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Canon Entry - Woman of the Lake (1966)

Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.


Woman of the Lake starts off with an intimate scene between two lovers, Miyako (Mariko Okada) and Kitano (Tamotsu Hayakawa), in bed. They are in their own world, so much so that Miyako allows Kitano to take nude pictures of her. It is an intensely claustrophobic, yet also voyeuristic scene, since the two are presented as objects of beauty that are meant to be memorialized on film. Yet the film soon breaks us of this illusion when Miyako’s purse is stolen as she is walking home, and soon, the thief makes it clear that he means to blackmail her and Kitano.

The plot may seem conventional, perhaps trite even by this time in cinema. What is original and fascinating are the images that he creates and the mood inspires through a combination of those images and the minimalist, disquieting score of Sei Ikeno. I see a lot of similarities between this film, and Under the Skin, not just in terms of its plot (a female character wrestling with the dynamics of her power as dictated by her sexuality) but also the images that take advantage of darkness and the similarly minimalist and creepy score by Micah Levi.

One of the most striking shots comes early in the picture when Miyako is walking home in pitch darkness. She is seemingly the only source of illumination, though that is physically impossible. The camera is handheld as the man catches up to her and mugs her. It is the harshest that the camera has felt up to this point, appropriate since is the most dramatic moment of violence in the whole film. Yet the way Yoshida frames the assault almost makes the threat to Miyako metaphysical rather than literal. She remains in the light while her assailant is in the dark. It is a scene that could fit comfortably within any noir, but somehow the implications of the assault seem far greater than any earthly concern, though that is certainly not unimportant.

Though Mariko Okada has been in the films of some of Japan’s best directors - Ozu, Naruse - she probably did her most memorable work with Yoshishige Yoshida, to whom she was married. She is clearly beautiful, capable of conveying a cold sophistication yet also a warm sexuality, which this role demands. Even though the title of this film makes it seem that she is meant to be a carnal abstraction for men to pursue, she is by far the most well-realized character in this film. We feel her anxiety and wonder whether it’s because she values her modesty, her comfortable life or, perhaps, her independence the most. This is the most dramatic and most important change that the film makes from the book, which focused much more on the male character and the affairs he has had with women, which was definitely a much more tired plot than this movie.

There are many hints in this film of this yearning for independence. At the beginning of the film, she is an equal partner in the affair rather than the man being the aggressor and enactor. When her husband tries to assert control over her by saying that a perfect woman is like air - “nobody notices her, but when she’s gone, you can’t live without her,” she fires back with her own question about what makes a perfect husband. The lighting is also quite ironic and biased since the husband is cast in darkness while she is in the light. She is often cast in light whereas the men are often cast in darkness, such as when she is telling her partner in the affair about what exactly was in the purse that was stolen.

It’s tempting to compare this film to Antonioni’s work during the 60’s, specifically L’Avventura with its famous scenes on the island, or the desolate urbanity of L’Eclisse. Indeed, Yoshida was a great admirer of Antonioni and even wrote a book about him in Japanese. However, Yoshida has also said that he was just as influenced by pre-war cinema, such as the social explorations of Renoir, and that his emphasis on strong female characters and their pain found their roots in Bergman. Also, this film exists very squarely in a certain slice of Japanese society. The whole impetus of this film is the potential shame Miyako would bring upon herself and, quite pointedly, all the men in her life. Japan was a quickly modernizing society struggling with its conservative, patriarchal identity. Such forces are not present in the works of Antonioni, whose characters seem to exist in a bubble of wealth and privilege that is known to few (and perhaps why I don’t care for most of Antonioni’s work).

This film also never ceases to remind us of how much it takes place in the real world, even when it goes into the almost surreal. There are many scenes of urban Japan and a wider variety of people populating Yoshida’s scenes than there ever were in Antonioni’s films. At the photo developer’s, people go in and out of the shot, adding to the anxiety that Miyako she is already feeling when talking to the developer about the sensitive issues of her photos. Even the beach scene where a movie is being shot could potentially spark discussions about the meta nature of this film, or it could be a sly commentary on how the twisted entitlement that Miyako feels about her affair is nothing new, and is in fact, Bovary-esque. The film being shot is also an erotic drama, but while that film seems to end in violence (faked of course), the ending is much more complex for Woman of the Lake.

Though the film started out as a noir and a predictable one at that, it becomes far more than that by its end. It raises the question about how sexuality has become denaturalized and separated from the actual physical object (yes, object) of desire through the use of images. It would have maybe been too appropriate if the blackmailer couldn’t muster up the physical and mental courage to go through with the act, but his creepy obsession with her (he had been spying on her and her lover for months) sounds all too familiar in the age of digital stalking, spy cam porn and overall lack of privacy, especially for women. Yet, this film does not portray Miyako as the victim. To me, she clearly had the most power over the man, and she clearly casts an erotic and spiritual spell over the man, and she knows that even if it seems he has all the power, she is in fact the powerful one.

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