Greetings on the first day of spring! Real life has been really busy lately, so this post is much delayed. Still, I thought this post might be appropriate in the light of the changing seasons, the beauty and impermanence of it all. Some spoilers after the jump.
In the early years of the Taisho era, the closeted world of the aristocracy is having to deal with a new kind of social elite – rich provincial families who have come into money and power. Among them the Matsugae family, whose only son Kiyoaki (Tsumabuki Satoshi) has to grapple with the old and new, and his confused feelings for his childhood friend, the spirited and beautiful Satoko (Takeuchi Yuko). However, Satoko is engaged to be married to a royal prince…
Mishima Yukio, considered one of Japan’s most important authors of the 20th century, was well known for what was arguably his “life work”, Hōjō no Umi (The Sea of Fertility tetralogy). The first of the four books, Haru no Yuki (published English title Spring Snow), recreates the brief Taisho period, showing the differences and conflicts caused by Westernisation in Japanese society in the early 20th century. Against this backdrop, Mishima shapes the key characters of Matsugae Kiyoaki, son of a rising nouveau-riche family; Ayakura Satoko, daughter of a fading aristocratic clan; and Honda Shigekuni, Kiyoaki’s friend who bears witness to the events that transpires in the first novel and the rest of the tetralogy. The novel is rich with symbolism and its many complex themes are beautifully depicted in lush, sensual, almost decadent, imagery and language. The love story of Kiyoaki and Satoko is best understood against the cultural elements of the time, and there is much discussion of the tenets of Buddhism and reincarnation, the concepts of beauty and impermanence, passion and social taboos, dreams, omens and portents. The friendship between Kiyoaki and Honda, on the surface seemingly opposites, is unexpectedly enduring and both are perhaps more alike in ways than Kiyoaki or even Honda would care to admit.
This is my first Mishima novel and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, given that classics and I don’t generally gel. There is much food for thought beyond the love story, and I really liked how the characters were depicted – whether their actions were rational is up for debate, and Kiyoaki tried my patience greatly, but I looked forward to reading the next chapter and was keen to find out what happened next. Honda is arguably my favourite character and I am glad he is the one recurring constant in the rest of the novels. I also liked Satoko quite a bit – she proved she had mettle beneath her demure exterior – and eventually warmed up to Kiyoaki with a bit of understanding. The Matsugae and Ayakura families are interesting studies in contrasts, whether against each other or within the individual family itself. The novel holds up to re-reading, whether from scratch or just revisiting passages, and I enjoyed discovering nuances and perspectives I had missed on the first read.
The film adaptation, however, is a different proposition. With the silly English title of Snowy Love Fall in Spring, which makes no sense, it may be best thought of as a lightweight facsimile of something bearing resemblance to Mishima’s novel – whoever had the bright idea to distil the novel’s complexity into the bare bones of the love story and turn it into some melodramatic B-grade romance film should be shot. One of the worst deviations was the transposition of a segment of the deepest irony from its position in the novel (about two thirds in) to the beginning of the film – this is a facepalm of epic proportions and misses the point of why Mishima revealed it at that particular point in the novel. I’m almost horrified to know that one of the screenwriters who committed this giant blunder is Sato Shinsuke, director of Inuyashiki. It makes zero sense why this was done and spoils the film from the get-go.
The film ascribes actions to the characters that are completely alien to their original novel selves. Shorn of the complex cultural backdrop, which is not explained in the film, the love story between Kiyoaki and Satoko is reduced to a star-crossed love wrecked more by the machinations of aristocratic families than by any action of the young lovers themselves. The audience barely gets a sense of why Kiyoaki fell for Satoko, and her doe-eyed, almost weepy look at any obstacle frustrates any attempt to get on her side of the cause. Honda becomes a bit of a one-dimensional jock, and ironically playing a sport which in the novel is stated that he disliked. The film dispensed with most of the intellectual and philosophical musings of Honda, and his discussions with Kiyoaki and the Siamese princes about topics such as reincarnation – while some of these can be difficult to transpose to screen, it might have been better for the film to be a two-parter or mini-series in order to incorporate at least a few of these, as a voiceover doesn’t really cut it. The lack of a proper build-up to the more introspective aspects of the novel in the film meant that a lot of why this or that happened and their resultant consequences were not well explained or understood, especially if one had not read the novel prior to watching the film or had little or no knowledge of modern Japanese history.
Kiyoaki’s dreams were done relatively well – the scene of him discovering himself in the coffin was suitably creepy, as was the one of Satoko in some ghostly bridal gear. The snow scenes and autumn landscape were lovely, even if some of the scenes took place in the wrong season. Costumes were sometimes a bit puzzling, especially that pink confection Satoko wore when she met Kiyoaki and his friends at a play – she looked like she was wearing a cake on her head that would topple if she moved too much. As the daughter of an aristocratic family – never mind that its power was much reduced – it was odd for Satoko to be shown wearing Western dresses more than the kimono or riding in a horse-drawn carriage rather than the rickshaw. Much of the caricatures and satirical critiques of the effects of Westernisation on Japanese society was lost on – and indeed removed from – the film, which was a pity as it then felt like any other film that just happened to be set in Japan.
The script did not do justice to the characters, and as a result, some of the acting suffered. Tsumabuki Satoshi is generally reliable and solid, and while I thought his Kiyoaki was a bit too sullen and very little was seen of his internal struggles with his pride and reasoning, Tsumabuki did what he could and by the end of the film I grew to sympathise with his Kiyoaki (who is, unfortunately, not the Kiyoaki of the novel). Takeuchi Yuko was miscast as Satoko, though this was in part due to how the script watered down Satoko’s character. I felt her portrayal was affected and awkward, her coy girlish act was a touch cringeworthy, and she seemed sad, weak and near tears half the time, which was tiring to watch. Takaoka Sosuke had little to do as Honda, since he was just there to play the sidekick. Among the supporting characters, Ookusu Michiyo, who played Satoko’s elderly maid Tadeshina, was pretty solid as the go-between for the young lovers. I had imagined a more stately, refined presence for the Abbess of Gesshu, Satoko’s great-aunt who featured in the opening and closing segments of the novel, but the actress, perhaps through no fault of her own, could not bring that out in her portrayal. I did like that she spoke in Kansai-ben, since Gesshu Temple was in Nara.
In all, it really is better to read the novel to better understand the characters, unless one is a die-hard fan of any of the leading cast. Also, Utada Hikaru should be banned from singing theme songs for period films because “Be My Last” is absolutely horrible and ill-fitting. To detox, Tsumabuki’s Waterboys is recommended.