Film / Reviews

'Villon no Tsuma'/'Pandora no Hako'

Dazai: A hit and a miss

Kichitaro Negishi’s “Villon no Tsuma” (“Villon’s Wife”) is based on an Osamu Dazai short story with autobiographical overtones: An alcoholic writer steals a large sum of money from a small drinking establishment and, when he does a disappearing act, his wife offers to pay it back by working for the owners as a waitress. Despite her popularity with the customers, she suffers various sorts of humiliation and abuse, but stands by her man.

Using a script by Yozo Tanaka, Negishi embellishes on this story with new characters and subplots, but his film remains true to the original in what can only be called its retrograde outlines, especially from a Western point of view.

The wife, Sachi (Takako Matsu), is an intelligent, sensitive, resourceful woman living in a hell created almost entirely by her drunken, dissolute husband, Otani (Tadanobu Asano). Why does she put up with it?

Villon no Tsuma
Director Kichitaro Negishi
Run Time 114 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Oct. 10, 2009
Pandora no Hako
Director Masanori Tominaga
Run Time 94 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Oct. 10, 2009

Set in the chaotic early postwar period, the film grapples earnestly with this question through Sachi’s eyes — and one answer is in the title. The medieval French poet Francois Villon violated every social and moral code, but earned absolution from posterity with the brilliance for his work, as well as for his romantic outlaw image. Otani’s case is similar, if more ambiguous.

First, his talent as a writer means little to Sachi, who sees almost none of its rewards. At the same time, he is no pathological abuser. Instead, he is tortured by demons — call them drink, genius or what you will — while being sincerely contrite for his crimes against Sachi and their marriage — most seriously a shinju (love suicide) attempt with a vampish woman (Ryoko Hirosue) that, when she dies, puts him behind bars. Sachi doesn’t completely excuse those crimes, but she does come to better understand the man who committed them, while steadily freeing herself from the role of passively enduring wife. Her choice to stay or go, when she finally makes it, is her own.

Negishi, in other words, is not trying to justify Otani so much as contextualize him, while getting inside the skin of his (inexplicable to outsiders) marriage.

He is aided by strong supporting performances from Shinichi Tsutsumi, as a self-hating lawyer who kowtows to the Occupation, and Satoshi Tsumabuki as an eager young fan of Otani’s who falls for Sachi. The film, however, succeeds or fails on the performances of its two stars, who would seem to be oil and water — but actually combine quite well. Born to a famous Kabuki family, Takako Matsu has enjoyed mainstream success in a succession of hit TV dramas, plays, records and films. As Sachi, though, she shows a charming streak of unworldly eccentricity that makes her character a more likely fit for an eternal outsider like Otani.

Tadanobu Asano often plays instinctive, explosive types who are a cultural chasm away from a self-conscious, self-destructive aesthete like Otani. Asano, though, finds his way into the character by not only unleashing Otani’s demons, but exposing the needy, lonely soul who is tortured by them.

Sachi, Otani finally realizes, is his only salvation in a new world without values — save survival. Meanwhile, Sachi comes to understand that her only salvation is herself. She may be this Japanese Villon’s wife, but instead of staying a supporting player in his drama, she starts writing her own.

Masanori Tominaga is the director as contrarian. That is, he makes films that go against conventional expectations.

After seeing “Pavilion Sanshouo” (“Pavilion Salamander,” 2006), Tominaga’s feature debut about a wacky family’s war over the title amphibian, I was expecting more investigations into the wilder reaches of the right side of the brain. Instead, for his second film, Tominaga has delivered “Pandora no Hako” (“Pandora’s Box”), a drama based on a story by Osamu Dazai.

The film, though, is nothing like the dark, self-flagellating masterpiece “Ningen Shikkaku” (“No Longer Human”), the novel for which Dazai is best known. Instead, it’s a jokey, talky, self-conscious exercise in gallows humor. Tominaga’s true inspiration, it seems, is less Dazai than Roberto “Life Is Beautiful” Benigni, if minus the sentimentality.

Just as Benigni tried to extract laughs from the Holocaust, Tominaga tries to find the lighter side of a sanitarium in the early postwar period. His hero, Risuke (Shota Sometani), begins the film as an idealistic, weak-chested, teenager who tries to toughen himself up with farm work. Instead, soon after the end of the war, he falls ill with tuberculosis and is sent to a sanitarium.

Calling itself a “health dojo,” the place offers little but quack remedies, however. Everyone goes by a nickname — Risuke’s is “Hibari” — and the nurses and patients greet each other with set phrases. When a nurse says “ganbareyo” (“keep trying”), the patient replies “yoshi kita” (“OK, I will”).

Hibari soon falls into this routine (“I am a different man,” he proclaims), as well as becoming a slightly above-it-all member of the sanitarium society, which is made up almost entirely of cute eccentrics.

There is not much of a plot. Soon after Hibari checks in, a poet named Tsukushi (Yosuke Eguchi) is discharged, upsetting bubbly nurse Maabo (Riisa Naka), who has a crush on him. Then a new head nurse, Take-san (Mieko Kawakami), arrives — and the male patients quickly judge her both plain and a pain.

Hibari writes about all this and more in letters to Tsukushi, a kindred spirit, despite their brief acquaintance.

He observes quarrels being settled, deaths mourned, secrets shared and romantic feelings confessed. This is faithful enough to Dazai’s story. In fact, Hibari narrates many passages from the original, in the form of his letters to Tsukushi. Too many, until the visuals are reduced to illustrations for the spoken words. Also, Naruyoshi Kikuchi’s intrusive score adds musical exclamation points and smiley faces to much of the dialogue, cuing audience reactions as relentlessly as an ad jingle.

But my main problem with the film — similar to the problem I had with “Life Is Beautiful” — is its winking insensitivity to the central, unpleasant fact of the patients’ lives: They are facing death in one of its more squalid and insidious forms.

Tuberculosis is making a comeback, particularly in the Third World, but to many Japanese of Tominaga’s generation it is as ancient and remote as the plague. A director, however, should be able to sympathetically imagine the horror of it, even if he has never personally experienced it.

But enough scolding; “Pandora’s Box” will have served it purpose if it sends its audience in search of Dazai’s work. At least that’s the hope — the only thing left after Pandora opened her legendary box, releasing all the world’s ills — historical amnesia included.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
Coronavirus banner