しとやかな獣 「Shitoyakana kedamono 」
Release Date: December 26th, 1962
Duration: 96 mins.
Director: Yuzo Kawashima
Writer: Kaneto Shindo (Screenplay),
Starring: Ayako Wakao, Yunosuke Ito, Hisano Yamaoka, Manamitsu Kawabata, Yuko Hamada, Eiji Funakoshi, Kyu Sazanka, Chocho Miyako, Hideo Takamatsu,
A possible tag line for this film could be, “a family that embezzles together, stays together”, such is the content of this film which shows a day in the life of a greedy family as they swindle from subjects in their social circle. Ten actors, one location, and a narrative that takes place over 24 hours, Graceful Brute (1962) is a masterful black comedy that critiques the changing morals of Japanese people during the economic miracle of the post-war years.
The film almost exclusively takes place in the fifth floor apartment of the Maeda’s. They live in a danchi (housing complex) designed by Kunio Maekawa¹, the sort of forward-thinking utilitarian building that was meant to serve every need of its residents and promote community and harmony but the values of the Maeda’s are far from these ideals. They seem to be a stable family unit of two conservative parents (who wear kimono and listen to traditional music) and their hip son and daughter (out on the town in Ginza’s bars) but as the narrative unfolds we see the depth of their duplicity, selfishness, and materialistic behaviour which unites them. They are a product of the age.
As the opening credits role we see suspicious activity. The father Tokizo (Yunosuke Ito) and mother Yoshino (Hisano Yamaoka) hurriedly hide all signs of wealth such as the television, an Impressionist portrait by Renoir, a sofa, and they even go so far as to replace things from the table cloths and ashtrays to their kimono with cheaper alternatives. They certainly won’t be opening the cupboards which are stuffed with fancy food and drink. This is in preparation for various run-ins with people their children have defrauded money from.
The son, Minoru (Manamitsu Kawabata), has embezzled millions of yen from his employer at the Highlight Pro Agency, a talent outfit run by Katori (Hideo Takamatsu).
The daughter, Tomoko (Yuko Hamada), has effectively been pimped by her own father to be the young mistress of a hack author named Yoshizawa (Kyu Sazanka).
It was he who set up the apartment and its luxurious furnishings to be solely used by Tomoko and himself as a love nest but his new mistress moved the rest of her family in. He has since become a bank for the father and the cavalier Minoru has also embezzled money from him.
Both Yoshizawa and Katori will repeatedly visit the Maeda’s and try to get their money back, the writer eager to cut ties and Katori, desperate to avoid an accounting scandal, will bring a talentless jazz singer and his accountant, a widow and single-mother named Yukie Mitani (Ayako Wakao), to the apartment to track down the errant young man and the money. The elder Maeda’s field these visitors without a problem, appearing humble and apologetic until they get them out of the door and then they reveal their true faces: hypocritical parasites living off the ill-gotten gains of their children and advising them on how to get more. Their audaciousness and hypocrisy is shocking. It is funny.
If these poor souls lured into the Maeda’s web seem sympathetic we soon learn that they are equally duplicitous and greedy. Katori peddles questionable “talent” as exemplified by the preening and egotistical singer in his entourage and he has dodgy business dealings while Yoshizawa uses Tomoko as material for lurid novels. Other sins are revealed, the most outrageous twists coming from Mitani who turns out not to be so vulnerable and more a calculating lady using her feminine charms and position as a woman in a patriarchal society to play others in order to get ahead.
The comedy comes from the breathtaking fakeness of everything and the audacious levels of greed from everybody. The veneer of respectable behaviour is stripped away and reapplied at a moments notice by passion, a constant desire for money, self-preservation and tactical negotiations and it happens often during the many twists and turns of the plot as each character tries to keep their individual bets from going bust and, as the stakes get raised higher and higher and those bets look to have legal pitfalls, things reach immoral highs where life is on the line.
Everyone on the cast rises to the occasion brilliantly, the actors playing the Maeda’s switching between formal and contrite behaviour to greedy and grasping in the next second, their victims from righteous indignation to creeping and crawling. Even the Renoir turns out to be fake. Everyone works in perfect synchronicity especially in dialogue where their lines follow on from and overlap each other but their greed and single-mindedness unites them in one chorus. Ayako Wakao is a particular highlight as she turns in a chilling performance of duplicity, that makes even the Maeda’s gasp as she is revealed as a determined woman who played all of the characters off against each other using her beauty and intelligence to savagely wrong-foot all opposition.
Writer Kaneto Shindo and director Yuzo Kawashima take glee in dragging out the indignities and duplicities but it also feels like a criticism of people living in an age of rapid industrialisation. Perhaps the much vaunted promise of capitalism and Westernisation has just been a gaudy trap that brings out the worst in people, makes them parasitic hustlers. This feels like it could have been a stageplay with it being so performance-centric and dialogue-driven but it started life as a film first before being adapted for the stage at least three times.
The small apartment becomes a battleground for this family as people try to get their money back. It is one set and yet it feels cinematic as the camera moves around the rooms along with the characters, peeking in on them, peering around corners, sometimes there is an overhead shot that looks directly down on people and one shot looks directly up through the floor so the space is wider than expected.
Indeed, there are some sequences and elements that only cinema can achieve. Certain characters have internal monologue sequences where they disappear into a white tunnel which has a staircase which they descend and ascend as they switch positions in their negotiations and characters achieve goals or face losing everything. The defining moment is, perhaps, a sequence which brings the narrative to a stop when Tokizo reminds his family of the poverty that they have escaped and want to avoid. It is a stirring monologue which describes a poverty that “sets itself into the bones” and we feel how much this has scarred people as close-ups on each of the actors who remain frozen allow us to study their faces as Tokizo’s stern voice reminds everyone that not so long back they, and by extension Japan, were crawling out of the ruins of war. Pretty good reasons to be money-grubbers, perhaps.
¹ It was filmed in the Harumi danchi in Chuo-ku