by Allan Fish
(Japan 1957 117m) not on DVD
Pictures from Angkor
p Jiro Kaga, Yoshishige Uchiyama d Heinosuke Gosho w Toshio Yasumi novel Yasuko Harada ph Junichi Segawa m Yasushi Akatagawa
Yoshiko Kuga (Reiko), Masayuki Mori (Katsuragi), Mieko Takamine (Mrs Katsuragi), Tatsuo Saito (Reiko’s father),
You won’t even find much evidence for Banka online; even on the IMDb it credits only four cast members and no cinematographer, composer or editor (thankfully the DVDR I viewed did include two of those) and no character names for the cast they did list. It was as if they had been erased. That in itself opens up an interesting concept; what if the director’s name wasn’t credited either. For those who could read Japanese, of course, it’s there on the credits, but could one guess who had directed from just watching the film?
There are familiar elements, not least in the casting. The presence of Masayuki Mori playing another of his dallying married men, and the presence of a Takamine in the cast, one could be forgiven for thinking it a Naruse film. Naruse students would probably notice stylistic differences that make it stand out from that master’s work, and yet some of his themes and his recognisable motifs (not least the presence of rivers) are very much in keeping with Naruse’s oeuvre. Yet there is another motif that stands out in Banka which recalls the work, or at least one famous work, of Heinosuke Gosho; smoke.
Smoke is everywhere in Banka, both physically and figuratively; smoke from the mountains as if from hot springs or geysers, smoke from lit fires in hearths, smoke from endlessly consumed cigarettes, smoke from factory chimneys in the urban distance, and then there’s the repeated appearance of mist and fog. Not a comforting, enveloping mist either, rather a mist akin to that drizzle that falls too fine to leave splashes in puddles, but which nonetheless leaves one soaked to the bone.
It’s a psychologically turbulent tale, of a young woman, Reiko, in her early 20s, who has lived with an elbow deformity that means she essentially just uses her right arm. She’s grown up with a cynical, forthright view of the world, but also doesn’t care about the consequences of her actions. When she meets a middle-aged man, Katsuragi, after his dog bites her, she sets out to win him, not caring about his marriage which, she finds out, is to a woman who has been unfaithful with a toyboy. She and Katsuragi do begin an affair, but then she starts to intrude into his wife’s life and comes to befriend her when the wife helps her recover from pneumonia, not knowing who she was.
The flashback structure which unfolds, and the melancholy score, tell us this isn’t going to end up rosy. What is unexpected is the callousness of its heroine. She sees no problem in befriending a woman whose husband she’s sleeping with and feels no remorse when the truth becomes known. Yet it’s more disturbing still, in that Reiko begins to call Mrs Katsuragi mother, as if to replace her own deceased mother, thus bringing an incestuous angle into proceedings with her lover thus becoming a surrogate father. And if that is not disconcerting enough, there’s Reiko’s almost pleading for punishment and scolding that verges on masochism.
A psychoanalyst’s field day, then, but also a field day for students of mise-en-scène. Take one sequence in particular, set in a coffee bar that deserves to be twinned with the railway station tea room in Brief Encounter and in which Reiko observes Mrs Katsuragi keep an appointment with her stubborn lover. The camera placement is complex, the photography deep focus, a Mona Lisa reproduction hangs on the wall, ‘Ochi Tchornya’ plays on the radio and Reiko looks on contemptuously. You can feel the tension in the air, breathing it in like cigarette smoke, and like the rest of the film it’s unerringly acted. Mori is his usual self, kissing Kuga as if half wanting to throttle her, and Takamine heart-rending, but Kuga is astonishing; making one care about a character who cares not what debris she leaves behind, a modern girl in every sense of the word in slacks and flats, as if sticking two digits up at conventional Japanese femininity.