Thousand Words: discover Odd Obsession, a Japanese tale of failure and desire

Kon Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession (Kagi), based on Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s 1956 novel The Key, begins with a prologue in which a young intern named Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai), lists the ages at which various human bodily functions decline, and eventually fail.

At the end of the sequence, he addresses the audience directly. His malicious grin and detached persona reveal cynicism even before the story of cheating and manipulation has begun.

In the following scene, Kimura reveals an opportunistic streak when he gives his patient Kenmochi (Ganjiro Nakamura) injections which his superior had refused to prescribe. The elderly patient, obsessed with his fear of aging and waning virility, believes that the injections will stimulate his libido.

Kenmochi is presented as a relic of pre-war Japan: a patriarch who still wears – both in public and in private – the kimono and the haori, and who has a much younger, devoted wife (Machiko Kyo). Her devotion is such that she agrees to be her husband’s plaything as part of his desperate attempts to regain his sexual vigour.

In this grim social portrait, sexuality is a means to explore human behaviour. From the provocative opening that turns the viewer into an accomplice and a Peeping Tom, to the film’s dark conclusion, director Ichikawa assumes the role of distant observer as he dissects the lifestyle of the Japanese middle class and documents the universal quest for eternal youth.

The whiteness of the characters’ skin is reminiscent of Ukiyo-e paintings, creating an ethereal quality which transformed the human body into an object of desire, an object which is both real and imagined, carnal yet beyond reach. The saturated colours – browns, greys and greens – and the shadowy interiors are appropriate to the contemporary Japanese aesthetic taste (as celebrated by Tanizaki in his essay In Praise of Shadows), but they also suggest a world in decline.

The social microcosm of a dysfunctional family reveals the ugly side of post-war Japan. The respectful behaviour, the big traditional house full of valuable artworks, and even the geometry of the rooms – all is mere show, a deceptive facade behind which lurk disorder and failure.

The works of art, reminders of eternal values, are only loans and do not belong to Kenmochi. The bamboo grove next to his house serves as a means of protection against evil, but the frequent images of bamboo – a symbol of prosperity and strength – mock Kenmochi, who is financially ruined and in declining health.

The vain chiropractor likes to be called doctor, but has holes in his old socks. The kitten which Ikuko at first takes a liking to turns out to have deformed front legs. Disgusted by this discovery, she chases the poor creature away in horror. And the intern, Kimura, wishing to please his patient, acts out of selfishness and gives his prospective father-in-law the injections despite the physician’s warning.

Far from being mere objects in a male’s world, mother and daughter argue with each other and devise their secret plans within the limits set by Japanese society. The adolescent Toshiko (Junko Kano) refuses to play the part of a respectful daughter: in constant revolt, she provokes her parents and has a secret rendezvous with Kimura, her fiancé-to-be, in a hotel. Her defiance represents a new, westernized generation and we learn it’s not only Kenmochi’s virility that is waning, but the whole patriarchal system that’s in decline.

And Ikuko’s passivity? Is it merely role-play? Following her husband’s wish, she drinks alcohol and becomes blind drunk in her bathroom every evening, allowing Kenmochi take advantage of her. This gives the story a twist into irony and subversion, for her devotion is so apparently great that she accepts this abuse.

Yet she’s more than simply the subject of an old man’s erotic game. Later, when her husband is in agony after a stroke, she allows Kimura to come to the house at night and enjoys the sexual pleasure which was intended to stimulate the sick man. Ikuko is the object of her husband’s desperate desire to remain virile, but she cuckolds him. Her new, western hairstyle at the end of the film points to her willingness to accept social shift.

Every character in the film is hiding behind a mask. Machiko Kyo, who played the samurai’s spouse in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, plays a similarly ambivalent role. Behind the appearance of the perfect housewife, she spins a web of intrigue. The ageing Kenmochi keeps the syringes under lock and key, keeping his health condition secret – for the drug he uses makes his blood pressure shoot up.

Kimura, too, plays the role of the humble but obliging doctor-to-be who refuses to look at the naked body of his patient’s wife and apologises for his humble origins is a mere opportunist whose interest in the Kenmochi family is purely financial. The elderly housekeeper, Hana, also fulfils her role obediently, but bends reality to suit her own code of duty and is ultimately motivated by a desire for personal vengeance.

All of the characters spy on each other. Kenmochi on his wife and Kimura, Toshiko on her father, her unconscious mother, and Kimura, and Hana on the whole family. Kenmochi takes photographs of his unconscious wife and asks Kimura to develop them. Kimura then shows the photographs to Toshiko when they meet in the hotel room. Kenmochi is aware of Kimura’s true nature, calling him an opportunist, yet uses him as his aphrodisiac, while his daughter plays with the young man who in turn cheats on her.

From the loaned works of art, to the bamboo garden, every object seems to mock Kenmochi’s desperate attempt to stop his inevitable degeneration. He performs the gymnastics a woman demonstrates on television, but falls on his back. He thinks that he has achieved ultimate possession of his wife ‘body and soul’ under the eye of the eternal Buddha, then suffers a stroke.

There are no admirable characters in Odd Obsession. Evil begets evil, and everyone acts with duplicity. The ending of the film is followed by an ironic epilogue, and the final catastrophe is simply dismissed by authorities for the sake of appearances. There are no rules in these games of desire, lust, ambition and greed – and no winners, either.

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