to seduce her suicidal man. Because the two of them are now considered inconvenient witnesses, they are hauled off to headquarters and commanded to stay put till the morning with some other captives. Apparently, something big is going to happen, but nobody is sure what it is exactly. If some do, they refuse to say. After a television set is conjured up, the captives soon find out some lone gunman went on a shooting rampage in the city. Everyone is advised to stay indoors, but still, dozens of people are slaughtered when they attempt to go to work. This commentary regarding the strong sense of duty in the nation, that supersedes even the self-preservation instinct, has political connotations. It also parallels the Freudian Todestrieb exhibited by Nejiko’s love interest (played by the fantastic Kei Sato). Sato’s character explains that he plans to get himself killed, but not just by anyone: he expects his very existence to be defined by how his killer perceives him, by the reflection of self he shall see in his killer’s eyes. Ultimately, he is shot by police officers along with Nejiko, whom he finally embraces when she agrees to share his fate. She also concedes in the style of youthful confession that she has a screw loose (her choice of words). This should present an explanation of her actions. Is it satisfactory? Or is it just the director teasing us?
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide is a study in motivation, stripping the discourse down to the rudimentary: the heroine is only concerned with bodily functions and her sex drive. As the only woman she is logically meant to represent the feminine, but not just any kind. The woman has a body that is present, urgent, announcing to all the men her need, requesting their attention. After all, this body is eighteen, this body wears no underwear; this body just split from her boyfriend. But all the men she meets appear to have pastimes differing from her idea of good time. As she is running around the black-and-white landscape (even her hair is two-tone), she is asking all the men in Japan only what their age is, not so much to see if they are suitable partners, to her it’s their defining characteristic. The girl very much represents a gender role reversal. But unlike men who find women’s age important to determine their reproductive ability, she looks at age as common ground, as basis for relating to one another’s experiences. Running over a bridge, after she just tossed her panties and bra into the river, she encounters a group of young men marching. After quizzing one, she suggests – well, whatever it is you are doing, it cannot be fun for a twenty-year-old man – but is told that politics are indeed a matter of much interest to males in this age group. It is difficult not to find this funny. The woman’s overtures are rejected again and again. Naturally, the male characters do not reject her body, what is rebuffed is her assertiveness. When she nods off to sleep, within seconds there are two of the men peeking under her skirt. This is not the only depiction of male impotence when confronted with a confident female in Nagisa Oshima’s films. The uninterested limp man quickly turns into a sexual aggressor when the woman is unconscious, unable to exert or express her own will. While the motivations of the male captives are scrutinized, the reasons for them being present are never truly revealed. Are they members of a rival yakuza? Hired guns? Stray dogs randomly collected off the street like Nejiko? How could we really know what drives these people, if we do not know where they came from?
The director mimics the coverage of the crime beat: gender and age should be everything one needs to know about a victim or a perpetrator. When the group of survivors (don’t ask) from the yakuza captives seeks out the foreign gunman, yelling friend-o to indicate they want to join him, rather than help the police, and they finally ask him why, he also gives only his age as a reason to explain the killing spree. They nod in understanding. Being twenty years old, off course he would want to kill everyone. This is not a celebration of youthful naïveté, rather an elaborate spoof of the young rebel genre. Aside from cultural criticism and some fine humor, Nagisa Oshima examines what can be taken away, removed, minimized: visual simplicity thusly produced is striking. Most of the narrative is placed within the walls of a single room, yet the attention is sustained flawlessly. Although the characters confined there, unable to leave of their own accord are mostly just lying around, drama and tension increases. The portrayal of a hot summer might truly be the main topic, had nothing else happened. Whether I was watching the concrete landscape of a city, or overgrown grass near the traditional estate of the yakuza hideaway, I was reminded of the thirst, the sweat rolling down one’s back in relentless July weather. Within the aesthetic of a black-and-white movie simple things can have a strong impact: a geometric pattern of a sleeve against a white dress, as the girl is dancing in an empty room; a naked body against cracked dry soil. Oshima provides a balanced feast for the eyes, while simultaneously compelling the viewers to ask questions about their own motivations, about mass media coverage, about how sex and violence are portrayed in film – and to what end.