The programmers of the 14th Japanese Film Festival have really done their homework this year, capturing a majority of top films from the official ’Top 10 Japanese Films’ lists of the 2009, along with some of the box-office smashes of 2010. Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 / ヴィヨンの妻 ～桜桃とタンポポ～) is no exception, making the top 5 of the Japan Times, Yokohama Film Festival, Kinema Jumpo and Eigageijutsu’s lists. Based on the semi-autobiographical Osamu Dazai novel Villon no Tsuma, the film and book take their inspiration from the 15th century French poet François Villon. It also earned director Kichitaro Negishi Best Director in the 33rd Montreal World Film Festival.
Sachi (Takako Matsu, Confessions and Brave Story) and her prodigy writer husband Otani (Tadanobu Asano, Redline and The Summit: A Chronicle Of Stones) are visited by an elderly couple, accusing Otani of stealing their money. When Otani flees, it is revealed that Otani has been drinking his way through the stock of the couple’s bar for quite some time, racking up quite a debt. Sachi agrees to take care of her husband’s debt, and eventually begins to work in the bar initially to pay off her husband’s debts. Enjoying the work, Sachi discovers the depth of Otani’s philandering, including with the slightly unbalanced Akiko (Ryoko Hirosue, FLOWERS, Zero Focus and Departures). Despite Otani’s increasingly destructive and suspicious behaviour, Sachi stands by her man.
François Villon was famous for his literary works, but also his life filled with reckless behaviour and violence. Extending this 15th century hedonistic behaviour to post-World War 2 Japan gives the tale a measured restraint, and some may say that this is too measured. Creeping along at leisurely pace, in the studied way that only a tradition that brought us Yasujirō Ozu could deliver. The film is character driven, but the characters are incredibly difficult to penetrate. We are given glimpses of what motivates each person, although it is incredibly difficult to discover what lies underneath. We have seen so many literary and cinematic tortured or drunken authors in the last few centuries, and Villon’s Wife offers us very little in understanding or even caring about these people who are seemingly destined to be forever condemned to a type of living purgatory.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for audiences to swallow will be Sachi’s continued tolerance for her Otani’s behaviour, with modern audiences undoubtedly crying out for her to leave the bastard and get on with it. For obvious historical and cultural reasons, this may not have been possible for poor Sachi, but her resignation and continued tolerance of the drunken writer borders on the incomprehensible. Perhaps we aren’t meant to understand, we are simply supposed to observe. Outsiders looking in can never hope to fully comprehend the intricacies of a relationship, and 21st Century Australia is about as ‘outside’ as you can get from a tale based on a 15th century French novelist and set in post-War Japan.
Villon’s Wife is playing at the 14th Japanese Film Festival nationally. It is due to play again at Melbourne on 6 December 2010.