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Double Suicide (1969) is an ambitious experiment that lays bare the mechanics of storytelling. It is a bold adaptation of the 1721 bunraku (Japanese puppet show) play The Love Suicides at Amijima by Monzaemon Chikamatsu. One of the early productions by the radical Art Theatre Guild, Double Suicide relentlessly distances the audience from the material. Director Masahiro Shinoda places black-clad kurogo (basically stagehands for Japanese puppet shows) into almost every frame, as if they are working on a live production. The actors are treated like marionettes posed by outside hands, entrapped by a fate outside of their control. It tears storytelling down to the studs and sees what remains.
The opening sequence literally begins with a peek behind the curtain, showing marionettes being prepared for a performance, while the director Shinoda is heard on a phone call with screenwriter Taeko Tomioka about how to best present the lovers' suicide. When the story of the lovers begins, the puppets are replaced by human performers, though the film's bunraku origins are foregrounded by the presence of the kurogo (literally "a person attired in black"), who are "robed and hooded manipulators of puppets and stage effects in the Bunraku theater," as stated in Japanese Classical Theater in Films by Keiko I. McDonald.
After thoroughly distancing the audience from the material, Shinoda starts to tell the story of Jihei (Kichiemon Nakamura), a rather pathetic paper merchant who has fallen desperately in love with a courtesan named Koharu (Shima Iwashita). Unfortunately for him, he has a wife and two children at home and an extended family that becomes shocked at his frequent trips to the brothel. Jihei is soon confronted by his brother and shamed into returning to his wife Osan (also played by Iwashita). This is only temporary, as Jihei cannot stand to be apart from Koharu, leading to a desperate escape from the conjugal nest into a cemetery where they can fulfill their titular destiny.
This was a common theme in the sewamono (domestic play) that Shinoda is adapting. Characters in this genre would, as McDonald wrote, face a "clash between giri (one's duties and obligations) and ninjo (one's personal feelings and emotions)." Jihei opts for ninjo and is punished by society accordingly. The rigidity of social roles is portrayed visually by Shinoda in the shallow latticed set design, in which Jihei is constantly framed against windows and other grid-like designs, permanently trapped inside domestic spaces with the running water under the town bridge the only imagery of escape.
The use of Shima Iwashita in both roles of wife and whore displays the limited imagination given to female subjectivity in the film, though she is devastating in both of the limited roles. As the wife, she is severely self-abnegating, encouraging Jihei to pay for Koharu's release from prostitution in order to keep her from attempting suicide (as she had previously written Koharu a letter begging her to reject Jihei, and now feels responsible for her wellbeing). Koharu is more enigmatic, at least at the start, presented as a manipulating courtesan, which is later revealed to have been a ruse to honor Osan's request and reject Jihei. To be honest, Jihei doesn't seem to be worth all the fuss - he is played with fidgety nervousness by Nakamura, valuable not in himself but in the role he provides for a woman in Japanese society.
All this is going on while the kurogo hide in corners subtly guiding the action. Shinoda described their role in the film thusly in Japanese Classical Theater in Films: "The kurogo lead the lovers, compelled to die, to catastrophe. They represent the eye of our camera and also serve as the agent for the viewer, who wants to penetrate into the mystery of the truth of the lovers' plight. And finally they represent the author, Chikamatsu himself. Their ominously black and silent figures might represent the other side of Chikamatsu, who created the anti-social world tinged with the melodramatic concept of double suicide, and who was a great sentimentalist and hedonist."
When Jihei and Koharu end up in the cemetery and commit suicide, it is a pre-determined part of the text as Shinoda discussed in the opening phone call. But it is also urged on by the kurogo, who place the sword in Jihei's hand. And if the kurogo act as audience stand-ins, the onlookers who are curious witnesses of this drama, then the audience is implicated in the final act of violence along with the 18th century author who originally took their fictional lives. It's a tangled web of guilt in which no one is left innocent when the end credit rolls.
By R. Emmet Sweeney