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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.3 (2001) 101-127

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Gazing Disinterestedly: Politicized Poetics in Double Suicide

Nina Cornyetz

In 1969, Shinoda Masahiro adapted to film the 1721 puppet play [banraku] by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Shinjû ten no Amijima ["Love Suicides at Amijima"], released with English subtitles as Double Suicide. 1 Shinoda was affiliated with the Japanese Art Theater Guild, a group of young filmmakers attempting to create political-aesthetical films in opposition to the dominant studio productions of the 1960s, which they viewed as commercial, inartistic, and uninteresting. 2 Double Suicide is the stunning employment of an Edo-period (1600-1868) source text to problematize the binding of modern Japanese aesthetics to Japanese premodern convention--a coupling that has complicated most critiques of the modern subject in Japan--and at the same time to denounce the Edo economy (and its modern filmic legacy) of women as commodified objects of exchange between men. In order to do so, the film relies on a specific filmic economy and aesthetic of "distancing" that I will call "disinterestedness," which engenders a mode of the gaze quite different from the so-called male one. I begin my discussion by mapping out the parameters of the origins of this disinterestedness before proceeding to a [End Page 101] formal analysis of how the film's syntactical mobilization of disinterestedness results in a filmic gaze that decenters, rather than consolidates, the modern subject. Because the decentered subject is, however, deeply referential to the Japanese premodern, noncentered (non)subject, and because a sort of transcendence of the subject had already taken place prior to the twentieth century in Japan, I highlight the complex significance of this disinterested gaze as a cogent critique of the (gendered) subject in modern Japan.

Modes of Disinterestedness

Double Suicide scorns conventions of filmic realism in its faithful reenactment of the puppet play's star-crossed lovers, Jihei, a paper seller, the courtesan Koharu, and Jihei's wife Osan. The film replaces puppets with human actors, alternating minimalist stage sets with location shots. In the narrative, Jihei's passion for Koharu has led him to neglect his financial and other responsibilities to his wife and children. Meanwhile, Tahei, a rich and detested merchant, plans to purchase Koharu, who swears she will kill herself instead. Unable to come up with enough money to buy Koharu himself, Jihei and Koharu pledge to die together. In despair, Osan writes a letter to Koharu, as one woman to another, begging her to spare Jihei's life. Koharu yields to Osan's request, but Jihei interprets her change of heart as evidence of deceit. Word reaches Jihei and Osan that Koharu is about to be bought by Tahei. Realizing that Koharu is planning suicide, Osan tells Jihei of the women's agreement. She and Jihei feverishly set about turning assets into cash to redeem Koharu themselves. Before they can do so, however, Osan's father, who has heard rumors of Jihei's infidelity and financial irresponsibility, arrives to demand his daughter's divorce and physically removes Osan from her marital home. In the end, Koharu and Jihei die together.

One reviewer wrote in 1969 that Shinoda had

extracted from Chikamatsu's original play the truly dramatic elements, and, by reconstructing these in the context of film according to contemporary sensibilities, marvelously rebirthed the Genroku [era] tragedy into the world of Showa's artistic apex [genroku]. (Hitomi 98) 3

However, rather than directing an adaptation of the puppet play, I would agree with Audie Bock that "Shinoda made a filmic analysis of the theatrical [End Page 102] form of Bunraku" (351). This analysis relies in part on the translation of a traditional Japanese "mode" of disinterestedness into modern film syntax.

In Double Suicide both the political and aesthetic dimensions of the film depend on techniques of distancing, or "disinterestedness." I use the term disinterestedness to designate, in the spirit of Kant, a subjective judgment by the perceiving subject that is bracketed off from, and thus independent of, other concerns such as ethics or use-value. I describe...


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pp. 101-127
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Archived 2004
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