The Japan Foundation’s annual touring film programme has started at ICA (31 JAN to 16 FEB). Our first film of the new season was Kon Ichikawa’s battle of the sexes comedy, TEN DARK WOMEN (1961). Here’s our RADIANT CIRCUS writeup.
By RADIANT CIRCUS
TEN DARK WOMEN d. Kon Ichikawa, 1961 (Japan, 105 min)
Introduced by Junko Takekawa (Senior Arts Programmer, Japan Foundation London), TEN DARK WOMEN is an atmospheric mixture of seductive Film Noir, impeccable mise-en-scène and madcap comedy – an early scene where two ‘mistresses’ have hidden in a wardrobe for 5 hours to spy on their man’s prowess with yet another woman is hilarious. But above all, it’s a dark-hearted drama that sees the supernatural, Macbeth-like gatherings of women in the darkness, multiple murder plots and a twisted morality tale all woven into the bedroom tatami matting. It’s also got something to say about #MeToo.
Set in and around a TV studio, we have the story of the wife (Fujiko Yamamoto) and nine mistresses of a lazy executive (Eiji Funakoshi), who all conspire to put him out of their misery whilst still grappling with the hooks he has placed in their hearts. Some are happy to potentially see the back of him, some harbour delusions of changing their man, whilst one (Mariko Miyagi) will pay a horrific price (that’s not a massive plot spoiler, we literally encounter her ghost in the opening sequence).
“There’s nothing in you a woman would want.”
As with many dramatised battles of the sexes – comedies or otherwise – we’re left wondering why anyone would find this idiot attractive, let alone go to the extent of feeling so enraged they would murder him and run the risk of extreme punishment (an irony he’s irritatingly only too aware of). What’s really interesting in the script by Natto Wada – herself married to director Kon Ichikawa – is that the ‘mistresses’ all have proper jobs associated with the television industry – printer, actor, electrician, makeup artist – and yet the only time we ever see Kaze at ‘work’ is when he’s slacking off, which seems to be his major character trait. Like the people who headline their hook-up profiles with the word ‘bored’, it’s far from arousing and yet very telling about how power is portioned up in the industry.
Women’s work comes to the fore too in the character of the wife: she is the one who labours on their neutered marriage, leads the murder plotting and, in a beautifully staged sequence, is seen cashing up after a day running her restaurant only to be interrupted by her husband, fearful of rumours of his imminent death.
This being the dawn of the 1960s – or maybe just because it’s a mainstream film and these issues still haven’t been resolved – it would be wrong to read TEN DARK WOMEN as an unequivocally feminist text. The mostly anonymous women are all defined by their inexplicable love for Kaze and are set against each other in an unenviable power struggle. The plot spins in too many directions to draw concrete conclusions. But the film itself is an absolute blast.
Presented at ICA in surprise #35mm (seriously, it’s our job to list things and we didn’t spot this one coming…), the B&W cinematography boasts intoxicating blacks and whites, while the directorial detail (everything is superbly framed and contoured) suggests the manga-style storyboarding the director – who started work as an animator – was famous for. Particularly fascinating is the use of props: the wife sorts then messes up the collection of women’s shoes at the foot of the stairs; the gun, hidden in a kimono sleeve, bangs against the table a little later in the same sequence.
If there’s one consistent target throughout TEN DARK WOMEN, it’s society. The place that leaves women no place but to be hanging off the arms of a man, and that encourages men to be absent from their other responsibilities in pursuit of elevated social standing through paid work. That the whole thing ends in a totally unexpected apocalypse shouldn’t have been such a surprise after all. THE END.
JAPAN FOUNDATION TOURING FILM PROGRAMME 2020
THE RADIANT CIRCUS VIEW: This year’s programme is full of mostly contemporary takes on Japanese culture and continues to be a popular draw (ie the events are all selling fast!). With a couple of director Q&As and commissioned screening notes for each film, this really is a delightful season and one of our highlights of the start of every screen year. Read our RADIANT CIRCUS in-depth guide for more.
Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020 – Happiness Is A State Of Mind: Joy & Despair In Japanese Cinema screens at ICA (31 JAN to 16 FEB) & around the country.
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