While Yoshishige Yoshida is most well-known from his brilliant Eros + Massacre (1969) and Coup d’etat (1973), films he made after having liberated himself from the restrictions of the Studio system, his career started, like his contemporaries Masahiro Shinoda and Nagisa Oshima, at Shochiku. One of the films Yoshida directed during this Shochiku period was an adaptation of Shinji Fujiwara’s novel of the same name.
Around the end of the second-world war, Shusaku Kawamoto (Hiroyuki Nagato), who is suffering from tuberculosis, departs from his war-stricken hometown to travel to Tottori. On the way, having fully realized the weakness of his body, he asks a woman, O-Tami (Sumiko Hidaka), to take him to Akitsu Onsen – without saying her that he intends to die there. At the Onsen, he encounters a young woman, named Shinko (Mariko Okada). They fall in love and, one day, they decide to commit suicide together. But they fail. Not long thereafter, Shinko’s mother, the owner of the inn, sends Shusaku back to Okayama and forbids her daughter to pursue any kinds of romantic relations with him.
Akitsu Springs is a melodramatic romance narrative that explores the destructive potential of being in love. To unearth how Yoshida’s narrative explores the tragic potential of being in love the psychoanalytic notions of Eros (vitality) and Thanatos (death drive) are quite useful.
The use of these notions can unearth the very dynamic of the birth of their romance in a very precise way. Confronted with his suffering and moved by the way he anticipates his own death, Shinko decides to nurse him back to health. This decision is an act against the death he anticipates. Via this decision, she shows to him her own bursting vitality (Eros). This is fundamental.
But what evaporates Shusaku’s desire to die and stirs up his desire to live (or keep on living) is not the vitality of this decision but another confrontation with her endearing vitality – i.e. Shinko’s passionate crying over Japan’s defeat. It is at this moment that Shusaku’s desire to live latches onto and starts leeches off Shinko’s youthful vitality. Sadly, the impact of her vitality on Shusaku is only short-lived.
The relational dynamic (i.e. the poetic game of attraction and rejection) between Shinko and Shusaku is – there is no other way to formulate it – caused by an underlying ‘conflict’ between Shinko’s vital force (Eros) and Shusaku’s death drive (Thanatos). As long as Shinko’s vital force mesmerizes Shusaku all is well, but from the moment Shusaku’s death drive rears its head their ‘romantic’ relation ‘malfunctions’. This implies that their romantic relation plays out in the imaginary and that Shinko’s vitality is not a solid basis for an inter-subjective relation to be established (Narra-note 1).
Shusaku, as driven by his death drive, ultimately proposes to Shinko to commit a lover’s suicide. Shinko’s choice to accept Shusaku’s invitation reveal two things. It reveals how destructive and romantic the death desire (Thanatos) can be in romantic relations and how someone, driven by a burning desire to be loved, is often willing to sacrifice one’s vitality (Eros). But, rather unexpectedly, the suicide attempt is thwarted by a burst of vitality – i.e. Shinko’s infectious laughter after being inadvertently tickled by Shusaku.)
What happens after Shinko’s relation with Shusaku is thwarted by her mother? Shusaku, by freely pursuing his desire to enjoy, has, unbeknownst to himself, chosen the path of self-destruction. While one could qualify this desire to enjoy as an Eros-drive, one feels this Eros (enjoyment) is orchestrated by his Thanatos (self-destruction). His troubled and destructive subjective position reveals, as a matter of fact, that Shusaku, as subject, has not yet chosen life or death. He is, in other words, neither fully dead nor fully alive. Shinko, for that matter, stays at the inn and assumes a position of waiting. Driven by her desire to be loved by him, she waits on him.
It is from this structural constellation that Akitsu Springs evokes various questions. Is there any possibility for their imaginary romance to accede to an inter-subjective relationship; can their romance be anything more than fleeting moments of bodily satisfaction (Narra-note 2)? Can Shusaku finally choose between a position of life or death? And finally, how will the years of waiting affect Shinko as subject (Narra-note 3 (spoiler))?
What makes the composition of Akitsu Springs visually pleasing is Yoshishige Yoshida’s use of atypical camera-angles and his subtle exploitation of geometry – by it by utilizing the geometry of interiors (e.g. the compositional potential of mirrors) or by employing lighting for compositional purposes (Cine-note 1). While Yoshida’s use of less typical angles and his geometrical play have no narrative purposes as such, these cinematographical elements add a subtle visual flair and a pleasing (geometric) tension to many shots within the visual composition. Another element that heightens the visual pleasure of the composition and pulls in the spectator’s attention is the ‘subtle’ melo-dramatics, poetic dramatics so common in theatrical plays, that marks the spatial composition (i.e. how the comportment of the characters is composed) of multiple ‘set-pieces’. In this respect, we need to emphasize that this visual melodrama is not inherently moving as such but becomes moving because Mariko Okada’s wonderfully layered performance breathes humanity into these dramatics.
The pleasing flow of the narrative is, contrary to one’s expectations, not function of the cinematographical composition as such, but is ‘created’ by the musical accompaniment, courtesy of the highly prolific composer Hikaru Hayashi. Beyond dictating the flow of the composition, the musical accompaniment is also important in qualifying the atmosphere/mood of certain important narrative moments, like the encounter of Shusaku and Shinko, dramatizing a given scene, and highlighting the impact of certain moments/events on the subjective position of a character.
Akitsu Springs is a great melodrama. With his artful composing hand, Yoshishige Yoshida paints how a romance that is unable to transform into an inter-subjective relation of love can impact the subjectivity of love and illustrate, in a subtle but sensible way, the Freudian truth that every Eros is, in the end, a death drive. Yoshida’s film is, furthermore, a showcase of Mariko Okada’s acting talent. Her layered performance, supported by her mesmerizing beauty, allows Yoshida’s narrative to truly move the spectator.
Cine-note 1: The composition of Akitsu Springs consists out of a well-balanced mixture of fixed shots and dynamic shots (following shots and spatial moving shots). There are some very visually pleasing tracking shots to be noted.
Narra-note 1: One could even contend that the melodrama works precisely because the romance is never able to accede to the level of inter-subjectivity. As Shinko and Shusaku are unable to turn their feelings of love for each other into an intersubjective relationship, Shinko remains, after their relation is thwarted, a troubled prisoner of her imaginary feelings of love and her desire to be loved.
It should not come as a surprise that the continuation of this imprisonment, an imprisonment also reinforced by Shusaku’s venture on the path of satisfying self-destruction, is destructive for Shinko as subject. It is, as a matter of fact, this dramatic element of this imprisonment that makes this narrative so moving.
Narra-note 2: The fact that Shusaku returns to the Onsen underlines that Shinko has a function for him or, in more concrete terms, that her vitality has a function for him. In our view, he returns to Akitsu Onsen to ‘leech’ of her vitality to keep on living.
Because of this, Shinko and Shusaku are unable to meet each other in the sexual act – both seek something different in the sexual encounter. While Shinko can satisfy her desire to be the one who is loved, Shusaku is able to consume/steal, in a more direct way, some of her vitality.
Narra-note 3: The evolution of both can be described as follow: Shinko vitality has become ‘poisoned’ – a seed of Thanatos blossoming in her Eros – and Shusaku’s self-destruction is thwarted by a flame of life – his Thanatos is imprisoned by a small amount of Eros. It is this Eros that allows him to create a decent life for him and not fall victim to the Thanatos that marks him. The Thanatos that blossoms in Shinko’s Eros due to her waiting, for that matter, eventually leads her to realize a self-destructive position that is neither dead nor alive.