Reviewed by Bob Turnbull
As far as I can tell, director Yasuzo Masumura never really spent much time in the middle ground. The films I've seen by him tend to move towards extremes - which I suppose is the best way to really examine subjects like obsession.
1964's "Manji" fits this same template. Based on a 1930's novel by Junichiro Tanizaki, its title translated to Quicksand. This very apt metaphor describes the obsessive love that continuously pulls the story's characters back in - no matter how hard they fight it. The term Manji is also the Japanese word for the Buddhist swastika symbol representing the joining of heaven and earth, the balance of yin and yang and the interaction between the four. In its left facing configuration, it also is meant to represent love and mercy.
That's an awful lot of themes to juggle through one single word...And yet the script (written by Kaneto Shindo - director of Onibaba), does just that. The first half of the film actually flies by - it gradually builds the relationship between bored housewife Sonoko (played by Kyoko Kishida from "Woman In The Dunes") and the younger beautiful Mitsuko through a series of flashbacks related by Sonoko herself. The episodic nature of the film at this stage likely comes from the initial serialization of the novel, but it's very effective as we see the friendship build to what you believe to be love, but which changes to obsession on Sonoko's part.
Mitsuko (Sonoko calls her the "Goddess of Mercy") also seems caught up in the new affair, but we soon learn that she may not be quite as innocent as we thought. Things begin to complicate themselves one night when she calls Sonoko from a hotel asking her for some clothes for herself as well as for a man (who ends up being her fiancee). The film shifts tone a bit at this stage and the complications build upon one another as the fiancee and Sonoko's husband are all brought into the mix - a mix that seems to be controlled at every step by Mitsuko herself. Her introduction of the use of sleeping powder further breaks down the wills of those using it and deepens the obsessions.
It's beautifully filmed all the way through with almost perfect staging and framing of scenes. Occasional pops of brightness in an otherwise drab colour palette, like the red pieces of paper containing the sleeping powder, grab your attention. And so does the almost over the top acting of the main characters. Sonoko always seems to be at one end of her spectrum of emotions. But the story is pure melodrama, so this matches it perfectly and is just another of the tools being used by Masumura to push his boundaries. There will likely be little middle ground regarding opinions towards the film and I expect that would please him just fine.
Read more by Bob Turnbull at his blog.