Kagi / The Key / Odd Obsession (1959)

“Man’s senility is believed to begin at the age of 10.”

Synopsis:
An elderly, ailing husband (Ganjiro Nakamura) tries to resurrect his waning virility by presenting his beautiful younger wife (Machiko Kyo) to his daughter’s fiance (Tatsuya Nakadai).

Genres:

Review:
Kon Ichikawa’s provocative black comedy — based on a novel by famed Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki — makes for fascinating yet challenging viewing. Since characters’ motivations aren’t always clear, we never know what to expect from them, and thus we’re kept in suspense from beginning to end. Kyo’s wifely character is particularly inscrutable — how much does she know about her husband’s plans? — and Ichikawa’s choice not to let us know what’s running through her mind differs radically from the novel (which consists of alternating diary entries written by both husband and wife).

As highly charged as the eroticism is in Kagi, it’s implied rather than flaunted: the characters never explicitly state what’s going on, and instead we must rely on their facial reactions to guess the content of racy photographs, or to understand that a particular character has no clothing on. Symbolism also prevails: in one unusually provocative shot, the aging husband’s dark-rimmed glasses fall onto his wife’s pale chest, hinting at the distance that exists between his lustful gaze and her sensuous availability. While not all of Ichikawa’s stylistic choices work — his freeze frames near the beginning of the film seem like mere affect, for instance — his unique sensibility ultimately adds just the right flavor of absurdity to this darkly comic tale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An intriguingly perverse, erotically charged saga of familial dysfunction

Must See?
Yes, simply as an essential entry in Kon Ichikawa’s impressive oeuvre.

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One Response to “Kagi / The Key / Odd Obsession (1959)”

  1. First viewing. Not must-see.

    Considering how powerful and impressive a number of director Ichikawa’s films are (i.e., ‘The Burmese Harp’, ‘Fires on the Plain’, ‘Enjo’, ‘Kokoro’, ‘An Actor’s Revenge’, etc.), it’s almost shocking to discover that this film is a disappointing misfire.

    I don’t see any indication that the film is black comedy, nor did I recognize any highly-charged eroticism – which one would think would be mandatory for such subject matter. (Yes, there is eroticism – but only the mildest form, and brief at that.) It’s almost as though Ichikawa chose the project out of interest in its controversial aspect – but was too timid to actually tackle the material. It’s one thing to be subtle – it’s something else to be so tentative that you’re robbing clarity.

    Surprisingly, it’s a very boring film – mainly because no one involved seems confident about how to approach what they’re doing. Real tension is all but absent, and a number of good actors (esp. the remarkably talented Kyo) are left adrift. None of the acting is all that memorable.

    To be fair – there is a bit of momentum that surfaces in the last 30 minutes. Some. But it hasn’t been earned – and it’s even somewhat confusing – because character motivation has been just about completely kept from us. Even the tiniest hints – or even one, per character – would have helped. What we’re left with is rather a muddle.

    When I lived in Tokyo, the PBS-equivalent channel would often run retrospectives of Japan’s most highly prized directors, and I was a faithful and avid viewer. To the best of my knowledge. anytime Ichikawa’s work was highlighted, this film was not shown. If it had been, I would have watched it. One might think the film is not held in particularly high regard among Japanese film lovers.

    Sidebar: I still find it puzzling that one of Ichikawa’s best films – ‘Kokoro’ – is so widely unknown in this country (not even Criterion has picked it up). I recorded it from Japanese tv and had it transferred to disc so that I would have a copy, which I’ve seen quite a few times. The film does show up occasionally on YouTube (with English subtitles). But I’ve noticed that, whenever the film is uploaded there, it seems to quickly disappear from the site.

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