Double Suicide

Shima Iwashita’s brilliant portrayal of two women wronged by social injustice in Mashiro Shinoda’s 1969 film based on Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s tragic kabuki.

Mashiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (1969) is a film rife with contrasting elements, from boldly stylized set design to character’s struggle between obligation and emotion, yet beneath its grandiose theatrical overtones lies a subtle and intriguing exploration of identity. Shima Iwashita’s dual role as both Koharu and Osan paints a cutting edge portrait of human connection amidst personal strife. Shinoda’s decision to cast Iwashita as both courtesan and dutiful wife allows the audience to forgo the obvious questions of marital right and wrong, instead pinpointing focus toward the binding power of earnest emotion.

Double Suicide is a tale of true passions in which married paper merchant Jihei and entrapped prostitute Koharu share a forbidden love, and choose to end their lives to escape the confines of societal structure. The potential of Jihei’s demise is of deep concern to not only Koharu, but to his devout wife Osan. Although they hold contrasting status as lowly mistress and rightful wife, each is wholly devoted to Jihei, wishing to spare his life above all else. Iwashita’s command of both female roles shifts focus away from the immorality of infidelity and strengthens the bond between characters, allowing the audience to view each in the same sympathetic light. Each is caged by her life’s station—neither has the right to choose love, profession or lifestyle. Her portrayal urges viewers to connect equally with both women, regardless of their situation and social status.

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In his choice to double cast Iwashita, Shinoda also emphasizes both the power and failings of human emotion. Connected by their love for the same man, the paths of wife and mistress become one and the same. Through a secret letter, Osan and Kotaru conspire to save Jihei, their mutual goal leading to a sense duty to each other as women. Osan’s emotional obligation to her situational sister deepens as she comes to accept Jihei’s unshakable love for her. News of the courtesan’s eminent demise sends her into a fit of desperation; she must protect Kotaru as if it were her own life. In a final attempt to save the ill-fated lovers, Osan relinquishes her status as wife and mother in hopes the two might escape. Kotaru and Jihei are ultimately forced to choose love suicide, as if all their clambering efforts had been in vain. Had the three not given in to their passions, they would have survived.

Shinoda’s Double Suicide depicts women greatly wronged by the injustice of social constraints. His use of the same actress for both female leads strengthens the film’s inquiries on identity and status by empowering them through emotional connection. Though each is mere property of another, the womanly bond between Kotaru and Osan allows them to fight against their given situations. Viewers are meant to commiserate equally with the characters, and Iwashita’s dual role accentuates their sameness in plight. In the end, neither emerges victorious, and one wonders if the women were, in fact, the same person, bound by circumstance and powerless against society.

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