The Sleeping Beast Within (1960) Review

“It is his beautiful use of movement within shots and his exquisite use of interior geometry that underlines his compositional talent.”

Introduction

After focusing on the youth narratives Seijun Suzuki directed in the first seven years of his career, Arrow Video concentrates, with their second volume, on Suzuki’s early crime-thrillers, yakuza-dramas and action movies. After reviewing his youth narrative Born under crossed stars (1965), a narrative already sensibly indicative of Suzuki’s eccentric cinematographically creativity, we delve this time in The Sleeping Beast Within, a mystery narrative he directed 5 years earlier.

Review

sleepingbeast6After spending two years in Hong Kong, Junpei Ueki, a businessman, finally arrives home to retire. At the harbour Keiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), his daughter, is enthusiastically looking forward to finally see her father again. But Shotaro Kasai (Hiroyuki Nagato), a reporter, is bothered by the fact that not a lot of co-workers have come to greet him. Later that day, he is invited for a farewell party the following day at the company.

The following night, Keiko, who is reading a mystery novel, remarks that papa is acting quite strange, but her mother quickly dispels this behaviour by explaining it as part of his aging process. But as the morning comes – Keiko and mama confronted with the failure of papa to return home – it becomes clear that something is the matter. Keiko and Kasai start to investigate his disappearance.

thesleepingbeastWhile passing through Yokohoma’s Chinatown, Shibuya’s nightclubs, the various temples attached to the Sun God Cult, it quickly becomes clear that the atmospheric The sleeping beast Within concerns the quest for ‘truth’. But by focusing on ‘truth’ from the perspective of a journalist, the narrative is able to put the notion of ‘truth’ into a surprising perspective and show that ‘truth’ is always a narrative reconstruction; truth always has the structure of fiction. In this respect, it is not surprising that Shotaro Kasai, in his quest to put truth into a narrative, follows a trail of ‘signifiers’ – where the words as such lead him.

Besides showing the symbolic dimension of truth, the narrative beautifully shows the repercussions the symbolic has on the imaginary, i.e. meaning, it conditions (Narra-note 1). As Shotaro follows the signifiers, the difference between the image of the caring father and the sleepingbeast2person behind that idealized image – the father as he really is – is slowly unraveled. And by confronting Keiko with his findings about her father the investment of the human subject in the image and the imaginary is beautifully touched upon (Acting-note 1). In this confrontation, Keiko first tries to flee into denial and non-acceptance – she wants to safeguard the idealized image of her father and family as her truth. This act, even though it fails, shows how the image defines her happiness and the non-acceptance aims to maintain her psychological equilibrium. When pushed by shotaro to accept the hidden side of her father, she still urges Shotaro to safeguard the idealized image of her family and her father towards society. While this certainly would help her maintain her truth, one can sense, in her plea, the importance to avoid the family’s disgrace (Narra-note 2).

Thebeast1What makes this exploration of the symbolic and imaginary sides of truth, in The Sleeping Beast Within even more interesting and engaging, is that Kasai’s quest for ‘truth’, besides shaking Keiko’s imaginary and breaking her idealized image of her father, reveals an associated narrative tension, i.e. Kasai’s attempt, if possible, to pursue his duty to uncover ‘truth’ without losing the love of Keiko.

What is striking about the cinematography – a blend of fixed shots and moving shots – of The sleeping Beast Within is the simplicity by which the narrative is framed (Cine-note 1). Even though cinematographical decorations are still present, they are reduced to a minimum. The decorations are mainly found at the level of the lighting and the way sudden shifts of lighting – in accordance with the overlaying of shots – are used to frame flashbacks (Cine-note 2). And thebeast3while these decorations are pleasing, the true beauty of The Sleeping Beast Within‘s cinematography is to be found in how Seijun Suzuki’s uses the moving shot to subtle shift focus within the narrative space, often from one character to another, and in the way he plays with geometry for his shot compositions. By playing with geometry, by exploiting the interiors, Suzuki is able to empower emotional expressions and craft frames within frames that guide the eye of the spectator.

The Sleeping Beast Within is, in short, an amazing narrative from Seijun Suzuki. As the search for a truth unfolds, the narrative touches upon the fact that truth finds it origin in language and upon the importance of the (ever deceptive) imaginary for the human subject for achieving happiness. While hints of Seijun Suzuki’s later eccentric stylism are present in the rather simplistic cinematography, it is his beautiful use of movement within shots and his exquisite use of interior geometry that underlines his compositional talent.

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Notes:

Cine- Note 1: At one point, Seijun Suzuki also breaks the 180 degrees rule.

Cine-Note 2: The first play with shadow is different and is used to communicate, in a more dramatic way, the ‘strangeness’ of the situation, i.e. Junpei’s disappearance.

Narra-note 1: The narrative reveals the power of the signifier as well. Besides revealing this power by the consequences the confession has, this power is also implied in the very last utterance in the narrative.

Narra-note 2: Later, Keiko will ask her father to turn herself in – her sense of righteousness prevailing over her earlier need to safeguard the image of the happy family. In response, her father and her mother ask Keiko to safeguard the image of the happy family and keep the hidden truth concerning the father as person hidden. The act of turning oneself in could also be seen as the most honourable solution for the family and its image towards society. Also note that Keiko remains troubled by the truth, the image of yakuza, that hides the image of Junpei as father.

Acting note 1: Keiko is endearingly played by Kazuko Yoshiyuki.

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