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Kageroza - Taisho Trilogy (Suzuki Seijun 1981)



Genre: Taisho Era Ghostly Surrealism

review in one breath

Playwright Shungo becomes increasingly enchanted by a mysterious and beautiful woman he occasionally crosses paths with. His playboy friend Tamawaki jests that it is all an amorous fate, but Shungo's contemplative nature senses deeper realities at play. When he receives a written invitation for a remote rendevouz, his journey of vulnerability brings him face to face with both the cruelties of human nature and the terrifyingly haunting power of love's own justice. This is the second film in director Suzuki Seijun's critically acclaimed Taisho Trilogy.


This is the second film in director Suzuki Seijun's so-called Taisho Trilogy. The collection consists of the following three films:

Zigeunerweisen - 1980
Kagero-za - 1981
Yumeji - 1991

Each of these films is a highly stylized and rather epic tale taking place within the Taisho Era (1912-1926). While the period is generally characterized by political turmoil as the last vestiges of aristocracy-based governance gave way to one based of purely democratic representation, such Taisho-unique elements do no figure explicitly in any other these films. Instead, Suzuki highlights the era's emphasis upon Western education and culture, and their possible conflict with core Japanese (or more broadly, human) sensibilities. This, at least, is how these narratives are framed. But it would be quite incorrect to suggest that these films are merely explorations of cultural or individuality issues.

I have now seen two of the three films herein and I must confess not only am I wholly impressed but also analytically intrigued by what I have seen. First off, these are unlike any other films by Suzuki in both their style and content. Unlike most of his others, these films received immediate and widespread critical and popular acclaim. These films accomplished something new in ways which struck the audience as both meaningful and entertaining. To be more precise, I would go so far as to call them mesmerizing and haunting.

And that brings us to the core novelty of these Suzuki films -- they, or I should say at least the two I have seen thus far, are infused with a form of supernaturalism which borders on a form of Taisho Era gothic horror.

In interviews, Suzuki admits that he deems Zigeunerweisen to be of the horror genre, while he speaks of Kagero-za, the film under review here, as a "love story". But this film is, in my opinion, a "love story" unlike any you will have seen. Both these films similarly weave reality, the psychological, and phantasm into such an elaborate web that I am literally at a loss as to how to describe it. Though much of what follows could be equally applied to Zigeunerweisen (which nevertheless is a wholly different film), I'll stick to commenting specifically on Kagero-za.

I consider this film as also belonging to the horror genre, as it is wholly steeped, from opening to ending, in haunting imagery and the possibility that what characters are experiencing is indeed other-worldly. But this other-worldliness does not conform to the traditional rules of either Japanese or Western horror, but seems to come from some new direction which I still haven't been able to identify. Though present, the "ghosts" here are never clearly delineated, disallowing the viewer to precisely finger or outline their presence. Similarly indistinguishable are the spheres of reality and dream here, so that these three elements run together like three fluids into a single whole. And I am not talking about the type of blending which Miike Takashi stylistically accomplished in Box (2004). In that film, a little contemplation allowed for an unraveling and thereby explanation of the separate threads of the narrative and their actual relation one to another (or so I think).

In Kagero-za (and Zigeunerweisen), though I have had plenty of time to dwell on the film, I remain unable to wholly decipher what I have seen. I arrive only at a vague notion which I recognize and deem plausible, but can go no further in penetrating the details and message Suzuki here delivers. And THAT is precisely the most interesting aspect of this collection -- that someone like myself, who has seen many Japanese films and a wide historical range of Japanese horror, have never seen anything like this.

But how can that be? These two films are now nearly 30 years old, were heralded successes both in terms of critical acclaim and box office sales, and they undeniably deliver haunting and memorable visions of an inexplicable reality. Where are the remakes, rehashes and copycats? Where is the continual regurgitation of these powerful motifs to the point of their becoming mere cliche by now? How did Suzuki arrive at a unique brand of horror untainted by mainstream approaches, and how has the mainstream horror genre not yet incorporated elements of these eerily effective films? I DON'T KNOW!!

In any event, the result is that Kagero-za delivers a very fresh experience of a truly Japanese horror which will prove as enigmatic as it is haunting. The highly stylized and polished cinematography, the elaborate and expansive sets, the effective acting and compelling narrative all make this a highly recommendable film. But it is truly Suzuki's unique approach to horror which makes this film a must see.

The title kagero-za can be literally translated as "one's place in the shimmering haze of heat", and conveys the image having one's perceptions impacted by distortion. (And this thoroughly describes the overall impact of this film, for both the characters and the audience.) It has a running time of 139 minutes, a rather epic length which each of the films in this trilogy approaches. It stars the towering Matsuda Yusaku as Shungo, the increasingly bewildered playwright, Nakamura Katsuo as the powerful and hedonistic Tamawaki, and Okusu Michiyo as the mysterious bladder cherry woman. The story is based on the novel by Izumi Kyoka.


I thoroughly recommend this for a contemplative and enigmatic experience. Visually and conceptually this is highly polished fare and certainly will not disappoint on these levels. For fans of the Japanese horror genre, this will prove to be quite unique.

Version reviewed: Region 1 Subtitled DVD (available at all mainstream venues?)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Highly acclaimed and equally effective film by director Suzuki Seijun. No graphic depiction, though violence, suicide and malaise linger in the air like vapor. Eerily seductive with a few naughty clay dolls thrown in for full measure. I am thoroughly impressed with the elusive and haunting nature of this film.


I am glad I added these to my Netflix queue. So far I have watched the first two of the trilogy and find them both compelling and confounding. How did he do it, hah! I actually prefer these later works to his earlier ones in the 60's regarding mobsters and prostitutes. I think getting kicked out of the studio turned out to be a blessing. Too bad he had to wait 10 years before he was able to make another film. And I'm glad they haven't been copied, rehashed, or remade. They are so unique!

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