Shisei: The Tattooer

Original title
Japanese title
  • 刺青
Running time
72 minutes
14 January 2006
Shisei: The Tattooer Shisei: The Tattooer Shisei: The Tattooer


The writer John Fowles once explained that his first novel The Collector (1963) - the story of a reclusive young man from the lower end of the social spectrum who comes into a small fortune when he wins the football pools and uses it to kidnap a pretty young art student and keep her locked up in his basement - was his gut reaction to the sudden large-scale emergence of a new up-and-coming middle class in Britain's immediate post-War period, whose recently earned purchasing power went hand in hand with a lack of culture and sophistication - not dissimilar to the rising 'chav' phenomenon of Blairite Britain. In Fowles's novel, the butterfly-hunting Clegg represented the nemesis of art, refinement and good taste, who debases and ultimately winds up destroying everything of beauty he touches.

The book evidently struck something of a chord with a public who seemed not unduly concerned in letting Fowles' perhaps slightly pompous worldview cloud what was, all in all, a highly gripping read. It sold in its millions across the English-speaking world, and soon found itself being prepped for Hollywood treatment by legendary director William Wyler. But when the resulting film emerged, Fowles found his nose quite publicly put out of joint. Not only had vast dramatic liberties been taken with the original fruits of his creative loins, but all the promo materials had rechristened the movie "William Wyler's The Collector" - the original progenitor had to all intends and purposes become invisible.

Such a possessive relationship between the artist and their art is quite understandable, and so we can view with some degree of sympathy Fowles' insistence on single-handedly writing the screenplay from his second novel, The Magus. That said, there are few better examples of the huge gulf that exists between the creative mediums of literature and cinema, nor of an artist utterly arsing up their own work, than the resulting adaptation, which surfaced in 1968. The original novel was intentionally vague and esoteric. In the foreword to the revised edition Fowles likened it to a Rorschach test: it meant whatever the perceiver wanted to see in it. By compromising the material to the dramatic demands of mainstream cinema, emphasizing certain sections and elements of the source while jettisoning others, it is impossible NOT to read some sort of meaning into the movie - though perhaps not entirely the one intended. "A disaster all the way down the line" was how the author himself later described it. Woody Allen's oft-cited witticism that if he had to live his whole life once again the only thing he would do differently would be not to watch The Magus, was no less damning. Following its universal critical drubbing, Fowles sensibly decided to stick to writing books.

You might wonder why I've opened a review of a new film of an old story by the Japanese modernist writer Junichiro Tanizaki by talking about John Fowles. Several reasons in fact, the first of which is to point out the obvious; that Shisei: The Tattooer is not the first movie to feature a nubile young woman abducted and kept confined by a man obsessed with her beauty. Secondly, it is to bring together two writers whose work I admire very much and, though over several thousand miles and well over a generation separates them (Tanizaki died the very year the film of The Collector was released), to draw a few analogies. And thirdly, it is to dwell a little upon the relationship between cinema and literature by way of reference to several of the ideas in Shadows on the Screen, Thomas LaMarre's study of the cinematic in Tanizaki's writing.

Like Fowles, Tanizaki also had an early stint in the film business, though slightly different in that whereas the Englishman came in as something of a bemused outsider trying to reinvent the wheel in an industry that was already doing pretty well for itself without him, Tanizaki's role in Thomas Kurihara's Taikatsu studios in the early 1920s was more central, and cinema itself in Japan was an art form altogether less sure of itself. Nevertheless, both later used their experiences in literary fiction; Fowles in Daniel Martin and Tanizaki in numerous short stories and novels including A Lump of Flesh (Nikkai) and The Tumour with a Human Face (Jinmenso), which we shall return to in more detail shortly. Both later rejected the world of cinema and, in their prose fiction at least, that of modern culture in general, in favour of exploring ideas more literary in their basis.

Tanizaki is generally better regarded for the second part of his writing career, the half following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake during which he relocated to Kyoto and supposedly put away his more youthful predilections for film, fetishism, and fantasy and concentrated his focus on history and traditional aesthetics in works like The Makioka Sisters.  Fowles did pretty much the same thing after moving from London to the Dorset coastal town of Lyme Regis in the late 60s. His later literary experiments like The French Lieutenant's Woman and A Maggot saw him preoccupied with hypothesizing alternate past histories using basic facts and cases gleaned from forgotten or obscure textual sources, restaging the past from a modern viewpoint. Tanizaki also explored the epistemological limitations in reconstructing history in Arrowroot (Yoshino Kuzu, 1932) and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi (Bushiko Hiwa). In essence, both writers were fully aware of how words, like cinema, had the power to reflect, distort, and shape reality.

