Director: Kiju Yoshida
Writers: Toshirô Ishidô, Rumiko Kora, Kiju Yoshida  (screenplay), Yôjirô Ishizaka (novel)
Starring: ‎Mariko Okada, Yasunori Irikawa, Ruriko Asaoka 
Year: 1965
Duration: 120 mins
BBFC Certification: 15

If someone was asked to compile a list of the greatest Japanese film directors, some names are guaranteed to be mentioned…Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kitano, perhaps even more left field choices like Imamura or Naruse. The one name you might not see on the list, however, is Kiju Yoshida, the bold, challenging filmmaker who emerged out of the Japanese New Wave in the 1960s. This anomaly wouldn’t be a reflection on the quality of Yoshida’s work but more likely due to the fact that his filmography has traditionally been rather hard to see in the West. If we take the UK as an example, only three of his films (as far as I am aware ) are currently available, namely in Arrow’s Love + Anarchism boxset. This collection, initially released all the way back in 2015, gathered together three of the director’s most challenging films, including Eros + Massacre, which is widely seen as Yoshida’s masterpiece.

This month, however, Radiance are releasing A Story Written with Water, a key film from earlier on in Yoshida’s career. Some may approach this release with a keen sense of interest, others, perhaps, with a sense of trepidation. Let’s be honest – Yoshida’s films (particularly his work in the 1970s) are challenging to say the least. Does A Story Written with Water follow the template of the director’s bold and uncompromising experimental work or does it actually offer something more conventional and, dare I say it, accessible?

Released in 1965, A Story Written with Water marks the moment when Yoshida broke away from Japan’s studio system in order to make his first independent film; and judging by the plot, it isn’t hard to see why Yoshida had to go the independent route. A Story Written with Water focuses on Shizuo (Yasunori Irikawa) who is engaged to be married to the beautiful and charming Yumiko (Ruriko Asaoka). Yet his future happiness is tainted by long standing, incestuous feelings for his mother (Mariko Okada), who, in turn, has just reignited an old affair with his fiancee’s father…

Yoshida’s films are often marked by a stark opaqueness and emotional coldness. This is partly due to the director’s anti-auteurist approach to cinema – he wanted audiences to be less passive spectators, more active participants in discovering a film’s meaning. This method undeniably produced some bold and unforgettable work, yet there is no doubt that Yoshida’s cinema can be draining and uncompromising, almost to the point, at times, of obtuseness. Yet A Story Written with Water, while exhibiting some the director’s visual and narrative trademarks, emerges as a far more accessible and open work. While Yoshida described the film as an ‘anti-melodrama’, there is no doubt that A Story Written with Water is a more conventional, character driven film than some of his later offerings.

In fact, the film emerges as a far more subtle drama than its bold, taboo breaking themes might initially suggest. Yoshida takes a slow and steady approach to his story and characters, allowing the drama to gradually unfold over the two hour running time. Yet crucially, the film never feels slow, as it gracefully peels back layers of mystery to reveal the heart of darkness lurking within. This elegance (exemplified by the film’s skilful, clever transitions into the past) can also be found in Yoshida’s approach to the provocative subject matter, frequently suggesting and hinting rather than showing, which adds to the air of enigmatic transgression that steadily builds like a pressure cooker. With its air of malaise, alienation and dark displeasure at the supposed comforts of normal life, at points A Story Written with Water even feels like an insidious companion to Antonioni’s masterworks of existential despair.

One of the hallmarks of Yoshida’s films are their absolutely striking visuals, which sees him combining elegant camera moves with stunningly composed, unconventional framing. A Story Written with Water sees the director working in a slightly looser and less rigid visual style, but it is nevertheless still a tour de force. Elegant, stylish and often breathtakingly cinematic, the film offers further proof that Yoshida, no matter how knotty his plots and themes may often be, always manages to gift his audience with stark, undeniable visual beauty.

A Story Written with Water isn’t necessarily an easy watch – its very subject matter prevents that. Yet this studied, meditative look at forbidden desire also proves to be far more accessible than Yoshida’s later films might suggest. If you are already a fan, then you’ll fall in love with this new release. If, however, you might have been put off by the experimental leanings of Eros + Massacre or Heroic Purgatory, then I would still urge you to watch A Story Written with Water. This dark tale, one that gradually morphs into quiet horror, offers a unique viewing experience that captures all of Yoshida’s brilliance but with less of the qualities that make some of his work so challenging.

And if you are new to this most enigmatic and individual of Japanese directors? Then A Story Written with Water marks the perfect starting off point from which to explore his films. Exhibiting all the qualities that mark Yoshida out as a unique voice in cinema, combined with bold and brave storytelling, it remains one of the director’s more accessible and affecting films. There is no doubt that it is also certainly one of his best.

Film:

A Story Written with Water is being released on Blu Ray by Radiance Films on the 26th March. The film is being released in a single limited edition run (meaning there will be no standard edition to follow) so perhaps don’t wait too long if you want to pick it up. The picture quality on disc is mostly fantastic throughout. Close ups exhibit often startling amounts of fine detail and while there are a few, isolated instances of print damage in the original source, overall the disc offers a robust technical presentation. Sound is clear and legible and there were no encoding errors that I could see.

Radiance include several extra features. The first is a very brief introduction to the film provided by Yoshida himself. While this archival interview is only 3 minutes long, it is still very interesting to hear Yoshida talk about the film.

Next up is a new interview with the film’s star Mariko Okada. Over eight minutes, the actress (who is also Yoshida’s partner) discusses her role in the film, Yoshida’s style of directing, as well as some more personal thoughts and background on her life with the director.

The most substantial extra on the disc is a wonderfully informative 22 minute interview with scholar Jennifer Coates. She offers great insight into Yoshida’s theory behind filmmaking, context and background on A Story Written with Water, as well as providing her own interpretation of the film. Overall, this is  fantastic watch that will be of great interest to both newcomers to Yoshida as well as old fans.

The disc is rounded out with an original Japanese trailer.

The release will also come with a limited edition booklet, which I didn’t get to see for this review.

Disc/Extras:

A Story Written with Water
Film
Disc/Extras
4.5Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

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