Director: Yuzo Kawashima
Screenplay: Kaneto Shindo
Starring: Ayako Wakao, Yunosuke Ito, Hisano Yamaoka, Yuko Hamada, Eiji Funakoshi, Manamitsu Kawabata, Shoichi Ozawa
Running time: 96 min
Director Yuzo Kawashima made 51 films across four of the major Japanese studios in less than 20 years, his career cut short at the age of 45. He left in indelible legacy; he was a mentor of the great Shohei Imamura, who worked as his assistant director, and his 1957 feature Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate was once voted the fifth best Japanese film of all time in a poll of more than 100 critics and filmmakers.
Elegant Beast (AKA The Graceful Brute) is a fantastic introduction to the director, an outstanding single-set satire of Japan’s post war economy, and a dark tale featuring a phenomenal femme fatale, portrayed to perfection by Ayako Wakao.
The film follows the Maeda family who live in a small two-room apartment, which is the sole location for the whole film. Father Tokizo (Yunosuke Ito) is a former military man and failed businessman living in small-scale opulence that he and his wife Yoshino (Hisano Yamaoka) hide when they have guests around to apparently make their lifestyle seem more humble. His money is made from loans from his daughter Tomoko’s (Yuko Hamada) patron, which he doesn’t pay back and helped by his son Minoru (Manamitsu Kawabata), who is signed to a music agency but embezzles funds with his lover Yukie (Wakao).
This is the set-up in a nutshell. What plays out is a joy to watch as not only do the family have plenty of secrets, but all the visitors to their apartment have their own agendas, and part of the pleasure in the filming is seeing how the stakes grow and the follies of the family spiral out of control. Whilst this drama ensues, a storm rumbles away outside and gets ever stronger as the noose gets tighter around the necks of family members.
The single location, aside from some on-location photography of the surrounding urban landscape, feels cramped and this is played to excellent effect, supported no end by some outstanding cinematography, which heightens the claustrophobic feel to almost unbearable levels. Family members are often shown behind bars (the stairs and railings of their abode), which is a visual motif for their shady actions and where they may end up if they don’t change their ways.
There are also some startling stairwell scenes; a female character always walking up the stairs, shot from above, though she isn’t the only character shot in this way. Their voiceovers whilst on the stairs, which feel like an almost sci-fi location, reveal thoughts, plot points and motifs, and the striking imagery creates a real sense of claustrophobia as the walls feel as though they will crush the characters.
It’s an incredibly visually rich film, with every inch of the production design of the set used to great effect to frame the characters and add to the suffocating feel; no two shots ever feel the same, which considering the minimalist nature of the set design is some feat.
In closing, Elegant Beast is a masterpiece; the script by The Naked Island and Onibaba director Kaneto Shindo, adapted from his own stage play, is first rate, the acting a masterclass, particularly from Wakao, and the cinematography and production design of the set is the icing on a very well baked cake.
Elegant Beast is released on 18th December 2023 on Region A and Region B limited edition Blu-ray by Radiance Films (it is available to pre-order from the Radiance website here https://www.radiancefilms.co.uk/products/elegant-beast-le). The new 4K restoration is strong, shadows are richly black and the colours of the painted backdrops as the sun sets and the storm sets in shine through. It looks great throughout. The Japanese audio is also excellent, with strong dialogue, the minimalist score sounding great, and the rich background sound effects, at times so significant, clear to hear.
LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES
– New 4K restoration
– Uncompressed mono PCM audio
– Interview with film critic Toshiaki Sato (2023)
– Appreciation by filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda (2023)
– Visual essay by critic Tom Mes on post-war architecture in Japanese cinema (2023)
– New and improved English subtitles
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork
– Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by Midori Suiren and contemporary archival writing
– Limited edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings
Film critic Toshiaki Sato’s piece runs for 17 minutes and provides an excellent introduction to director Yuzo Kawashima, highlighting how he made 51 films across four of the major Japanese studios (Shochiku, Nikkatsu, Toho and, the studio where he made Elegant Beast, Daiei). It highlights how as a student, Kawashima got the first symptoms of ALS, a disease he had all his life and which he never told anyone about during his career. The remarkable staircase scenes are talked about, as is the excellent script. An excellent overview. It is in Japanese and subtitled in English.
Blue Spring and Hanging Garden director Toshiaki Toyoda (whose films are well served on UK Blu-ray by Third Window Films) provides a love letter to the film and its director. The 14 minute piece starts with the director revealing how he came across the Kawashima’s films as a teenager, and how it was the story of the director’s life that first struck him more than his films. He talks about the themes of the film, how the way the single set was used and the choice of shots was an inspiration, and how the cinematography gives a feeling of peeping on the family. Another worthwhile extra. This is also in Japanese and subtitled in English.
The ever reliable and extremely knowledgeable Tom Mes provides a whistlestop look at post-war architecture in Japanese film. The 12 minute piece is a delight, focusing on the apartment block set, and the architecture it was inspired by, as well as how in a few brief moments we get a look at the wider setting, with some brilliant location footage. There’s also some great archival footage and photographs.
The two minute trailer features scenes from the film and showcases each of the main characters.
I wasn’t provided with the booklet to review, but Radiance booklets are usually first class, and I’m sure that will be the case with this release.
Radiance Films have had an excellent first year and their release of the outstanding Elegant Beast brings to a close that phenomenal first 12 months. It’s a brilliant release, packing a beautiful new 4K restoration, insightful and entertaining extras, all adding value to a masterpiece of a film that will reward repeat viewings.