A sports company trains a model to become a pro-golfer with unpredicted results. Japanese auteur Seijun Suzuki’s unnerving thriller on the dark side of manufactured fame.
In the last decades of his life, director Seijun Suzuki received recognition outside Japan- firstly for his highly stylized action movies, such as Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967). These were among the last programme pictures he would make for Nikkatsu, before they fired him after Branded. Suzuki’s films had become too surreal and incomprehensible for the studio. Suzuki challenged his dismissal by suing Nikkatsu. However, his firing would mean that he made less than a handful of TV movies in the following decade. His only cinematic feature from this period is A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness, produced by Shochiku.
Perhaps as a consequence of this being Suzuki’s return to feature filmmaking, Sorrow is comparatively easy to follow and understand. Suzuki’s trademark use of colour and artistic shots serve the script, rather than the other way around. This results in an intense, unnerving depiction of crazed stalkers, grueling schedules, manipulative management and rampant media.
The creation of ‘idols’- usually solo singers or groups produced and managed by talent agencies- became more prevalent in the 70s Japan due to the increased popularity of television. The appearance and image of each idol was carefully managed. They would appear in many TV programmes (including music shows, dramas and talk shows) and commercials. In recent decades, there has been much criticism of talent agencies regarding overwork, control of idols’ private lives (especially ‘no dating’ rules for female idols) and the impact on idols’ mental health (for example, the scandals related to girl group AKB48).
An Idol is Born
A Tale of Sorrow begins with the management of the (fictional) Nichiei Rayon company deciding to hire model Reiko Sakuraba (newcomer Yoko Shiraki). They train her to become a professional golfer and closely control their new image model’s career. The first half of the film shows Reiko’s grueling training schedule contrasted with the glamorous manufactured advertisement presented to the public- Reiko on the golf course dressed in a bikini. We then see shots of Reiko sitting hunched over on a bed naked and crying. She is also involved in an increasingly manipulative relationship with her manager, Miyake (competently played by Yoshio Harada, who would become a Suzuki regular).
There is a brief, bright moment where Reiko wins a golfing tournament, catapulting her to fame. This sees her and her brother move from a cluttered Japanese style room into a trendy, modern house equipped with the latest technology of the time.
A surreal descent into the dark side of fame
Seijun Suzuki ’s ability to make the ordinary look bizarre through the use of ‘odd’ camera angles and the positioning of actors and objects in a shot is essential to the creation of the unsettling atmosphere which permeates the second half of the film.
The trigger for this shift in tone occurs when Miyake is driving a tired Reiko home in her car and they hit someone. Miyake forces the distraught Reiko to flee the scene. The victim of the accident turns out to be Mrs Semba (Kyoko Enami)- an obsessive fan and neighbour. This is where Sorrow takes on a tense atmosphere familiar to viewers of Hitchcock’s or Lynch’s thrillers. It turns the sunny suburbs and stylish house into a claustrophobic nightmare.
Kyoko Enami steals the film with her performance. She is terrifying as the increasingly obsessed stalker who blackmails her way into Reiko’s life. Her presence is so strong that she becomes a symbol of the dark side of fame. She plagues Reiko like a malignant ghost representing a media and public hungry for gossip and scandal. Late in the film, Semba leads the housewives and children of the neighbourhood in an invasion of Reiko’s home. The mob grabs at everything belonging to the idol and the scene ends with Reiko curled up naked in a ball after they have stripped off her clothes. This is one of the film’s more surreal scenes. It is a clear visual metaphor for invasion of privacy. Everything belonging to the idol, and even the idol herself, ‘belongs’ to the public.
There is also a middle-aged man carrying a bunch of flowers who appears repeatedly throughout the film. His dialogue-less character never gets the notice from Reiko that he craves- he symbolises the devoted fan. Jo Shishido – the leading man in many of Suzuki’s Nikkatsu films- gets an amusing cameo as a mustachioed cop.
TV killed the Idol
In A Tale of Sorrow, Suzuki highlights the damage that TV and the press can do to celebrities. Television- in particular ‘variety’ and afternoon TV- is depicted as vacuous and dumb. In one scene, Mrs. Semba’s husband is engrossed in the screen and laughing, only half listening to his wife. This cuts to a shot of multiple TV aerials accompanied with a cacophony of forced laughter.
The film also shows the effects of fame on family relationships. Reiko becomes increasingly distanced from her school aged younger brother. Due to her busy work schedule, they start to communicate through notes. Having shared a small apartment with his sister prior to her rise to fame, the brother’s room in the new house is reached by a retractable rope ladder. We never see inside this room and it is very much cut off from the rest of Reiko’s lavish abode. This symbolizes the deterioration in the sibling relationship.
It will come as no surprise to viewers familiar with Suzuki that great attention to detail can be found in every shot. In particular, the colours of the clothes worn by characters in each scene and how they contrast and compliment the colours and positions of other characters and objects in the frame. As usual he makes full use of the wide Cinemascope format. The colour of Reiko’s and Mrs Semba’s nail polish indicates the older woman’s hold over the young golfer.
Despite being little-known compared to the director’s films of the 60s and his final works in the 2000s, A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness is one of Suzuki’s most accessible films. Suzuki shows the dark side of manufactured stardom, and the impact that a ravenous general public fueled by tabloid sensationalism has on the individual. Goodness knows what he would have made of today’s social media.
In Japan, A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness is available on Hulu and Region 2 DVD (sans subtitles). There was a Region 1 DVD with English subtitles, though this release is now hard to find. Many of Suzuki’s films from the 60s and 80s have received restored releases from Arrow Video in recent years. Perhaps Sorrow will get this treatment too.
To find out more about Seijun Suzuki’s films and the Japanese New Wave, read this Into The Retroscope feature.