As with many films derived from serious Japanese literary works, there often seems to be a depth of meaning that lingers just out of reach for the Western audience member. Sometimes it’s the language barrier in action; certain nuanced concepts in Japanese just cannot be expressed as neatly in English. Sometimes it’s the cultural differences; the historical and social influences that have shaped both the Japanese spirit as well as the Japanese narrative can occasionally seem, well, utterly foreign. Sometimes, however, it’s just the universally difficult task of adapting a major novel to the screen without losing the most important parts, and so it is with Yukisada Isao’s cinematic adaptation of Mishima Yukio’s first novel in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, Spring Snow.
Set at the turn of the century, during the Meiji period in Japan, Spring Snow describes a tragic love affair. In fact, watching it reminded me not a little Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, written over a century before; not for the structure – Spring Snow is decidedly linear – but for the sense of noble self-destruction inherent in the characters’ actions. Kiyoaki Matsugae (Tsumabuki Satoshi – Waterboys, Dragon Head) is the young son of a Marquis and the childhood friend of Satoko Ayakura (Takeuchi Yuko – Ring), daughter of an older aristocratic family. Rich and idle, Kiyoaki has nothing better to do with his time than hang out with his friend Honda (Takaoka Sousuke – Battle Royale, Red Shadow), and cruelly snub the somewhat bold advances of Satoko whenever they meet. However when Satoko eventually receives a marriage proposal – from the son of the Emperor no less, played without a word but with much presence by Oikawa Mitsuhiro (Izo, Casshern) – suddenly Kiyoaki decides that he does in fact return Satoko’s feelings. And so begins a dangerous affair where the happy lovers are merely marking time before their world is rudely torn apart.
Now call me heartless, but as easily as I could see the conclusion to all this long before it actually happened, I kind of didn’t care. The reason for Kiyoaki’s initial resistance to Satoko’s declarations, beyond some perverse fascination with breaking all the nice toys he’s given, wasn’t really all that transparent. I hesitate to blame Tsumabuki’s acting, because I’ve seen him in plenty of other films, both drama and comedy, and he did alright in those. Instead I choose to believe it was a fatal flaw of the screenplay. Sure, Kiyoaki’s friend Honda keeps insisting Kiyoaki is really in love with Satoko, as do other characters throughout the first half of the film, but the reasons why he’s pretending not to be were apparently things I was expected to intuit for myself.
Which is probably a shame because by all reports the novel series this film is drawn from has the sort of self questioning, culturally reflective depth to rival some of the world’s greatest modern literature. Unfortunately, it’s a depth that seems to really only be hinted at. The East-West identity crisis the Japanese must have gone through in the early part of last century was certainly obvious, and this was clearly meant to be part of the tension between Kiyoaki and Satoko, but Romeo and Juliet they were not. The film was lavish as period films a wont to be – a polite riot of stunning kimonos and elegant European la Belle Époque gowns; gorgeous Japanese scenery underpinned by a breathtaking classical score by Tarou Iwashiro – but the heart of the film, Kiyoaki and his feelings for Satoko, just did not display with the same kind of clarity.
Likely, had the author been alive to supervise the screen-writing, it might have been a drastically different film. Possibly, the Japanese audience’s familiarity with their own literary history provided the insights into the characters that my own cultural heritage could not. Maybe I should have merely appreciated the tragedy of the lover’s ruin for the consumptive spectacle it was; it’s not like I haven’t loved other doomed romances in the past – Kathy and Heathcliffe, Chocho-san and B.F. Pinkerton, Violetta and Alfredo, Gennosuke and Oboro – but for me Kiyoaki and Satoko’s possible fated reincarnation in the next life couldn’t come soon enough.