Chijin no Ai (知人の愛) is based on the 1924 novel of the same name by renowned author Junichiro Tanizaki. It is one of several adaptions of Tanizaki stories dealing with unorthodox relationships and sexual obsession that were directed by Yasuzo Masumura in the 1960s and 1970s. Two other notable examples are Manji (卍, 1964) and Irezumi (刺青, 1966).
The film’s story takes place in a contemporary setting, like Masumura’s adaption of Manji. This is clear from the very first frames, which show a power station that is definitely postwar and not from the 1920s. The course of the story in its new time frame spans from 1966 to 1967- with fashions and cars to match. The crisp, warm colour of the print brings out the bold colours of Naomi’s psychedelic wardrobe.
It starts by introducing Joji Kawai (Shoichi Ozawa)- a quiet, serious and bespectacled middle-aged electrical engineer. His boss berates him for never joining the employees’ social activities, nor showing interest in getting married. After some prodding he admits that he did get a pet cat.
When he gets home that evening, he starts looking for his pet. The cat turns out to be a girl called Naomi.
Joji explains that Naomi was a rather pouty 18 year old waitress when he met her (in the book, she is only 15). He is attracted by her beauty, which is wasted on the coffee shop. (Her resemblance to Mary Pickford doesn’t make it into the screen adaption, as the time period has changed.) Naomi’s family own a bar in a rundown area of Tokyo. They allow Joji to take her to live with him in the countryside, on the promise that he will marry her.
He starts to make her into his ideal, sophisticated woman. He insists that she learn the piano and English. Naomi is less enthusiastic, promising to follow her studies more once she is married to him. She rejects his attempts to mould her, and gradually becomes aware of the power she has over him. As in the novel, she never cleans or cooks, leaving the house in a state. Furthermore, she insists he order meals from expensive restaurants. Through carefully manipulated tantrums she manages to get him to buy her anything she wants. This leads him to ask his mother for money to buy an expensive pearl necklace. His mother sees right through the deception but gives him the money anyway.
Although he takes nude photos of Naomi and washes her, he does not sleep with her for the year that she has been living with him. Naomi’s mother and father are very surprised by this. Similar to the book, they show little concern for Naomi’s welfare. They are just happy to have their most difficult child taken off their hands.
One aspect of the novel which the film neglects is Joji’s side-obsession with caucasian beauty. His dance with Naomi’s Russian dance teacher in the book is one of the key scenes. This has been changed. In the film, Naomi insists on learning Italian instead of English. She picks up dance by grooving with her two male classmates after the lesson. The Ball in the novel has thus been cleverly replaced by a party at the Italian teacher’s house- featuring Naomi’s rather embarrassing attempts to get Joji to do some trendy dancing.
The introduction of these two handsome classmates- affectionately called Hama-chan and Ma-kun by Naomi- are an extra threat to Joji’s undefined relationship with her.
Despite Naomi’s repeated attempts to seduce Joji as part of her manipulations- he stands by his decision not to sleep with her until they are married. This prospect becomes less and less likely as the film progresses. Joji becomes tired of Naomi’s tantrums but his masochistic tendencies and obsession with her make it impossible for him to let go. The once-diligent Joji starts to make many mistakes. Consequently, this affects his work and his relationship with his mother.
Tanizaki’s novel is all written from Joji’s point of view. This has lead some critics to question whether it has an unreliable narrator, as in Nabokov’s Lolita, which it is often compared to. The film gives a slightly more balanced approach. It is easier to see the perspectives of Naomi and the other characters as well. Nobody in the film is likeable, which might make it difficult for some viewers to enjoy. It is somewhat darker than the book’s lyrical and at times almost comical tone. Joji’s eventual breakdown is disturbing and hard to watch.
In conclusion, Masumura’s adaption stays true to the spirit of the novel- keeping most of the key scenes and dialogue from the book. Like the adaption of Manji, it is one that the author himself might have been satisfied with, had he lived to see it.
Unlike Manji and Irezumi, Chijin no Ai has yet to be released outside Japan. It is available on Region 2 DVD, in Japanese without subtitles. English translations of Tanizaki’s novel are widely available, under its English title Naomi.