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Elegant Beast (Blu-Ray Review)

4 min read
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From the minute the opening credits roll of (1962), it's evident that something strange is afoot. As the names of cast and crew appear on screen, the camera sticks to an extreme wide shot of a fairly unremarkable apartment in urban Japan. Inside, a middle-aged couple are moving objects between rooms with a practised urgency; not packing for a move, nor preparing for a dinner party, but still working with a sharp specificity. The planimetric composition further exaggerates the strangeness of this routine, each scurrying transition rendered ant-like by its smallness and flattened aspect. Anyone well versed in the cinematic art of deception can see this for the looming ruse it is: someone is about to get hoodwinked.

Filmed in the year before his death by prolific Japanese director , Elegant Beast is a real delight. Taking place near solely in that apartment block, we follow the varying fortunes of the Maeda family. There's the ostensible head of the family, ex-naval officer and ex-con man Tokizo (), his shrewd wife Yoshino (), their daughter Tomoko (), who subsists mostly on the allowances afforded by the wealthy author she's having an affair with, and their son Minoru (), an unabashed embezzler whose swindling has begun to turn a few eyes at the workplace.

It's Minoru's pilfering that has his parents in such a fluster, scrambling to hide any apparent signs of wealth—a ceramic ashtray changed out for a dusty aluminium one, a Renoir painting shoved into a side room—ahead of a visit from Minoru's boss Ichiro () and one of their disgruntled clients. In front of Ichiro Tokizo and Yoshino are a picture perfect image of polite decorum, simpering over his every request and assuring him that their son couldn't possibly have done all those awful things. Of course, as we'll later find out, their quasi-lavish lifestyle is entirely funded by those very same actions they denied so self-effacingly, alongside some healthy loans from Tomoko's lover. What they're not prepared for, however, is all those birds coming home to roost—most particularly Minoru's devilishly apathetic beau, Yukie (Ayako Wakao).

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Elegant Beast (1962)

It's a gangbusters premise for a single-setting chamber piece, but what elevates it to greatness is Kawashima's restless direction. Resisting the urge to let dialogue play out in simple shot-reverse shot, Kawashima is constantly splitting the frame into competing planes, using harsh angles to exaggerate the distance between subjects in a fashion that doesn't so much heighten drama as send it to Everest. Kawashima's framing is  forever compressing the spaces characters have to move in, squeezed down by low ceilings, held behind bars, or pushed between the groins of those standing near them. It's a real feat of engineering, a film where the location is constantly so contorted and twisted it ceases to register as a geographically consistent space.

It's little surprise, then, when the reality of that space completely folds in on itself. In one sequence, at the height of the Maeda family's hubris, there's a frenzied dance sequence between the younger Maedas, the clack, clack, clack of the taiko drums working to amplify the dramatic backdrop of the blood red sky to intoxicating effect, Tomoko and Minoru skipping across furniture in unison with black and white feet dancing across their television screen. Later, after a particularly terse revelation, every light in the room shuts out, replaced by some theatrical spotlights on each character's face, sitting still like statues, as a mantric voiceover seems to imply a degree of telepathic convergence. Even in its quieter, more grounded moments images like this abound; the peep hole of a slammed door perfectly framing the person on the other side, or a montage of still shots acting to inventory the cornucopia of luxuries assembled in the flat.

All that's to say that this is a beautiful film, filled with some great acerbic humour—and 's presentation is characteristically gorgeous too. But most critical are the interviews and accompanying essays, affording a window view into the post-war climate in Japan that led to such attitudes around wealth and social standing persisting. What remains is a picture that never leads its audience to easy conclusions, challenging them with both its imagery and its ideas about the consequences of capitalism, a war between generations that speaks most to the desperation bred by a pervasive profit incentive. As an entry point into Kawashima's wider oeuvre, this is a remarkably timeless one.

Special Features

  • New 4K restoration
  • Uncompressed mono PCM audio
  • Interview with film critic Toshiaki Sato (2023)
  • Appreciation by filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda (2023)
  • Visual essay by critic Tom Mes on post-war architecture in Japanese cinema (2023)
  • Trailer
  • New and improved English subtitles
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork
  • Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by Midori Suiren and contemporary archival writing
  • Limited edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

Elegant Beast releases in the UK on December 18th courtesy of Radiance Films