In his 1958 film, Giants and Toys, Yasuzô Masumura emerged with a quickly-paced and sardonic indictment of modern Japanese culture. It was and remains the type of fiery and energetic film that, coupled with the youth of its director, suggests a career of highly critical work. While the film was championed by New Wave figurehead Nagisa Oshima, Masumura did not follow that path. Instead, he stayed with his studio, Daiei, and produced melodramas throughout the 1960s. A Wife Confesses, centered around a love triangle and a murder trial, is one of these films. The elements of his earlier film spill onto the frame from time to time, but otherwise, he has made a handsome and prestigious middlebrow art film. If this reads as reductive, it is, to a certain extent.
Ayako Takigawa enters the court room to much fanfare. Cameras shutter as she ducks through a crowd outside to get to the trial awaiting her. She’s suspected of murdering her husband, Ryokichi, who fell to his death while mountain climbing. Ayako cut Ryokichi’s rope, but the question remains whether or not this was an act of self-preservation on her part. Through flashbacks, we learn that their marriage was never particularly healthy, and that Ryokichi frequently acted abusive. Kouda is also in the picture and while he maintains a naive innocence, Ayako openly seeks his attention. However, he is already engaged to be married and his wife is a bit more wise to Ayako’s tricks.
Masumura opens his film with a stampede of journalists and photographers straining to get Ayako’s attention. The spectacle of modern culture so cynically addressed in Giants and Toys appears to be present yet again. In that film, the camera was the apparatus that constructed Kyoko as an idol. As explained in the dialogue itself, Kyoko’s “everyday” appearance (evident in striking gap between her two front teeth) was the very thing that made her an icon. Ayako becomes an icon in a similar way, her juicy story is made all the more exciting by her typical standing in the world. She jokingly remarks at one point, “My picture is everywhere, I’m a star.” It’s hard to argue otherwise when the media greets her trial with such fervor. One journalist adds, “Adultery is all the rage these days.” For twenty minutes, Masumura’s winking cynicism seems to be in place. Unfortunately, once the trial gets going, it seems to disappear.
A Wife Confesses isn’t a comedy so perhaps it is unfair to expect more humor poking the spectacle machine of media. However, Masumura seems to lose some sort of edge when the action becomes achingly serious. His “elliptical” editing is rather conventional, well-guided flashbacks triggered by testimonies made in court. In earlier films, he managed to successfully hide the stuffiness of studio sets with his crafty editing and camera work. He seems to soak it in here, which is likely the point for a court room drama. Once again, we’re hinted at something promising early on as the film jumps in-between the cumbersome court room to the vast mountains. Like Masumura’s humor, this interesting conversation on spaces also seems to fade away. It is not that Masumura or his cinematographer, Setsuo Kobayashi, fail to do interesting things with the camera. Rather, it is that they fail to convey anything meaningful about the spaces around them. The arty visual grammar of say, Antonioni and Yoshida, can be seen here but it feels like a pale imitation. Both filmmakers saw the space they filmed as crucial to the story, and not something separate from the actors. Masumura gestures towards the “nicest” compositions and, perhaps, captures them, but everybody and everything is lost. The space is an ornament to the actors, and the actors are ornaments to the space.
This might be expecting too much from a filmmaker, but it was Masumura himself, who equated Akira Kurosawa’s work to “modern architecture.” He seems to “get” it to a certain extent, yet this doesn’t translate in A Wife Confesses. He wrote that piece before Kurosawa filmed High & Low, which this film resembles somewhat. In Kurosawa’s film, the design of a room is constantly in conversation with the actors, the smallest movement of the camera provides an entirely new idea. Meanwhile, Masumura’s performers, even the wonderful Ayako Wakao, overshadow the spaces they inhabit. Nothing feels distinct, a bedroom becomes a court room with different lighting. Maybe this is the point, and maybe I’m being too hard on the film, but it focuses on a simplistic “moral quandary” seems to reflect a similar limitation in the visual style. The film is a noble failure on a design level, even as it is very fascinating.