I saw Elegant Beast (1962) at the cinema, except I didn’t. It was playing on the BFI Japan season a couple of years ago and I’d bought my ticket in advance. Unfortunately, as my friend sent me a message to say he’d meet me at the cinema in about 15-minutes I was confused, being at home. Ah yes, I’d somehow thought the film was the next day, and so though I was meant to see Elegant Beast I missed it, more likely Godzilla would parachute into my living room than I could get to the cinema in time for it in those scant minutes. Oh well, my chance to see Yuzo Kawashima’s film, scripted by Kaneto Shindo (Kuroneko, Onibaba), seemed to go right out of the window Godzilla never parachuted through.
At least until Radiance announced their December release.
The Maeda family is the height of virtue, the ex-naval officer cum-failed gambler father, Tokizo (Yunosuke Ito), who is happy to pimp out his daughter Tomoko (Yuko Hamada) to a writer of pornographic literature, Yoshizawa (Kyu Sazanka). Meanwhile Tokizo’s wife, Yoshino (Hisano Yamaoka), happily lives off the money given them by their embezzling son, Minoru (Manamitsu Kawabata).
The thieves, grifters, gamblers and shameless wastrels of the Maeda family though are no match for calm, conniving, single-parent and the elegant beast: Yukie (Ayako Wakao).
Ostensibly a satire, Elegant Beast is that rare creature, a film set almost uniquely in one location. In this instance it's the apartment paid for by Yoshizawa for his mistress, Tomoko, but whose family has all moved in, making the most of a free Tokyo home. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the Maeda family are willing to do almost anything to make their lot in life the easiest.
Right from the start we can tell they are manipulators, grifters and cheats. As the parents declutter the apartment, removing the TV and stereo to another space, changing their clothes to their absolute worst (no best for guests) as they await the arrival of the expected news that their son’s embezzlement has been discovered. You’d not trust them to look after... well, anything, not even your pet hedgehog, chances are they’d have cooked it.
Here is the film’s strength and also arguably it’s weakness. As most of the film follows these singularly self-centred family members and those that enter into their orbit, you’d be hard pressed to say you like the Maeda family. At first there’s something fascinating about their utter almost magnificently heedless self-indulgence. How they bicker about how to steal or borrow a several hundred-thousand yen from, well, anyone, because they have a right to it, is fascinating in its mirror-image to the virtue seen in most Japanese films and the characters they describe. These are not yakuza taking by force and seeing themselves as modern samurai, these are just downright openly dishonest, manipulative grifters. They are so open with each other it’s almost staggering, but this of course can only last so long and cleverly Shindo in his script provides us timely insight into why and how the family are what they are, it is only a slight moment but just enough to leaven their characters. Again, not that I think we are ever expected to like the Maeda family, instead they become a lens through which to explore aspects of morality and culture.
Then as others enter their orbit, we see the veneer of even those characters that at first seem honest chip and fall away, laying bare a society where most are taking advantage or being manipulated. And arch-manipulator is our elegant beast, Yukie. Fascinatingly, Wakao’s Yukie, top-billed, rarely ever enters the film but when she does it’s when the film utterly flies. Wakao’s assured and curiously sympathetic manipulator of men for cash shows up the other characters for what they are and effortlessly strips bare their inadequacies and their passions, to the point that it’s almost impossible not to wish her well. Her motivations seem the most honest, especially being a widowed single mother without apparent resources in the world. Yet, through delicate legal connivances she comes out on top. Certainly I for one wished her well, odd as she is arguably the worst of the lot, but her goals have just the right ring of genuine emotional feeling that she seems almost shiningly virtuous in a film full of losers and criminals.
Though a comedy, if anything Elegant Beast is also very much a family drama, and the Maeda family for all their unapologetically self-centred loathsomeness at times feel very much like a real family unit, even if dysfunctional. They look after each other on their own terms and you suspect will go through life as a unit, moving from town to town, grifting along for what they can get. The most delicate moment of emotion in the film is towards the end, with the entry of a tax inspector (Eiji Funakoshi) whose life has been crushed by these beasts, reminding us of the human damage caused by such shameless grifting. This never fully intrudes on the deliberately amoral narrative, but the film continues to provide insight into how the ties that bind society together impact others and potentially to tragic ends.
What cannot go without passing is the use of the apartment. Any film set almost uniquely in one location has to pass the Rear Window test. Does the film feel as effortless as Hitchcock’s one room wonder? Not quite, but close, mostly because of how director Kawashima constantly frames and reframes the family and those that visit them. Rarely does the camera move but it frequently shifts, often looking at characters through multiple doorways, windows or open spaces, cutting off spaces and limiting your visions. The director often uses tight angles that illustrate the apartment so that it becomes compartmentalised, characters seen viewing the others, almost cut off. How the apartment is visualised is often breathtaking in its continued transfigurations, in how figures, forms and walls and doors break it up so that what is a small space seems almost limitless in its configurations and disorientations. It’s perhaps the most striking aspect of the film.
The other highlight is of course the almost femme fatale character of Yukie, played with commanding verve by Ayako Wakao. How she quietly, calmly, takes apart the Maeda family and others, bringing about their comeuppance of sorts, is compelling. She also gets those moments of curious artifice (beyond the artifice of the apartment), where we see her literally rise, as others literally walk down, low.
Yes, Elegant Beast is at its very best when we’re under Yukie’s calm and calculated spell. Match that with the fascinating use of the limited space within the apartment and you get a film that feels very much one of a kind.
Oh and I do love Radiance's Blu-Ray cover.