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Utamaro Kitagawa was one of the most famous traditional Japanese artists in the ukiyo-e field, producing numerous beautiful woodblock prints of flora and fauna, erotica, portraits and natural wonders. This movie directed by Akio Jissoji is kinda structured like a biopic set during the age when Utamaro was forced to make erotic prints, but doesn't really go for historical accuracy. A lot of the movie consists of fabrications. For example, the reason why Utamaro was imprisoned in actuality had nothing to do with his shunga (erotic art) prints. The movie also shows him meeting another great artist, Hokusai (kinda like Ed Wood meeting Orson Welles in Burton's movie), which is also false. There are other biopics about him, like Kenji Mizoguchi's Utamaro and His Five Women, which I haven't seen, but maybe that one is more accurate. Anyway, the odd choices made in Jissoji's film just leave me baffled. Is there some kind of an artistic choice behind twisting history?
The original title, as well as several bits of dialogue and mise-en- scene, deal with dreams, as the film likes to throw around obscure comments about the brevity of human life and how it can be associated with a dream. Knowing Jissoji, there has to be an element of Buddhism thrown in for good measure, and what you ultimately get is an almost incomprehensible message. The plot is very convoluted, with lots of characters and names, Utamaro is far from the center of the plot, various dreamlike scenes come and go. I confess I gathered almost nothing from this movie, but it isn't frustratingly incoherent, but rather an interesting puzzle of complex storytelling and cultural references.
One thing that many people think hurts the movie is the abundance of perverted S&M sex scenes and a seemingly needless chanbara-subplot about a thief who acts as the town's very own Robin Hood. It's obvious that the studio demanded these additions so that this quirky art film would sell better, but this is actually where the movie's genius lies, in paralleling Akio Jissoji's artistic life with Utamaro's. Both were very skilled, talented and imaginative artists, who had to resort to making pornography. Perhaps Utamaro's issues with his publisher echo the relations of Jissoji and his producers.
I simply have to mention the cinematography. My God, is it good. It's one of the most well-shot films I've ever seen. I like the way Jissoji mixes elements of traditional Japanese zen painting and traditional framing with flashy colors, all kinds of camera movements, inserts of Utamaro's own art, and bright color filters. I love how the actors are sometimes positioned on a tiny colored speck in midst of a huge chunk of negative space, or how the camera interacts with the interiors of the houses. The shadow play, the lighting, actor movements, precision, angles and colors - it's all just so brilliant. Some of Jissoji's own signature moves also come into play, like the slowly panning camera (from This Transient Life) or the sex scenes where the screen goes dark and occasional short frames of the act randomly appear and disappear (from Poem). I also love the music. The main theme sounds like it belongs to the soundtrack from the SNES game Chrono Trigger. I got chills when it played during the final scene.
I thought this movie was wonderful, even though I understood almost nothing. It's probably the most entertainment I've had from being completely left in the dark. All in all, Jissoji is criminally underrated and I look forward to seeing his other works.
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