Elegant Beast [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Radiance Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (27th February 2024).
The Film

Kinema Junpo Award (Best Screenplay): Kaneto Shind (winner) - Kinema Junpo Awards, 1963

Living in a cramped two-room apartment in a rundown The Maeda family are a very traditional-looking Japanese family; but appearances are only skin deep, and employ (and deploy) various unorthodox means to maintain that image. Father Tokizo (Ikiru's Ynosuke It), an ex-soldier works rarely as a day laborer, far more interested in gambling ostensibly to make money to invest in a business scheme with some of his more well-heeled comrades. Mother Yoshino (Samurai Rebellion's Hisano Yamaoka) keeps the house stocked with modern conveniences to compliment the Renoir on the wall. Daughter Tomoko (The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch's Yko Hamada) is the promising apprentice of sensationalist novelist Yoshizawa (Yojimbo's Ky Sazanka), so promising in fact that he gave her the apartment as a getaway love nest not expecting her family to move in. Son Minoru (Manamitsu Kawabata) works for talent agent Katori (Shogun's Hideo Takamatsu) and has been skimming off the fees he collects from artists' venues. When Katori pays Minoru's parents a visit in the company of secretary Yukie (The Red Angel's Ayako Wakao) and Minoru's latest scam victim in singer Pinosaku (The Pornographers' Shichi Ozawa), they lay on thick the image of poverty and meekness and protest the accusations against their son while also noting that the three million yen he is supposed to have embezzled is considerably more than they have shared with him. Minoru's parents think he is being reckless, but he is so certain that Katori will not involve the authorities lest he draw attention to his own financial misconduct; however, his apparent partner-in-crime Yukie soon announces that there is the lives of herself and her child for him as she goes into business for herself with a new inn. The family is dealt another blow when Tomoko reveals that Yoshizawa has tired of her due to the way her family have taken advantage of his generosity. As they fend off debt collectors and try to placate the author, Minoru lets his jealousy get the better of him. In making trouble for Yukie, Minoru and his family also discover that the scope of her deception and the means she has taken to insulate herself from suspicion from both his crimes and those of her former employer, and just how tenuous the situation really is...

Scripted by fellow director Kaneto Shind (Onibaba), Elegant Beast feels less like a precursor to Parasite and more like an anti-Yasujirō Ozu film no surprise as director Yz Kawashima had worked under Ozu early in his career presenting a Japanese family not so much going to seed trying to maintain a socially respectable image but using that perception to manipulate in order to pursue venal and materialistic goals. Although they seem thick as thieves and united against the outside, the course of the day uncovers their underlying natures, with the father perhaps deluding himself that everything he does is to prevent his family from having to live in the poverty in which he grew up during the war he suggests that the leniency towards youth after the war is the reason why his son behaves badly even though he profits from it his wife keeping "mum" but conveying a sense of shame beneath her nonchalance, the daughter seemingly flighty but feeling "pimped out" by her family, and the son is simultaneously reckless and thoroughly besotted with someone who may only be a few years older than him but has more than outgrown his kind so much so as to regard him as a child who is not ready to admit that he felt free to act recklessly because she functioned like a mother in some ways (further stirring his anger is his family's resignation about him being duped and also lying to them but also their seeming admiration for Yukie's craftiness). Wakao's Yukie is indeed the most intriguing character in that she is unmoved by the anger and accusations hurled at her, assuring the men who believe they have committed crimes for her that the paperwork accurately represents their financial malfeasance while stating quite coldly that the nature of her relationships is akin to prostitution in regard to the money that went her way. A single mother whose husband left no money for her, she is beyond petty concern for her reputation, even suggesting that any rumors regarding her would only create interest in her business (indeed, she seems not so much deluded when she refers to herself as respectable as deliberately goading those who would try to blame her for their actions).

