A young couple are enjoying a romantic rendezvous in a hidden grove at a city park at twilight. It turns out to be an illicit affair. The woman is the married wife of a law professor and her lover is one of his students. Their privacy is interrupted by the arrival of a speeding taxi that crashes into an embankment nearby. Inside the driver is seen struggling with the backseat occupant. It ends badly with the driver murdered and his body dragged into the bushes. The killer flees and the young couple are faced with a dilemma. Should they go to the police and risk exposing their affair or remain silent? This is the pressing issue that drives the narrative of The Assignation (Japanese title: Mikkai, 1959), directed by Ko Nakahira.
The theme of guilt driving adulterers to turn against each other has often been a staple of film noir as in The Postman Always Rings Twice (both the 1946 and 1981 versions) and other dark classics about killer couples. The situation is somewhat different in The Assignation. Ikuo (Takao Ito) and Kikuko (Yoko Katsuragi) are not schemers or would-be murderers but their refusal to come forward and report a murder they witnessed could result in an aiding and abetting charge or being sentenced as an accessory after the fact. As a result, Nakahira’s film works not only as an intense melodrama but also as a brooding character study that grows increasingly dark as Ikuo and Kikuko begin to fall apart as a couple.
The couple in question couldn’t be more different in temperament. Kikuko, who is ten years older than Ikuo but looks much younger, is a romantic dreamer. Nakahira provides just enough detail and nuance to reveal the emptiness of Kikuko’s life. Married to an older man in what is clearly a loveless marriage – they keep separate bedrooms – Kikuko is expected to be the accommodating, subservient wife but many of her wifely duties are already being performed by Sayo, the maid. To while away her leisure time, Kikuko has taken up cooking lessons but once she meets Ikuo and begins an affair, her hobby becomes a cover for her true actions. The romance with Ikuo gives her something to live for but she knows it can’t last and is realistic about the final outcome.
Ikuo, on the other hand, is an intensely serious young law student who is infatuated with Kikuko and has no desire to give her up for his career and future life. His conscience also demands that he report the murder he witnessed to the police immediately while Ikuo pleads against it due to the scandal it would cause them both. She tries to reason with him saying, “I have a husband. If he finds out my life will be over and his reputation ruined.” But Ikuo’s response confirms the worse. He doesn’t care about the scandal. He wants to marry Kikuko regardless of the consequences.
Interestingly enough, the killer of the cab driver, who is clearly seen hiding evidence and leaving the scene of the crime, is never glimpsed again, nor is that murder resolved in the course of The Assignation. Instead, the developing riff between Ikuo and Kikuko generates an almost unbearable tension and leads to a shocking twist in the final moments of the film.
Director Ko Nakahira is considered one of the pioneers of the Japanese New Wave that emerged in the late fifties/early sixties. His debut feature, Crazed Fruit (1956), was part of a brief movement known as the “Sun Tribe Films” due to the cynical, hedonistic protagonists and their rejection of society in the postwar years. Other contemporaries of Nakahira include Nagisa Oshima (Cruel Story of Youth, 1960), Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships, 1961), Yasuzo Masumura (Giants and Toys, 1958) and Hiroshi Teshigahara (Pitfall, 1962). Strangely enough, all of these directors are better known outside of Japan than Nakahira, whose work has been overlooked and forgotten until recent years. Thanks to film retrospectives of Nakahira’s work in cities like Berlin, Seoul, Rio, New York City, London and others, the director is finally starting to receive the attention he deserved during his lifetime (he died in 1978).
Crazed Fruit is certainly an excellent entry point to dive into his filmography but the film’s vibrant, emotionally turbulent nature is quite different from The Assignation, which is a much more introspective and meditative experience. It simply proves how versatile Nakahira was in handling different subject matter. Other career highlights in Nakahira’s oeuvre include the Japanese box office hit Crimson Wings (Kurenai no tsubasa, 1958), the screwball comedy Will It Be Fine Tomorrow? (Ashita hareru ka, 1960), Closed on Mondays (1964), a portrait of a modern, independent woman, and Souls to the Devil (Yami no naka no chimimoryo, 1971), which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Nakahira would go on to remake Crazed Fruit in 1968 as Summer Heat (Kuang lian shi) featuring a cast of Hong Kong actors and filmed in color as opposed to the shimmering black and white cinematography of the original. He also even directed a few films for the Hong Kong based Shaw Brothers such as Trapeze Girl (Fei tian nu lang, 1967) starring Yin Fang as a young runaway who joins the circus.
Some final comments about The Assignation: The movie is highlighted by a jazzy, drum-propelled score by Toshiro Mayuzumi (an Oscar nominee for John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning…) that racks up the suspense in a feature with a running time of less than seventy-five minutes. The two main performances by Takao Ito and Yoko Katsuragi are particularly memorable though the actors were at different stages in their careers. This was the debut film for Ito, who would go on to become a key supporting player in period costume dramas like The Gambling Samurai (1964), Zatoichi Challenged (1967) and The Battle of Manchuria (1970). Unlike Ito, Katsuragi was at the end of her career. She would only make three more features before retiring in 1963 but her earlier career was distinguished by such significant Japanese films as Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Spring (1949), Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal (1950) and Masaki Kobayashi’s crime drama Black River (1957).
A few of Nakahira’s films are available on DVD such as Crazed Fruit, the action-adventure Danger Pays (Yabai koto nara zeni ni naru) and Summer Heat but The Assignation does not exist on any authorized format in the U.S. European Trash Cinema carries a nice looking DVD-R but wouldn’t it be great to see The Criterion Collection or some enterprising distributor release a box set of Nakahira’s early work on blu-ray in the near future?
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