Tuesday, October 26, 2010


In Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida's previous film, The Affair, the dominant visual motif was women wandering in traffic, automotive or locomotive, representing the risky waywardness of passion. The heroine's mother had been hit by a truck, for instance, and was revealed to be having an affair, while the heroine herself has some threatening encounters with trains. For Flame and Women (also known in English as Impasse) the not-so-symbolic theme is child endangerment. Several times over, infants are shown in peril, or dead.

The real threats to Japan's children, Yoshida tells us this time, are alienation within the nuclear family and the reduction of children themselves to commodities and status symbols. His story makes the point by showing us the fraught interrelationship of two couples. Ibuki and Ritsuko (Mariko Okada, Yoshida's wife and star) have a toddler son, Takashi. Ibuki is sterile, "a man but not a father," but to prove himself a man he must become a father. He arranges for Ritsuko to receive artificial insemination from his gynaecologist friend Sakaguchi, whose marriage to Shina (Mayumi Ogawa) is childless so far; she, too, seems to be sterile. Ritsuko resists the procedure, disliking the idea of bearing (the English subtitles unfortunately say "wearing") another man's child. But Ibuki insists that it'll be his child as long as she's his wife. She's unconvinced, and would rather believe that a tractor driver she seduced (or was raped by) out in the country is the real father. At the same time, Sakaguchi envies the children he shepherds into life, and struggles with an emotional attachment to Takashi and his mother, while Shina, usually preoccupied with birdwatching, picks the little boy up off the street and takes him on an outing without asking permission. Despite that episode, Ritsuko comes to feel as if Sakaguchi is the true father of her child, while Ibuki insists on his essential paternity no matter what....

Mariko Okada hides (not so sincerely) from a hunky tractor driver, while Mayumi Ogawa takes Baby Takashi for a worrisome walk across a bridge.

Flame and Women portrays a society in dysfunction in which families go through the motions of reproduction and science enables them to do without the emotional ties upon which children depend. Yoshida raises the question of what the children will think in a prologue and epilogue, the first showing a baby's eye view of adults speculating on the impressions the infant will form, the latter a long shot of parents laughingly teaching a child to distinguish his parents from trees, rocks and leaves. After sitting through the grim narrative, you're meant to ask how, exactly, any child can identify his true parents, biological or not. Artificial insemination complicates the question, but the troubles men and women have connecting beg the question in the first place.

Along with his visions of infanticide, Yoshida achieves some beautiful black and white landscapes in his forest location with the help of first-time cinematographer Yuji Okumura. The monochrome keeps the imagery austere but preserves the splendor of nature nearly as well as the color cinematography of Yoshida's Akitsu Springs. As for the actors, Mariko Okada is as good as ever, but Mayumi Ogawa steals the show as the dangerously flighty Shina. Flame and Women finds Yoshida still working out relationship issues, intellectually at least, with a sharp cinematic imagination that makes his relative critical neglect among Americans a bigger mystery with each of his films that I watch.

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