(director: Yasuzo Masumura; screenwriter: Kaneto Shindô/from the novel by Junichirô Tanizaki; cinematographer: Setsuo Kobayashi; editor: Tatsuji Nakashizu; music: Tadashi Yamauchi; cast: Ayako Wakao (Mitsuko Tokumitsu), Kyôko Kishida (Sonoko Kakiuchi), Yusuke Kawazu (Eijiro Watanuki), Eiji Funakoshi (Kotaro Kakiuchi), Ken Mitsuda (Novelist), Kyu Sazanka (Principal); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Yonejiro Saito; Fantoma; 1964-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“It resembles a sexploitation film but with subliminal religious undertones.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This erotic melodrama (no full nudity) is based on a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki and faithfully follows the novel; acclaimed Japanese New Wave director Yasuzo Masumura (“Vixen”/”Play It Cool”) keeps the love triangle heated up as is fitting for a cultist flick. It resembles a sexploitation film but with subliminal religious undertones; in that manner it’s kept on arthouse film turf by its talented cast, its arty nature and its probing quest to unearth the obsessive types who become devoured by their uncontrolled passions and desires. Masumura becomes preoccupied with the extremes in human behavior that were as a rule repressed within the Japanese social order, and turns up a plot bloated with deceitful and lustful characters, blackmail, suicide pacts, drugs, adultery and other absurdities.

The title Manji is a Chinese character that can be written like a reversed swastika. The swastika we’re talking about is not the Nazi one but the Indian Buddhist one, a design that sometimes appears on the Buddha’s chest and signifies the spiritualism emanating from the heart. In an underhanded way the film is about the Goddess of Mercy (someone desired but who can’t be possessed), as recognized in one of the lead characters (Ayako Wakao). The four end-points of the swastika can symbolically represent each of the four entangled protagonists and the arms represent what keeps them entangled in their binding relationship.

It’s set in contemporary Osaka, Japan, where the tale is narrated in flashback to a silent police inspector by a bored wealthy housewife Sonoko Kakiuchi (Kyôko Kishida), whose inherited wealth from her textile owner father enables her lawyer hubby Kotaro Kakiuchi (Eiji Funakoshi) to open his own law firm. Sonoko attends an adult art school and falls in love with the attractive but manipulative younger fellow student Mitsuko Tokumitsu (Ayako Wakao). The two ladies carry on a passionate affair, much to the dismay of the stuffy Kotaro. Soon Mitsuko provokes Sonoko by saying she’s pregnant by her shifty fiancé Eijiro Watanuki (Yusuke Kawazu), but it’s soon learned the pregnancy is faked and that Eijiro is impotent. Temptress Mitsuko soon sleeps with Kotaro, and the four become involved in a heavy scene that involves betrayals and even self-betrayals. There’s a growing abandonment of common sense among the lovers and the instinct for self-preservation grows flaccid, as the foursome becomes consumed by their desires leading to a grim conclusion. The whole point of the exercise is to show how powerful these desires are and that the characters have become enslaved by their unchecked appetites. If you can somehow get by how ridiculous it all seems on the surface, there’s a thought-provoking secret world behind its first layer that transfixes the obsessions of the four characters in a way it has seldom been done before on film.

Manji (1964)