Review: Chikamatsu’s ‘Love in Osaka’ (1959)

Directed by:
Cast: , ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Tomu Uchida’s Chikamatsu’s ‘Love in Osaka’. Strange way to name a movie, right? Well, it is named that way for a much better reason than Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, I promise.

What we have here is essentially a standard romantic melodrama (see synopsis), but with a delightfully twisted streak of narrative artifice. To put it simply, the movie is dominated by a supporting character, Chikamatsu, named after the writer of the play upon which the movie is based. At first it seems as though this character is simply writing a play based on his observation of the experiences of the young couple. But as the movie goes on, it becomes more and more as though Chikamatsu is pulling the strings of the story from within it, and actively controlling the destiny of the two lovers.

It is perhaps worth noting at this point that this movie was made when Charlie Kaufman, declared ground-breaking and audacious for injecting himself into his screenplay in 2002’s Adaptation, was barely a year old.

But there is more to the movie than just this juicy meta-textual trickery. It is an utterly stunning early widescreen colour film, often indulging in playfully outrageous camera movement and even more outrageous changes in tone: for the first half or so, it’s very slow, restrained and, as they say, “Japanese”… but wait until that evil Count shows up offering to buy Umegawa’s hand in marriage! ‘Love in Osaka’ quickly turns into an entirely different movie, with over-the-top music, big close-ups and some of the most scenery-chewing acting you’ll ever see.

By the time the romance has been inevitably obliterated, Uchida has broken down the wall between performance and creation even further: the final stages of the story, detailing the fates of the two lovers, are performed before an audience through bunraku puppetry. This is realised in a staggering long take in which the camera pulls back from the face of Chikamatsu, over the audience, and finally settles static upon the puppet play. To top it all off in a most appropriate manner (and I must credit my Team Heroic colleague James for pointing this out) the stage performers turn their back on the theatre audience and direct their puppets toward the camera.

Chikamatsu’s ‘Love in Osaka’ would be well worth seeing just for its gorgeous colours, lush set design and costumes, and host of perfect supporting performances surrounding the deliberately cheesy leads. But it is in the movie’s playful illustration of the interplay between artistic media (in this case, theatre and film) that its real pleasures lie. In this respect, it matches the very best of Peter Greenaway’s work, while also being a fair bit more accessible. Accessible, that is, if somebody out there has the good taste to release it on DVD some day.

8.5 out of 10.
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