“A narrative with a moral message, that, depending on the situation you find yourself in, might still have a profound impact. If it doesn’t, the narrative still remains a noteworthy introduction to the legend of Seijun Suzuki.”
Anyone who love Japanese movies will know of – but not necessarily love – the experimental escapades of Seijun Suzuki. But Suzuki’s style was not always that eccentric in his cinematography and the release of Volume 1 of Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years gives the valuable opportunity to explore this less eccentric period. One of the movies included in this blu-ray box is Born under Crossed stars, one of his adaptations of Toko Ton’s novels (General-note 1)
Born under Crossed stars is a 1920’s youth narrative set in Kawachi, east Osaka – a city that two years after the release of this narrative, merged with Fuse and Hiraoka to become the city of Higashiōsaka (literally ‘East Osaka City’). The narrative focuses on the life of Jukichi (Ken Yamauchi), a smart student poised to enter the notable Kyoto Grammar school, who is forced, as his father gambles, to sell milk door-to-door to pay for his education. One day, after complaining to Yoshio Mishima (Jushiro Hirata) for not receiving any thanks for the revenge he got for him, he crudely passes Taneko (Yumiko Nogawa) and accidently meets Mishima’s sister Suzuko (Masako Izumi). Due to his traditional Japanese moral sense both girls fall for him, ultimately facing him with a dilemma.
Born under Crossed Stars provides a beautiful insight into the 1920’s, the Taisho period, a period still marked by the tension between the old ways of the Edo period and the western influences and modernisation that were introduced in the Meiji period. The narrative might be light-hearted in nature, especially due to the initial carefree way by which Jukichi positions himself in the narrative space, the cleverness of his mother Osen which reveals the power she ultimately has over her husband, and the naughty playfulness of Taneko, the narrative is littered with little vignettes, exploring the social fabric of that time.
At the level of the family, the narrative explores the relational tensions between Jukichi’s gambling father and his wife who tries to run the household, the danger of domestic abuse, and the economic argument of letting a child study to go on to higher education or forcing him to work and earn money (Narra-note 1). At the level of the business, the unethical way business could still be conducted is highlighted – the use of violence is nevertheless followed by severe consequences, e.g. rival milkmen are being banned from selling milk for a month. At the level of high-school life, the social structure, i.e. of the discipline committee at Yao Junior High school, that allows the violent enforcement of discipline, and how personal feelings can pervert that system are explored. This exploration turns into a beautiful illustration of the senior-junior system and also introduces Yukichi’s more serious side, i.e. his strong sense of justice and his moral sense, to the spectator.
The aforementioned tension of the Taisho period also forms the thematic undercurrent and finds its obvious representation in the differences between ‘modern’ Takeno and ‘traditional’ Suzuko, the two girls who fall in love with Jukichi. While this is apparent at the level of the clothing – Suzuko’s kimono contrasted with Takeno’s western-styled dress – the fundamental difference has to be situated at the level of the position each girl assumes as youthful love blossoms (Narra-note 2). While Suzuko remains passive – even disappearing from the narrative plane for a while – Takeno is active and aggressive; her flaunting of her sexuality charmingly revealing Yukichi’s sexual inexperience, exposing his traditional thoughts concerning relationships as a defensive facade, and providing him with the experience that allows him to accept the consequences of his traditional morality, his passiveness in matters of love, and to come-into-being as an adult.
And while this extensive exploration of the Taisho social fabric is interesting, it nevertheless imbalances the pace of the narrative. By exploring this fabric leisurely for two-thirds of the narrative, it leaves ample room for Suzuki to frame the outcome of Yukichi’s narrative adequately. But if one pays close attention to the evolution of the cinematography, it becomes clear that Suzuki was conscious of this problem and tried to solve it through cinematographical experimentation. The initial cinematography of Borned under Crossed Stars excels in its simplicity. There are ample decorations to note and the narrative is framed with simple concatenations of fixed shots and, now and then, a measured following camera movement, either as a complete shot or as a part of a shot. But as the narrative progresses – as the focus falls on Yukichi’s narrative and the moral of the story – more special camera perspectives, inventive compositions, and special elements slip into Seijun Suzuki’s compositional mix, offering a veritable reminder to the cinematographical stylism that Suzuki is so known for (Cine-note 1).
Born Under Crossed Stars is a narrative that is as much an extensive exploration of the social fabric in the Taisho period as it is the narrative of Yukichi’s coming-of age. But as the narrative loses itself in its leisurely exploration of the time-period, the narrative is forced to fasten the pace to frame the conclusion of Yukichi’s coming-of-age; an imbalance only partially solved by Suzuki’s cinematographical inventiveness. As the explorative density dissipates and Yukichi’s coming-of-age comes into focus, it becomes obvious that the narrative is not really about love, but about traditional morality. The unsubtle message of the narrative – some might say the message has a right-wing overtone – resounds crystal-clear: live by your philosophy and overcome any obstacle this philosophy might cause. Born under Crossed Stars is thus ultimately a narrative with a moral message, that, depending on the situation you find yourself in, might still have a profound impact. If it doesn’t, the narrative still remains a noteworthy introduction to the legend of Seijun Suzuki.
General-note 1: This review was first published at Easternkicks.
Narra-note 1: The adolescent interest in female sexuality and the shame that encircles sexuality is touched upon as well.
Narra-note 2: Even though Taneko wears a western-styled dress on the first occasion she goes out with Jukichi, she wears kimono’s on her subsequent meetings with him. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact she is the active force in the relationship.
Cine-note 1: We should also mention the fact that, as the narrative progresses, more following shots are used. Eventually Suzuki allows zoom-in shots and zoom-out shots to bring cinematographical variation as well.