Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Double Suicide: Criterion (1969)
Studio Line: Criterion/Home Vision

Many films have drawn from classic Japanese theatrical forms, but none with such shocking cinematic effect as director Masahiro Shinoda's Double Suicide. In this striking adaptation of a bunraku puppet play (featuring the music of famed composer Toru Takemitsu), a paper merchant sacrifices family, fortune, and ultimately life for his erotic obsession with a prostitute. Criterion is proud to present Double Suicide with a stunning digital transfer and a new and improved English subtitle tanslation.

Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Cast: Kamatari Fujiwara, Tokie Hidari, Shima Iwashita, Yoshi Kato, Shizue Kawarazaki, Hosei Komatsu, Kichiemon Nakamura, Yusuke Takita
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio Japanese Digital Mono; subtitles English; single sided - single layered; 18 chapters; Not Rated; 104 min.; $29.95; street date 1/30/01.
Supplements: Booklet.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/C/D-

If nothing else, the DVDs released in the Criterion Collection have helped broaden my cinematic horizons as they exposed me to works that were previously unknown to me. Sometimes this has been enjoyable and enlightening - as with Autumn Sonata and The Element of Crime - while sometimes I’ve been much less enchanted with the work in question. Plop 1969’s Double Suicide into that latter category, as it provided a dull and stilted experience.

I went into DS almost totally blind. All I knew about the film before I dropped it in my DVD player was that it was Japanese; otherwise all aspects of the movie were unknown to me.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was rather different. According to the DVD’s case, it’s an “adaptation of a bunraku puppet play”. If you crave additional explanation of the phrase “bunraku puppet play”, you’ll have to look elsewhere, because I don’t know anything about the subject. The essay included in the DVD’s booklet doesn’t shed much additional light; it indicates that the movie’s a “close adaptation of Chikamatsu’s 1720 doll-drama Shinju Ten no Amijima” and relates a few more details of how the film relates to that form of drama, but that’s about it.

From what I can gather, “bunraku” is essentially just a form of puppet show, but DS features live actors instead of dolls. Nonetheless, it seems to stage the production in a manner similar to the way things would work with the puppets; in fact, we see the “kurago” - black-clad performers who normally would manipulate the dolls - throughout the film.

The “staginess” of the production is one aspect of DS I disliked. It essentially did little more than film a play; though it goes outside the theater walls at times, and it seemed to take a few liberties that would be unlikely in a live performance, I felt as though the majority of the movie did little to rework the experience for the movies. (Um, other than the fact the actors weren’t puppets anymore, that is.)

DS tells the story of “courtesan” - prostitute, that is - Koharu (Shima Iwashita) and local merchant Jihei (Kichiemon Nakamura). Though Jihei’s married and has kids, he’s in love with Koharu, despite the fact she needs to be “redeemed” - bought, that is - and the two can never be together. Much hand-wringing ensues, and further complications evolve through the family issues caused by this romance, primarily as they involve Jihei’s wife Osan (also played by Shima Iwashita).

Frankly, I thought it was little more than a load of pretentious claptrap. The film makes a broad point about the suffocating nature of Japanese customs; the only option for this couple in love is to kill themselves. Unfortunately, it takes a loooong time to get there. The movie largely consists of exchanges that cover the hopelessness of everyone’s plight; there’s the couple who have other obligations, and the wife who is unloved, and so on. It never really seems to go anywhere, and after a little while, I found myself actively encouraging Koharu and Jihei to off themselves just to put me out of my misery.

On the positive side, director Masahiro Shinoda gives DS a stark and lovely look that creates an elegant appearance at all times. The movie also has a few surprisingly racy moments that perked up a perv like me; we see some bare breasts, and Jihei apparently provides Koharu with some oral pleasure on a couple of occasions.

Other than those mildly-interesting elements, however, I thought Double Suicide was an excessively-theatrical and plodding dud. It provided flat characters and placed them in uninteresting situations. The movie looked good and showed a little visual flair despite the sparse settings, but that wasn’t enough to keep me involved.

The DVD:

Double Suicide appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture betrayed some weaknesses at times, it generally offered a surprisingly satisfying visual experience.

Sharpness consistently looked crisp and well-defined. Virtually no signs of soft or hazy images appeared throughout the film, as it always was clear and detailed. However, some jagged edges cropped up, and moiré effects could be a significant concern. The latter came through mainly in the clothes worn by the actors; the striped patterns caused some definite shimmering at times.

Black levels looked nicely deep and rich during most of the film. At times contrast seemed to favor the white part of the spectrum to an excessive degree, but I felt that this was intentional, especially since it mainly appeared during shots of Koharu; other characters looked more accurately-lit. Shadow detail seemed clear and appropriately opaque; some night exteriors seemed a little too thick, but these were the exceptions.

As is often the case with older movies, print flaws caused the greatest concerns with DS. However, these were generally not problematic. Some parts of the film displayed too many defects; I witnessed examples of scratches, hairs, grit and speckles. However, these issues were not constant and only flared on occasion. For the most part, the movie seemed acceptably fresh and clean, and I was definitely impressed with the general lack of grain; the film featured some very bright whites at times, and these betrayed virtually no signs of grain. Ultimately, Double Suicide has some visual flaws, but I nonetheless thought it offered a very strong picture.

Less satisfying was the movie’s monaural soundtrack. DS was dominated by dialogue. It featured occasional music and some minor effects - both of which sounded acceptably clean and accurate - but speech made up the vast majority of the film’s audio. Although I cannot truly judge the accuracy of the dialogue due to the language differences, it sounded as though the lines always remained intelligible. However, the dialogue displayed a consistently harsh and edgy quality throughout the film that made it difficult to listen to it at times. Had the speech appeared more natural and clean, the modest soundtrack would have earned a higher grade, but as it stands, it gets only a “C”.

Double Suicide features almost no supplements. All we find is an informative essay from “feminist film theorist” Claire Johnston. That’s right: no trailer, no commentary, no other extras. The lack of materials seems especially disappointing in a case like this since I - and others, I’m sure - know so little about the movie and the genre; it’d be nice to get an informative audio commentary to help fill in the gaps.

Double Suicide is the best filmed example of Japanese bunraku puppet drama I’ve ever seen, but that’s because it’s the only filmed example of Japanese bunraku puppet drama. Frankly, the movie is a pretentious dud; it’s the kind of picture that seems so preposterously artsy it almost comes across as a parody. The DVD offers a fairly solid image plus average sound and very few extras. If you’re in the mood for something really different, Double Suicide might be for you, but otherwise it goes on the “skip” list.

Support DVD Movie Guide, visit our sponsors.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top