Nearly fifty years after its release, Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly – starring Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger as Australia’s most famous outlaw – is largely a source of derision. Its bizarre brand of lyricism, however, is well worth revisiting, as is its torturous, scandal-ridden production history.
Japanese films have this particular relation to the Western tradition and there is a mutual fascination and mirroring going on that has lasted for decades. Just think of The Magnificent Seven, one of the most iconic cowboy films in the canon, which was, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. In pulp cinema too, there are parallels. This melodrama made in 1964 is a kind of harbinger of the sexual revolution but with a very Japanese twist. Its slightly lurid palette and emotional musical score recalls 1960s films from Hollywood. Partly now, some of this seems kitsch but there is something both endearing and attractive about its approach.
The heroine of the picture is a young married woman called Sonoko (Kyoko Kishida), who tells her complicated tale of lust and betrayal in flashback mode. She was determined to be a dutiful wife in the terms of the day but at her art class she comes across an alluring model called Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao). The model’s irresistible beauty brings out a latent lesbian desire in Sonoko and the two embark on a secret affair. Sonoko’s husband is appropriately shocked and tries to coral her back into the marriage by reminding her of the weight of society’s disapproval. Sonoko becomes mildly hysterical at this point and declares that her lust for Mitsuko outweighs all rational and conventional moral considerations. Later, the two lesbian lovers engineer various schemes to draw both the husband and Mitsuko’s boyfriend into a game of plot and counter plot. This being Japan, there also has to be an element of a suicide pact that will seal the fate of the lovers.
Far from being a simple case of the transgressors getting what they deserve, and the conventional order being preserved, Yazuo Masumura’s film recognises the lover’s logic of desire and leaves the question of, which is the true morality, open. Even so, the film does take a very soft focus approach to the mechanics of their love (In the Realm of the Senses, it ain’t) but, in its chaste and histrionic way, it comes out as a plea for tolerance and a comment on the wastefulness of repressed lives.