Faced with a bout of ill health, global traveller, western-educated novelist Kafu Nagai (1879-1959) began to chronicle sundry episodes in his life, as well as thoughts and observations of contemporary Japanese society, in a series of intimate journals that would eventually span the early half of 20th century. Based on A Strange Tale from East of the River, Nagai’s semi-autobiographical novella, the events presented in The Strange Tale of Oyuki begins in 1920, as a middle-aged Nagai (Masahiko Tsugawa) having recently moved into a new residence in Ichibei in the Azabu district, attempts to impress his doting mother (Haruko Sugimura) – the only relative who accepts his excessive and disreputable lifestyle – by painting the house in time for her arrival. The anecdotal occasion proves to be an introductory glimpse into Nagai’s often contradictory and seemingly irreconcilable attitude towards women. Flaunting his constant parade of ‘pet’ geishas and stories of sexual conquests to his mother even as he seeks her approval by rationalizing his self-indulgence as a consequence of his artistic temperament, Nagai’s isolation – fueled in part by two failed brief marriages and estrangement from his brother – seems as equally borne of insecurity as it is self-imposed. From a pre-arranged rendezvous with a geisha named Yaeji at a resort in Hakone that led to his unintentional absence during his father’s death, to an uncomfortably young, obliging geisha named Outa whom he sends away with a requisite severance pay, to an ingratiating barmaid named Ohisa who once rescued him from a taunting, drunken patron, the privileged Nagai inevitably embarks on several meaningless affairs with disenfranchised, and often kept, women. It is an emotional aimlessness that continues until one day when he encounters a young woman named Oyuki (Yuki Sumida) in the red light district of Tamanoi (coincidentally, while trying to find another prostitute with whom he had become briefly obsessed) during a rainstorm, and gradually becomes involved in the encumbered lives of the indentured prostitute and her protective madam (Nobuko Otowa) during the uncertain years of the Pacific War.
It is interesting to note that Nagai’s complex and ambivalent relationship with commodified and marginalized women is a curiosity and preoccupation similarly shared by Kaneto Shindo’s mentor (and Nagai’s artistic contemporary) filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi who, perhaps uncoincidentally, became the biographical subject of Shindo’s earlier documentary, Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director. Indeed, both artists exhibited a penchant for depicting aspects of the vanishing customs and cultural life of prewar Japan: Nagai, through his erotic portraits of tainted, exploited women and Mizoguchi, through his idealized, eternally sacrificing (and often ‘fallen’) jidai-geki heroines. However, while the period setting of Mizoguchi’s cinema served as a basis for a critical re-evaluation of the history of gender and social inequity in Japanese culture, Nagai’s perspective of pre-modernized Japan is more nostalgic – a reflection of the author’s brooding sentiment of the nation’s cultural erosion in the wake of modernization. Ironically, it is Nagai’s melancholy for the transitory and disposable – not unlike his unreconciled personal relationships with women – that inspire the richly textured portraits of his sensual and profoundly elegiac literature.
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