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Review: Elegant Beast

Caught a screening of Elegant Beast at Japan Society. They’re showing it as part of a retrospective celebrating the collaborations between filmmaker Yuzo Kawashima and actress Ayako Wakao, but the real draw for me was screenwriter Kaneto Shindo, who directed such J-Horror classics as Onibaba and Kuroneko, in addition to penning Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, a minimalistic and introspective episode in the blind swordsman’s journey that gets better every time I watch it. This might just be the sharpest work of his I’ve encountered yet: a biting and hilarious satire that manages to thoroughly dissect the moral decay of postwar Japan without ever leaving the confines of a one-bedroom apartment.

From the opening sequence, I knew I was in for a truly special cinematic experience: the camera hovers outside the window, creating a flat, almost theatrical mise-en-scene through which our protagonists, a middle-aged married couple, hastily scramble to conceal their valuables before the debt collectors arrive, literally setting the stage for the meditation on greed and blind ambition that follows. As various colorful characters—including their son (an embezzler), their daughter (a gold digger), an ice-cold femme fatale, a crooked talent agent, and an arrogant jazz singer—come crashing through their door like miniature typhoons, Kawashima shoots every available inch of space, his dynamic framing and restrained editing perfectly complementing the rapid-fire dialogue and farcical conflict.

Indeed, as much as I savored Shindo’s script, it was Kawashima’s bold stylistic choices that kept me engaged until the end—ninety-six minutes have never felt so short! I’ll definitely be returning to Japan Society tomorrow to sample another of his offerings.

[Originally written December 2, 2017.]

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