by Allan Fish
(Japan 1967 97m) DVD2 (Japan only, no English subs)
Aka. Joen/Flames of Love
Fishing for sympathy
p Gendai Eigasha d Yoshishige Yoshida w Yoshishige Yoshida, Tsutomu Tamura ph Mitsuji Kanau m Sei Ikeno art Chiyoo Umeda
Mariko Okada (Oriko), Isao Kamura (Mitsuharu), Tadahiko Sugano (Furuhata), Shigako Shimegi (sister-in-law), Etsushi Takahashi (labourer), Yoshie Minami (Oriko’s mother),
The choice of title perhaps says a lot about Yoshida’s film and my opinions on it; in the too few places in the west where it is known, it’s seen as Flames of Love as often as The Affair. Yet, Ozu-like, many of Yoshida’s films’ titles of this era can get confused. Calling it Flames of Love ensures no confusion with the following year’s Affair in the Snow, but then confused it with the same year’s Flame and Woman, often necessitating that to be called Impasse. Confused? It doesn’t matter, but it showcases a similarity with Ozu, namely that though the themes are very different, for a period in the mid sixties there were several variations on the same theme, so much so that either title seems accurate with retrospect. The Affair is certainly direct and to the point as it concerns love affairs, yet Flames of Love has a certain ambiguity to it, once you accustom yourself to the flames being ice cold.
Oriko is unhappily married to an executive. It’s a year after the death of her mother and she’s returning to her one-time love of poetry, where she again meets sculptor Mitsuharu, her widowed mother’s former toyboy lover. They meet again over the coming days and weeks, and her unhappiness in her marriage becomes as obvious as Mitsuharu’s previously undeclared love for Oriko. At the same time, Oriko confronts her husband’s lover and becomes aware of her young sister-in-law’s love for a brutal labourer, with whom she has assignations in a deserted house by a nearby beach. In trying to persuade the man to leave her sister-in-law alone, she herself succumbs to him, and realises her own need for love.
Essentially, if one analyse the plot, it seems like pure melodrama and yet the treatment couldn’t be less melodramatic, a maelstrom of hidden desires, frustrations and tempests occasionally bubbling to the surface like a brief thaw. Mitsuharu’s profession is
No idle reference either, a man whose life revolves around bringing a sense of the tactile to stone. His tools rather like Yoshida’s directorial Rocket scalpel, carefully removing each layer of the characters’ defences until they’re left raw, like exposed nerves. A quite literal state for Mitsuharu, as his sculpture comes quite literally crashing down around him and leaving him temporarily paralysed. Throughout indeed, Yoshida holds the mirror up to characters and audience alike, with endless shots through and reflected in windows, mirrors and even most tellingly in the finale, railway carriages shuttling through platforms, characters disappearing from behind them like so many spectres, a mirage of the mind. Expectations and suppositions are shattered, misconceptions brought into the open; Oriko thinks Mitsuharu left her mother where she actually left him, she looks down on her mother but finds she is like him, she thinks badly of her sister-in-law then gives in to the same primitive desires herself. The self-loathing is crushing, paralysing and all too real.
Moving back and forth in time and mind, Yoshida’s control is uncanny. Visually the film is a poem, but followers of Yoshida know already his mastery of the widescreen monochrome aesthetic, and the performances could not be bettered. Minami, Shimegi and Sugano are all pitch-perfect, Kamura is so believable as the sculptor one fancies that, when he eventually makes love to Oriko, he’s moulding her flesh from stone, savouring every inch of her body in a scene with ratchets the eroticism up to eleven through pure understatement. And, as always with Yoshida, we come to Mariko Okada. One could say she doesn’t put a foot wrong and still wouldn’t get close; a performance that would be more feted than it is were it not one of many, making us not just read but feel her farewell message to her husband; “this flower, still vital, resigns herself to her fate.”