Odd Obsession

Odd Obsession

Among the good films ignored or ludicrously misinterpreted by the critics is, currently, the Japanese film KAGI, or ODD OBSESSION, a beautifully stylized and highly original piece of film making-perverse in the best sense of the word, and worked out with such finesse that each turn of the screw tightens the whole comic structure. As a treatment of sexual opportunism, it's a bit reminiscent of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, but it's infinitely more complex. The opening plunges us into the seat of the material. A young doctor, sensual and handsome, smug with sexual prowess, tells us that his patient, an aging man, is losing his virility. And the old man bends over and bares his buttocks-to take an injection. But the old man doesn't get enough charge from the injection, so he induces the young doctor, who is his daughter's suitor, to make love to his wife. By observing them, by artificially making himself jealous, the old man is able to raise his spirits a bit.

The comedy, of course, and a peculiar kind of black human comedy it is, is that the wife, superbly played by Machiko Kyo, is the traditional, obedient Japanese wife-and she cooperates in her husband's plan. She is so obedient and co­operative that, once aroused by the young doctor, she literally kills her old husband with kindness-she excites him to death. The ambiguities are malicious and ironic: the old man's death is both a perfect suicide and a perfect murder. And all four characters are observed so coldly, so dispassionately that each new evidence of corruption thickens the cream of the jest.

The title KAGI-the key-fits the Tanizaki novel, but does not fit the film, which might better be called the keyhole. Everybody is spying on everybody else, and although each conceals his motives and actions, nobody is fooled. The screen is our keyhole, and we are the voyeurs who can see them all peeking at each other. When the old man takes obscene pictures of his wife, he gives them to the young man to develop. The young man shows them to his fiancée, the daughter, whose reaction is that she can do anything her mother can do.

But a further layer of irony is that she can’t. For the film is also a withering satire on the Westernized modern Japanese girl. The mother-mysterious, soft, subtle-uses her traditional obedience for her own purposes. She never says what she thinks about anything-when she starts a diary she puts down romantic hypocrisy worthy of a schoolgirl-and she is infinitely desirable. The daughter, a college student who explains what is going on quite explicitly, is just as corrupt as her mother, but has no interest or appeal to her parents or even to her fiancé. In her sweaters and skirts, and with her forthright speech, she is sexually available but completely unattractive. When she tells her father that nothing so simple as adultery is being practiced by her mother and the young doctor, she seems simply ludicrous; her mother can lower her eyes and murmur distractedly about the terrible things she is asked to do-and excite any man to want to try out a few.

The director, Kon Ichikawa, is probably the most important new young Japanese director. His study of obsessive expiation, THE BURMESE HARP, was subjected to a brutal, hack editing job, and has reached only a small audience in this country; ENJO (1958), based on Mishima's novel about a great crime, the young Zen Buddhist burning the Golden Pavilion, has not yet played here. (An earlier film of Ichikawa's- a puppet version of a Kabuki dance-was destroyed by MacArthur's aides because, according to Japanese film historian Donald Richie, they regarded Kabuki as feudalistic. What did they think MacArthur was?)

KAGI, made in 1959, took a special prize at the Cannes Festival in 1960 (the other special prize went to L'AVVENTURA). KAGI was given “Special commendation for 'audacity of its subject and its plastic qualities.’" I've indicated the audacity of the subject; let me say something about the film's plastic qualities. It is photographed in color, with dark blue tones predominating, and with an especially pale soft pinkish white for flesh tones. I don't think I've ever seen a movie that gave such a feeling of flesh. Machika Kyo, with her soft, sloping shoulders, her rhythmic little paddling walk, is like some ancient erotic fantasy that is more suggestive than anything Hollywood has ever thought up. In what other movie does one see the delicate little hairs on a woman's legs? In what other movie is flesh itself not merely the surface of desire but totally erotic? By contrast, the daughter, like the exposed, sun-tanned healthy American girl, is an erotic joke-she is aware, liberated, passionate, and, as in our Hollywood movies, the man's only sexual objective is to get into her and have done with it. With Machika Kyo the outside is also erotic substance.

Ichikawa's cold, objective camera observes the calculations and designs, the careful maneuvers in lives that are fundamentally driven and obsessive; and there's deadly humor in the contrast between what the characters pretend they're interested in and what they actually care about.

KAGI is conceived at a level of sophistication that accepts pornography as a fact of life which, like other facts of life, can be treated in art. The subject matter is pornography, but the movie is not pornographic. It's a polite, almost clinical comedy about moral and sexual corruption. It even satirizes the clinical aspects of sex. Modern medicine, with its injections, its pills, its rejuvenating drugs, adds to the macabre side of the comedy. For KAGI has nothing to do with love: the characters are concerned with erotic pleasure, and medicine is viewed as the means of prolonging the possibilities of this pleasure. So there is particular humor in having the doctors who have been hastening the old man's death with their hypodermics try to place the blame for his death on the chiropractor who has been working on his muscles. They have all known what they were doing, just as the four principals all know, and even the servant and the nurse. The film has an absurd ending that seems almost tacked on (it isn't in the book); if it ended_ with the three survivors sitting together, and with Machika Kyo reading her diary aloud, it could be a perfect no-exit situation, and the movie would have no major defects or even weaknesses.

Reading the reviews, you'd think that no American movie critic had even so much as heard of that combination of increasing lust and diminishing potency which destroys the dignity of old age for almost all men; you'd think they never behaved like silly, dirty old men. Japanese films in modern settings have a hard time with the art-house audience: perhaps the Americans who make up the foreign-film audience are still too bomb-scarred to accept the fact that business goes on as usual in Japan. In KAGI the beds-where a good part of the action takes place-are Western-style beds, and when the people ply each other with liquor, it's not saki, it's Hennessy. KAGI is the first Japanese comedy that has even had a chance in the art houses: if the judgments of incompetent critics keep people from seeing it, when will we get another? Crowther finds the husband of KAGI "a strictly unwholesome type." Let's put it this way: if you've never gotten a bit weary of the classical Western sex position, and if you've never wanted to keep the light on during intercourse, then you probably won't enjoy KAGI. But if you caught your breath at the Lady Wakasa sequences in UGETSU, if you gasped when Masayuki Mori looked at Machika Kyo and cried out, "I never dreamed such pleasures existed!" then make haste for KAGI.