[Country: Japan; Director: Seijun Suzuki; Writer: Yozo Tanaka]
Cast: Yusaku Matsuda, Michiyo Ogusu, Mariko Kaga, Katsuo Nakamura, Yoshio Harada
Running Time: 139 min
In 1980, after ten years away from cinema, Seijun Suzuki made a triumphant return with Zigeunerweizen. It was his longest and most personal film to that date, an unnerving dissection of psychological terror set in the Taisho period. After receiving tremendous accolades for that film, Suzuki made another one set in that era; it was this film, Mirage Theater. Along with the later Yumeji, Suzuki formed an unofficial trilogy set in the Taisho period just before the military buildup for World War Two. It’s fascinating to take this trilogy and compare it to Noboru Tanaka’s previous Showa Trilogy (Sada Abe: A Docu-Drama, Walker in the Attic, and Beauty’s Exotic Dance: Torture!) as dissections of a world slowly growing mad. Suzuki’s work echoes the madness to come by giving us stories of psychosexual obsession.
Mirage Theater is at first about just such an obsession. It follows a young playwright who becomes obsessed with a woman who is certainly married and possibly dead. But none of that is really clear to the young man or to the viewer. It is clear that the playwright is staying at the woman’s husband’s estate, and that the husband has two wives, one Japanese and one German, and that one of them has just died. But which one is dead? The young man clearly sees them both floating in a boat together across a river, and both appear entirely alive.
Suzuki’s brilliant look and his unique directorial style are both totally intact here, along with his absurdist sense of humor. With all of his tremendous skills at play, Suzuki has chosen to take a very, very experimental route with this picture. Not everyone will appreciate how this film tranforms slowly and aimlessly into a kabuki play. The tense creepiness of the early portion of the film is completely jettisoned as the film wears on. There are strange segments that have no bearing on the story at hand, and eventually the story itself loses its pertinence, simply giving way to striking imagery. At times it seems as if Suzuki isn’t very concerned that he’s making a movie in the first place. After a certain point, it doesn’t seem to matter to his that there is a storyline, that characters might remain consistent, or that the pace and dramatic draw of his film might relate to people’s interest in his work. And even for the most die-hard Suzuki fans, Mirage Theater asks a lot. Nevertheless, this is a wholly original piece of filmmaking, with complex mythical imagery and a sense that all the proceedings, frightening though they are, are part of a sort of a “divine comedy.”