A tale of love and betrayal in Edo-era Japan, touching on the relationship between art and life. The film opens with an introduction to Toshusai Sharaku, a historical ukiyo-e artist, whose prolific output over a short period and unknown identity have led many to speculate about who he was, and the details of his life. Miyagino (Tomoko Mariya), a prostitute, explains in a monologue to police officers that she was responsible for his death, although the details of what has happened are unclear. The story returns us to 1794 where we find the artist Yataro (Ainosuke Kataoka), working under his master Sharaku (Jun Kunimura), on portraits of various kabuki actors and actresses. Yataro begins a relationship with Okayo (Aimi Satsukawa), Sharaku’s grand-daughter. He is constantly reminded of his relationship with Miyagino, which began some time before, as he works on a portrait of a female impersonator playing the role of Miyagino.
“Two Portraits of Miyagino”, directed by Tatsuji Yamazaki, from a screenplay by Masaaki Sakai, is a film that plays with theatrical alienation techniques, wrongfooting the audience at times and blurring the line between reality and performance, or history and artistic representation. Many of the outdoor sets have stage-like painted backgrounds; shots of city streets have miniature character models being moved around a small set by a puppeteer; and we see black-clad ‘invisible’ figures in the background providing the musical accompaniment to scenes. The careful use of light and staging all increase the sense of watching a drama unfold that has the distinct sense of artifice. This is also evidenced in the script. From Miyagino’s opening soliloquy, the film will often break into dialogues or monologues that could easily be direct from a stage production, taking pains to distance us from the drama, while capturing the emotional power of each scene. This is helped by amazing performances from all the leads and a small cast of extras, including Kirin Kiki. They show a depth of emotion, with purposeful movements and expressions again reminiscent of theatre.
The beautiful cinematography and direction make this film joy to watch. Each shot is carefully staged as if the actors were a living painting. There is a moment when the film slips into highly stylised kabuki performance, and it is clear to see the threads of inspiration in the way this film is constructed. There is a focus on minutiae, such as a single falling leaf, or technical effects such as wind blowing across the set, that give the impression that everything has significance. The soundtrack includes both traditional instruments, the clack of woodblocks breaking up a scene, or the strains of koto providing background music, along with a more modern score of strings and piano. Again giving the sense that we are immersed in a theatre production, standing on-stage beside the actors, or stepping into the portraits they are creating.
The story is told achronologically, building mystery around the relationship between Yataro and Miyagino. As the title may suggest the film’s central focus is on Miyagino, as much or more so than Yataro. Her opening scene shows us a woman who society has cast aside, a pitiable figure whose job makes her an outcast. We learn that she has been abandoned by her family and everyone around her, including Yataro. It gives an insight into the status of women in society at that time with modern parallels. The film also asks us to question the relationship between art and reality, with the prints Yataro creates never capturing the fullness of Miyagino’s life. It draws out a tension between the ‘performance’ of this story and the genuine emotions that are expressed by the actors. This is compounded by the fact that Yataro is creating prints of actors portraying characters, who are in turn played by actors in this film. While it may sound confusing, the film’s meta-elements rarely detract from the narrative, which is compelling.
Perhaps the most difficult idea the film poses is in the constant criticism Yataro receives from his master. Namely that he is lacking a soul. The suggestion perhaps that Yataro, while skilled, is still lacking something vital for the creation of great art. That he is never quite breaking through the superficial to find some deeper significance to his work. It is never quite clear what Sharaku wants from him, or Miyagino, or what Yataro wants for himself. As with much of the film we are left to question this and many more of the character’s peculiar behaviours, left to wonder what their true nature is, much as the people who look at Sharaku’s drawings.