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September 09, 2008

With Beauty and Sorrow

with beauty and sorrow.jpg

Utsukushisa to kanashimi to
Masahiro Shinoda - 1965
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Would I have liked Masahiro Shinoda's film from Yasunari Kawabata's novel had I not read the book? I probably would have had differing expectations. Comparing the two works does point out to the problem with making films from literature, especially from a novel that devotes space to the thoughts of the characters. It does not help anyone that the DVD is from a faded print. While Shinoda is fairly faithful to the written word of Kawabata, he has made some changes that I question, and refashioned the story so that the relationship of the two former lovers is sidelined, with little of the sense of devotion or loss conveyed in the novel. Coming just a year after Yasuzo Masumura's film of Manji, Shinoda seems even more awkward in his reluctance to be as clear as Kawabata, in dealing with the subject of lesbianism.

The story, which is at least partially autobiographical, is about a middle aged writer, Oki, who travels to Kyoto to hear temple bells on New Year's Day, and also to meet again the woman, Okoto, he had an affair with, twenty-four years previously. The woman was sixteen at the time, and had a child that died in infancy with the writer. In the present day, the writer is famous, primarily for the novel based on the affair, while the girl has grown up to be a famed painter. Okota currently lives with her protege, Keiko, also a painter. Kawabata eventually reveals to the reader and to Toshio that the two women are also lovers. Keiko decides to take revenge, against the advice of Okoto, for the actions Oki took in the past, with the goal of destroying Toshio's family.

beauty and sorrow book.jpg

I don't know if the changes were choices made by Shinoda, or were mandated by the production company, but a certain timidity to several aspects of Kawabata's novel are evident. Oki's novel, titled "A Girl of Sixteen" by Kawabata, is retitled "Bitter Seventeen" in the film. Not only does this show a problem with dealing with the age of a fictional character, but the novel's title change gives an unneeded and unwanted emotion charge to the past events. Keiko is referred to in the film as one of Okoto's pupils, further lessening the relationship between the two women. What little physical contact in shown on screen consists of a hand slipping into a kimono, and a kiss barely seen in the dark. A scene with the two women sharing a bath coyly reveals Okoto's bare shoulders above the water, and the glimpse of a woman's foot. Even Keiko's declarations that she hates men comes across more as the whine of a girl who has had too many bad dates, then the young woman who understood her sexual preferences at an early age. It may be worth noting also that the sado-masochistic elements of the novel remain relatively intact.

One of the themes of the novel is the use of one's life as source material for creating art. Oki is most famous for his novel based on his relationship with Okoto. Okoto is in the process of creating a painting titled "Ascension of the Child", the child being Okoto's as he is imagined. While the film bypasses the novel's discussion of Oki's thoughts on literature, the choices made on the paintings by the two women raises questions. Rather than showing any of Keiko's paintings, they are discussed by the characters in the film, but unseen by the audience. Unlike in Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse which uses the unseen painting for dramatic purpose, Shinoda's choice of not showing Keiko's paintings does not work, even though it should be understood that any painting would probably not live up to the expectations of those who read the novel. Okoto's one painting seen in the film is more abstract than the work described by Kawabata. There are a couple of shots of Okoto and her painting that anticipate what would be done to better effect in Double Suicide.

Shinoda's film has, unsurprisingly, some beautiful imagery of its own. There is also the interesting device in the use of screens or passageways, allowing for some of the action to be only partially seen, or only heard. The film was released just a year after the publication of the novel. That was certainly done to capitalize on Kawabata's popularity in Japan in general and on the freshness of the novel. One can only guess as to whether a better film might have been made a few years later when there was more frankness to Japanese film, both with mainstream product, and the advent of the "Pink film", or if Shinoda was the best person to film this novel.

Might With Beauty and Sorrow been a better film had Shinoda been willing, or able, to have made something as avant-garde as Toru Takamitsu's score? Considering that Kawabata wrote the story and screenplay for Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness, I think Shinoda might have done better to have given sway to madness, seeking the visual equivalent to Kawabata as the younger artist, rather than the revered master he had become.

Posted by peter at September 9, 2008 12:24 AM


I really want to see this. I've loved every Shinoda film I've managed to see so I expect I'll enjoy it. I haven't read the book so I won't have any expectations going into it, which might help me enjoy it more. Even with your obvious reservations, you've still managed to make it sound like worthwhile viewing.

Posted by: Kimberly at September 15, 2008 05:22 PM