The film is almost entirely set in the family's cramped apartment, and cinematographer Nobuo Munekawa (Gamera: The Giant Monster) consistently finds inventive ways to frame things, using low upward angles within the apartment, head on views from the corridor through the open doorway or through the balcony balustrades, using the walls within the apartment to divide the frame, creating frames within the frame from which characters in the foreground or background observe action from high or low angles. Kawashima keeps the camera and the actors moving, only pausing abruptly in series of "still" portraits at decisive moments. Interior access to the thoughts of two characters less verbally expressive take place in an almost liminal stairway that seems spatially to be a stairway in the apartment building but is also seemingly Yukie's visualization of such a structure at her inn through which the characters rather than the camera glide in a kind of unaffected slow motion (in contrast to their rapid movements elsewhere). While emotions get heated, exchanges stop short of physical violence, with a decisive action by a supporting character of importance (Blind Beast's Eiji Funakoshi) entirely elided offscreen. In contrast, Yoshino stifles her own reaction to this act, either not wishing to rock the boat with regard to the plans Tokizo is making or resigned to whatever repercussions they may be about to face through the direct actions of their son and their indirect but related actions. In the space of nineteen years as a director Kawashima was quite prolific, and Elegant Beast was nearly his fiftieth film before his career was cut short by his early death the following year.
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Video

Derived from a new 4K restoration by Daiei library owners Kadokawa Entertainment who released the film on Blu-ray in Japan in 2018 and in France in early 23, Elegant Beast makes its English-friendly debut courtesy of Radiance Films in a Region A/B-coded disc on both sides of the pond. The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray is grainy and seems at first somewhat faded but this may actually have more to do with the color scheme with the predominately gray locations and subdued wardrobe choices with a few provocative instances of red like the towel Tomoko conceals her modesty with while showering (a camera tilt following it as she drops it to the floor).
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Audio

The sole audio option is a Japanese LPCM 2.0 mono track that has been nicely cleaned, emphasizing the silences and just how little scoring by Sei Ikeno (Black Test Car) there actually is and how much environmental and atmospheric sounds underscore the dialogue and action. Optional English subtitles are free of any noticeable errors.
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Extras

Extras start with "The Cool Elegance of Yuzo Kawashima" (16:34), film critic Toshiaki Sato discusses Kawashima's studio training and the directors he worked under in developing his versatility in adapting his style to different genres, the recurring motif of "how to live and survive," his direction of actors in which he ordered them to speed up their movements between lines and refining the pacing in the editing room, differences between the script and the finished film, his collaborations with actress Wakao, and his early death from ALS.

Also included is an appreciation by filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda (14:21) who discusses discovering Kawashima's films at repertory theaters and on video, his filming style in which he seems to try not to repeat setups within a film and the lack of cross-cutting, and the influence of Kawashima's films and specifically Elegant Beast on his own film Hanging Garden while also being frank about the uneven quality of the director's prolific output.
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Most informative is "The Age of the Danchi" (11:38), a visual essay by critic Tom Mes that shed light on the significance of the Danchi apartment setting in reconfiguring the Japanese economy and culture from the traditional family to the salary man, with the apartments intended as starter residences for professional men and women who would eventually move onto houses. Mes reveals that the salary man was more of myth and in the minority, and the danchi became the place of urban legends and J-horror including the likes of Dark Water while in more recent times it has developed a nostalgic image in popular culture.

The disc also includes the theatrical trailer (2:16).

Packaging

The disc is housed with a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork while the first pressing of three thousand copies is presented in a full-height Scanavo packaging with twenty-page limited edition booklet featuring the essay "Yuzo Kawashima and the Faces of Women" by Midori Suiren who discusses the female characters and specifically the way the mother and daughter seem to admire the woman who has duped a male member of their family. Also included is "Enclosed Space: An Homage to Elegant Beast" a 1989 article by Yasunari Takahashi.
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Overall

Elegant Beast feels less like a precursor to Parasite and more like an anti-Yasujirō Ozu film.

 


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