As the most celebrated Japanese novelist of the 20th century, it isn’t surprising that Yasunari Kawabata’s work served as fodder for cinematic adaptations. Even less surprising, is that critics and academics alike are protective of his work. Woman of the Lake, Yoshishige Yoshida’s 1966 adaptation of Kawabata’s The Lake is a good case study. An adaptation of a particularly impressionistic text by a writer who was already known for being loose and impenetrable does not sound promising. Yoshida’s film unravels like a sensualist melodrama, finely photographed but criticized by many, such as David Desser, for being too deeply plotted. The narrative, translated into something less daring than Kawabata’s text, seems (somewhat ironically) verbose in its cinematic form. Yet, Yoshida’s film offers something a faithful adaptation wouldn’t: a gorgeously meta exploration of photography’s rise as the dominant language. If Confessions Among Actresses, a film about acting questions the boundaries of performance in the real and fictional, Woman of the Lake takes that same inquisitive nature and confronts every image within it.
Miyako, comfortably married to Yuzo, is reaching the end of a passionate affair with Kitano. Kitano, fearing the dissolution of their passion asks to photograph Miyako as a sort of souvenir for their time together. The photographs are stolen by Ginpei, a school teacher who, it is revealed, has been watching the affair unfold for several months. Facing what she assumes is blackmail, Miyako meets Ginpei in a distant seaside town. Kitano joins her, uninvited, with the hopes of confronting Ginpei. Kitano’s fiancée, who is very much conscious of her beau’s affair, follows the two yet remains confident about their impending marriage. When confronted, Ginpei doesn’t react strongly to the promise of money or any other compensation in exchange for the pictures. Miyako’s fascination for him grows, just as Kitano’s ugly impulses bubble over into jealous outbursts.
Woman of the Lake, like much of Yoshida’s work, is a profoundly sensual film. The racy nature of the narrative is one thing, but the camera here elevates it into an erotic ether. Bodies here are always shadowed, be it literally in the intimacy of a darkened room or more figuratively in their placement against the landscape. The sandy beaches take on the enormity of icons: a hill leading to the titular lake looks like as daunting as the islands in L’Avventura. This is nothing new for Yoshida, his photographing of his wife Mariko Okada, while graceful, is one of the pleasures flowing throughout his work. On a technical level, Woman of a Lake is another marvel in a career with plenty. What separates it from a film like The Affair, is that the nature of this eroticism is acknowledged and brought into question. While not his most confident and visually striking film, Woman of the Lake finds Yoshida wrestling with the function of his own art. He seems as suspicious and flustered as the narrative’s subjects.
In his landmark study, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilem Flusser maps out the three kinds of information that the photograph can carry: indicative, imperative, optative. These three kinds of information lead into three channels (or genres) where their meaning and purpose is further verified. The photograph of a frog (indicative information) has its meaning affirmed by the fact that it was shot for a science journal. Of course, sometimes photographs can travel in-between these channels, arriving at a new meaning and “a new significance” at each channel. The photographs of Miyako that Ginpei steals seem to be more his blackmail. When he arrives at a photography studio, he is greeted by a sleazy and crass developer who is interested in the erotic potential of the images. In the hands of this photo developer, they become something else. Tellingly, Ginpei is cold and distant when he enters the studio, while the developer is cheerful and teasing. He invites Ginpei to the back room for a more deliberately erotic photographing session, Ginpei obliges but his face registers as disinterested.
Later in the film, Ginpei and Miyako finally begin to have a more relaxed conversation. They stumble on to a film production site at the beach. All the sequences being shot are sexual, some are also violent and would not be out of place in a film by Yoshida or one of his peers just five years earlier. It’s not a direct parody, as I think that would actually distant Yoshida from the longer reach he’s going for: returning to Flusser, the new significance images take on in the way they’re assembled and how we engage with them. Distanced from the pseudo-new wave film being shot within the film, we are able to observe the cracks in the simulation, the ugly misogynistic residue that would surface in the frame but be spilling over that frame’s historical conditions. Such images may have informed Ginpei and Kitano (or any other man) exposing both their estrangement from their sexuality or their insatiability, respectively.
Late in the film, Ginpei confesses to Miyako that rather than being in love with her, he might be in love with the woman in the image. A woman, he suggests, who doesn’t actually exist. Ginpei’s notions of eroticism seems to have been transmitted entirely through the image which, considering the processes present in the camera, is not a reflection of reality. I realize this sounds suspiciously like a conservative pontification against pornography, a trite suggestion that mainstream erotics present a false image. I’m less interested in that than in what the camera itself and all of its processes, reframe as the experience. Lost in his fetishizing of images, Ginpei lost his own body and when he finally has a physical experience with Miyako, it is ironically lost in the shadows of the camera and the sands of the beach. Returning to Flusser, it is important to note that he is not a conservative wary of all technological process. Instead, he is worried about the inattentive eye, the one that photographs just for the sake of reproducing the same image. By investigating his role in the erotic image, Yoshida is not a victim of this. His images are ones he studies and labors over, in a struggle to wrestle control away from the processed mechanics inside the camera. He, like Flusser, is worried about those who aren’t concerned, they might become like Ginpei: estranged from reality because they’ve interpreted the image as being the reality. In other words, being in love with a woman who doesn’t exist.