There are good cults and bad cults and the cult of Kaze is a bit of both worlds. Not really a recognized cult, it is instead an informal club of ten women who are united in sisterhood over a common cause which they hope will result in their liberation from a certain Mr. Kaze, a handsome, successful executive in the television industry. The bad part of their mutual solidarity is that the women want Kaze to die and they aim to kill him. Why? Because nine of the women have had affairs with and been discarded by this man and the tenth woman, Futaba Kaze, is his wife and has suffered from his serial unfaithfulness for years. As you would expect from this set-up, Kuroi jûnin no onna (The English title translates as Ten Dark Women or Ten Women in Black), directed by Kon Ichikawa in 1961, is a feminist revenge film but it is also so much more than that.
The film opens with a film noir-like sequence in which a group of women stalk Futaba (Fujiko Yamamoto) on a deserted street at night and then jumps back and forth between incidents in the pasts of the ten women which illuminates their reasons for wanting to murder Mr. Kaze (Eiji Funakoshi). One thing that is particularly striking about the ten female protagonists is that they are all accomplished modern women. They are not passive wallflowers or subservient housewives. Futaba, in particular, is a successful entrepreneur who operates her own restaurant, one she created to take her mind off her husband’s philandering. Miwako (Mariko Miyagi) is a widow with a young son who manages a popular printing press. Several of the other women work in the TV industry, which is where they met Mr. Kaze, and their occupations range from actress to model to makeup artist to film editor. Still, despite their professional standing and financial independence as single women, they are still limited in their career advancement as well as their romantic and sexual desires by Japan’s patriarchal society.
You would expect Kaze, the object of their wrath, to be an arrogant, self-centered narcissist and sexist to boot but he isn’t anything like that. He is actually easy-going, charming and immensely personable. At the same time, he is a bit of a workaholic due to the demands of his hectic job and you have to wonder how he managed to find the time to get married, much less have affairs with so many women. Even he is baffled as to why women find him irresistible and as Ten Dark Women waltzes toward a final resolution, Kaze becomes a sympathetic and truly pitiable character.
The first two thirds of the film is a witty black comedy in which the women try to construct the perfect murder scenario but can’t agree on the best method. “A pistol would be good if it weren’t for the noise,” says one would-be killer. Kaze’s wife Futaba loves the idea of suffocating the victim with a pillow – “It’s beautiful in an odd way” – but also adds playfully, “Nine women each with a butcher knife stabbing in turn would be refreshing.” Eventually they decide on the ideal location for the murder – a private dining room in Futaba’s restaurant but the bigger decision is which one of them will commit the murder. That job falls to Futaba who acquires a gun for the deed but, as you would expect in a black farce, things don’t go according to plan.
The final third of Ten Dark Women moves beyond the boundaries of a poker-faced satire and becomes a social critique of Japanese society and male-female relationships in that culture. It even incorporates some supernatural elements and adds a note of pathos regarding the fate of one of the unhappy women. [Spoiler alert] Considering all that has gone before, the fadeout is suitably ambiguous but Kaze ends up in a much worse place than being dead. Women may feel his gets his just desserts but this is a movie where your final opinion could depend on your gender or what you choose as your gender.
Ichikawa certainly made dark comedies prior to Ten Dark Women such as the bank embezzlement farce The Hole (Japanese title: Ana, 1957) and the erotic shenanigans of Odd Obsession (Japanese title: Kagi, 1959) but this often overlooked effort is unique for casting a jaundiced eye at the television industry while questioning the role of the traditional Japanese male. In one sequence, a department boss at the TV station confides to a female employee about the superiority of women over men: “Childbirth confirms the power women already know they have. Men are tragic. We can’t give birth. We don’t know how to raise children. That’s why we drown ourselves in our work…it is hard to do this job and retain your humanity.”
There is a sense of sadness that lingers after the final fade to black and it comes from Ichikawa’s pessimistic nature. According to Joan Mellon in her enlighting essay on the director in The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan Through Its Cinema, Ten Dark Women reflects Ichikawa’s “persistent refusal to believe that things can be any different than they are…The miseries of the Japanese family appear to be so much more endemic in his films than in those of any other Japanese director because of Ichikawa’s predilection to see both social life and human nature as immutable.” It is also worth noting that the thought-provoking screenplay for Ten Dark Women is by Natto Wada, Ichikawa’s wife, who penned some of his strongest work. (Ichikawa would later remake this movie for television in 2002 under the same title).
The music score for the film by Yasushi Akutagawa (Gate of Hell) has a lush, romantic yet melancholy tone and the noir-influenced cinematography by Setsuo Kobayashi (Being Two Isn’t Easy, Hoodlum Soldier) looks inspired by the stunning shadows-and-light compositions of John Alton in such 1940s masterpieces as T-Men, He Walked by Night and Border Incident. One of the most striking moments is a surreal fantasy in which Kaze is surrounded by the women on a beach and forced to take poison tablets before being dumped unceremoniously into the sea.
The film’s strongest suit is, of course, the excellent ten women acting ensemble which gives almost every actress some memorable bits and scenes. Fujiko Yamamoto is especially fascinating as Futaba. Both cheerful and unflappable, she seems more interested in cultivating the friendships of her husband’s former mistresses than holding out any hope for Kaze to change his ways. In fact, she tells the women, “If there was one woman who would satisfy him, I’d gladly hand him over.”
Mariko Miyagi, who plays the widow Miwako, seems the most determined to win Kaze and even begs Futaba to divorce him so she can marry him and provide her son with a decent stepfather. Of the ten women, she is almost creepy in her manipulations despite her seemingly meek demeanor and stands out from the others for her conflicted feelings. It is Keiko Kishi as Ichiko, the diva-like actress, who eventually convinces Futaba that she is the most qualified of the women to take on Kaze as a kept man and her fierce devotion to their future life together is chilling. The other women seem more frivolous and catty in comparison, especially Shio (Tamao Nakamura), a feisty model who ends up falling in love with a nervous TV announcer with itchy hands. Her scenes are played for comedic effect as if her character stepped out of the 1939 film version of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women.
One of the revelations of Ten Dark Women for me is Eiji Funakoshi as the hapless but elegant Kaze. He is movie-star handsome here but this actor is quite the chameleon. He could have played it easy, choosing to star in formulaic romantic dramas and comedies for most of his career but he has always been drawn to challenging and often controversial subject matter. One of his most memorable roles is Tamura, the haunted, raggedy soldier dying of tuberculosis in Ichikawa’s horrific anti-war drama, Fires on the Plain (Japanese title: Nobi, 1959).
Other notable films that showcase his range are Afraid to Die (Japanese title: Karakkaze Yaro, 1960) as a cynical friend to yakuza hothead Yukio Mishima in a rare screen role, Super-Express (Japanese title: Kuro no Chotokkyu, 1964) as a sad sack middle-age businessman caught up in corporate intrigue, Gamera: The Giant Monster (1965) as Dr. Hidaka, the one scientist who might be able to save the world from a rampaging flying turtle, and, his most extreme role of all, Blind Beast (Japanese title: Moju, 1969), as Michio, a blind sculptor who imprisons a woman in his studio with disturbing consequences.
Ten Dark Women is not currently available in any format in the U.S. from any authorized dealer but The Criterion Collection has released several Kon Ichikawa films on Blu-ray and DVD over the years including An Actor’s Revenge, The Burmese Harp and The Makioka Sisters so perhaps they are the most likely distributor to take on this challenge.
Other links of interest:
SCREEN DIARY: TEN DARK WOMEN at ICA (01 FEB 2020)