Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Kon Ichikawa’s 1960 film “Odd Obsession” is a real wolf in sheep’s clothing.
On the surface with Ganjiro Nakamura and Machiko Kyô dressed in kimono and most of the action taking place in traditional shoji-screened and tatami mat rooms it looks like we’re in a late Ozu film, but Ozu never could have or would have peeled back the surface to reveal the dark, rancid underbelly of a family quite like Ichikawa does here.
Based on Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1956 novel “Kagi (The Key)” it tells the story of an elderly antique collector and art critic Kenmochi (Nakamura), who is having a little trouble coming to terms with his advancing years, specifically his waning potency. When we first encounter him he’s receiving a series of shots from the young Dr. Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai) that Kenmochi believes will boost his sex drive. Dr. Kimura knows they’re doing something else like shooting his blood pressure dangerously high and warns Kenmochi of this. It turns out that Dr. Kimura isn’t just Kenmochi’s personal physician, he’s also a family friend and he only wants what best for the old man… or so it seems.
That’s the thing about the start of “Odd Obsession” everything seems normal, but it doesn’t. When Kimura comes around to the house with some dried roe Kenmochi cracks out the good brandy and we’re introduced to the rest of the family: Kenmochi’s much younger wife Ikuko and his teenage daughter Toshiko. Again, they seem like the perfect Japanese family, but there’s something a little off about this gathering; Toshiko is chilly with Dr. Kimura and downright snotty with her parents, and Ikuko starts shooting back glass after glass of brandy because her husband has been “training his wife to drink”. She’s the perfect Japanese housewife, you see, who bends to her husband’s every whim, and I mean every whim.
As the film proceeds we start to get a taste of what’s really going on. Ikuko, the daughter of a priest, seems to be suffering through her husbands frantic attempts at intimacy, because Kenmochi just isn’t giving himself injections. He’s giving his wife injections too, injections that will knock her out so he can take nude photos of her. He gives these rolls of film to the unwitting Dr. Kimura to develop because it turns out that Kenmochi wants Ikuko and the doctor to have an affair. Jealousy, it seems, does a better job than Kenmochi’s aphrodisiac injections. Now this would be disturbing enough if it weren’t for the fact that Dr. Kimura is already indulging in a secret affair with Toshiko.
It’s all double crossing and manipulation, but you’d be horribly mistaken to think that it’s all at the expense of Ikuko and Toshiko. Mom and daughter have their own agendas, and so does their old housekeeper, but to go into every devious twist and turn would take all the fun out of watching this hidden gem of Japanese cinema. Well, “fun” might not quite make sense here, unless you find greed, infidelity, and kinky sex “fun”…. Okay, well… greed and infidelity.