Friday, August 29, 2008

REVIEW: A Story of Sorrow and Sadness - Seijun Suzuki (1977)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

It's a well known story how director Seijun Suzuki was fired from Nikkatsu in 1968 for delivering what they described as an "incomprehensible" mess: "Branded to Kill". Originally intended as just yet another formulaic yakuza film Suzuki instead used the project to further his evolution as a filmmaker, letting plot and character take a back seat to his bizarre images and symbolism. It could definitely be argued that these choices heightened the emotional impact of the film, but all Nikkatsu saw was how it would alienate audiences, so Suzuki was shown the door. What followed was what could best be described as Suzuki's wilderness years during which he didn't set foot on a studio lot and eked out a living directing pick up jobs for television and commercials. That would change in the late 70's when Shochiku figured that Suzuki has suffered enough and backed his return to feature filmmaking, "A Story of Sorrow and Sadness" (1977), a film that starts as an unsuccessful attempt to be a normal drama, but ends being a truly brilliant comment on the nature of celebrity.

When sports superstar Chiporose wins yet another gymnastic tournament the editors of a major sports magazine make a plan to eclipse the Eastern European's success by grooming a Japanese athlete to bump Chiporose from the front page of the sports section. Maybe a golf pro with the added sex appeal of a new bikini brand (???) Enter promoter Tadokoro (Yoshio Harada) and his father who have the perfect candidate in mind, fashion model Reiko Kashiwagi (Yoko Shiraki), who's got a reputation for being a bit of a "golf genius". Reiko seems a bit reluctant, but Tadokoro puts her through the grinder, having her train in heat, rain and in the dark of night, so that once she walks out onto the green for the big tournament she's every inch a champion.This whole sequence of the film was, in my opinion, an utter failure and I could see why "A Story of Sorrow and Sadness" had been such a flop at the Japanese box office. Like watching Yasujiro Ozu direct a chanbara action film watching Suzuki try and piece together a traditional sports underdog makes good story, which Reiko does, is is an uncomfortable, confusing and often just plain boring experience. What kept me going were the hints of menace and the uncanny that lurked beneath the surface of Reiko's meteoric rise to fame. Not only does she win the tournament, be she also wins the love of Tadokoro, lands in a posh apartment where she lives with her little brother and gets her own TV talk show and at every plot beat the menace increases until we arrive at the real point of "A Story of Sorrow and Sadness", the fascination, the sense of ownership and the jealousy that the public has for its celebrities.

It all starts with a phone call. Mrs. Semba (Sayoko Yamaguchi) complains to Reiko about her noisy automatic garage door opener (one of the many luxury items that Reiko possesses and Semba doesn't), but the tone shifts from a whining neighbour to an obsessed stalker after Semba throws herself into the path of Tadokoro's sports car one night and then shows up the next day on crutches at Reiko's apartment to blackmail the star. Frightened by her threats Reiko gives into her neighbours demands and soon Semba is letting herself in and out of her apartment as if it were her own, cooking breakfast for Reiko's suspicious younger brother and making guest appearances on Reiko's TV show as her "close friend".

It was during this later half of "A Story of Sorrow and Sadness" that the film did a total 180 for me and my jaw dropped at image after image that beautifully encapsulated Semba's desire to totally possess this superstar. Scenes of Semba shearing off Reiko's hair, demanding that she have sex with her husband and inviting the entire neighbourhood into Reiko's apartment to try on her clothes and berate the star are worthy of the objectivity and cruelty of filmmakers like Bunuel or Kubrick; and the ultimate tragedy of the film is how this abuse warps Reiko into a vessel for Semba's bile.

I went into "A Story of Sorrow and Sadness" with a bit of reluctance and although my initial doubts weren't immediately assuaged I came out of it convinced that I'd just watched one of the better films I'd seen in quite awhile as well as had to add it to the top of my list of favorite Seijun Suzuki films.

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