Shisei or Tattoo (the translated title is sometimes given as The Tattooist or The Tattooer) was Tanizaki's first work to appear in print (just as The Collector was Fowles'), appearing as part of a collection of short stories in 1910 that effectively launched his career. The tale is of a tattoo artist who abducts a young girl and indelibly monograms the large image of a spider on the flawless canvas of lily-white skin. The tattoo brings about a massive change in her personality, awakening in her an awareness of her sexuality.

I personally haven't read Tanizaki's original story, but this recent adaptation by Hisayasu Sato, while it in itself can hardly be described as a masterpiece, really got me thinking about the nature of the fantasy that underpins this kind of scenario. Shisei may not be regarded in quite the same esteem as Tanizaki's later works, but along with Manji and The Key, it is one of his more frequently adapted for the big screen, with Yasuzo Masumura's film for Daiei in 1966, a Roman Porno version for Nikkatsu from Chusei Sone in 1984, and elements working their way into to Tetsuji Takechi's semi-hardcore feature Oiran in 1983. As these last two titles suggest, the scenario lends itself readily to the exploitation of nudity from at least one of its cast members.

Surprisingly, given his background in pink filmmaking and Shisei: The Tattooer's marketing as a piece of (mild) erotica, Sato doesn't really exploit the titillatory potential of the scenario quite as much as one might expect. Of course, there is more to eroticism than bared breasts and buttocks, and one could argue quite convincingly that Sato's films were never really about sex anyway, taking great pains to complicate both the act and its depiction, with their usual deployment of a panoply of visual devices like mirrors and video monitors.

Shisei is no exception. It perhaps belongs more comfortably to the small pool of films that set themselves up as metaphysical enquiries into the creative process, charting the Herculean efforts of visionaries set apart from the ranks of ordinary men by virtue of either genius or insanity as they attempt to translate the raw forms of their female muses into the ultimate expressions of their art. As such it can be positioned, albeit with tongue slightly in cheek, somewhere along a continuum between Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse (1991) and Hideshi Hino's Guinea Pig: Flowers of Flesh and Blood; the 4-hour running time of La Belle Noiseuse is in essence a lengthy scrutiny of Michel Piccoli's attempts at transforming Emmanuelle Béart's divine form into a canvas reproduction that does it justice, while Hino's pseudo-snuff video cheapie is just as fastidious a reconstruction of a sociopath in samurai armour disassembling a girl into her constituent parts of blood and gristle in a secluded torture chamber. Both can be described as depicting "the relationship between activity and artefact" as a review in the UK's Observer newspaper in 1992 said of Rivette's film.

Such two-character chamber pieces frame the creative/destructive process as a battle of wills between the (emotionally tortured male) creator and the (physically tortured female) catalyst, a war of attrition between Yin and Yang in which the creative fruits, be it a pastel sketch or a flamboyant rearrangement of internal organs, are in effect the residue. Whereas these two extreme examples document the interplay between artist and muse fairly dispassionately, as if to suggest that the intensity and complexity of the process is beyond the ken of its viewers, Shisei attempts to use the visual possibilities of the cinematic medium to draw us into the artist's world as he attempts to get under his subject's skin. Its look and feel brings to mind the elaborate and highly tactile environment of another work in this vein, Yasuzo Masumura's adaptation of Edogawa Rampo's The Blind Beast, in which a sightless sculptor uses only touch to replicate his kidnapped victim's body in stone, all the time the two engaging in a constant dialogue that keeps the narrative going while verbally echoing the ideas being explored visually. Another crucial difference in Shisei is that the female character's role is slightly more complicated than in the other titles. She is not just the inspiration for the tattooists' work, but also the canvas. The tattoo itself and its medium of the flawless, satiny skin on her back, are effectively inseparable.

One of the ideas discussed in Thomas LaMarre's study on the close relationship between Tanizaki's writing and cinema is that of 'a-modality', "an experience in which a sensory modality (seeing) evokes another modality (hearing or touching, for instance)" (366). Such an experience is more usually known as synaesthesia. In literature, the writer evokes this cross-modality of the senses by use of terms relating to one kind of sense-impression to describe sense-impressions of other kinds. (In its stricter sense, synaesthesia is used to describe a neurological condition in which senses are experienced through other sensory modes - tasting yellow and hearing blue for example - as is often reported as part of the hallucinogenic experience). I've mentioned the word 'tactile' for instance, in conjunction with The Blind Beast - the viewer vicariously experiences the sense of touch through what they witness on screen.

As LaMarre remarks, one of the ways in which Tanizaki's writing could be described as cinematic is its highly visual nature. The short story The Mermaid's Lament (Ningyo no Nageki, 1917) in particular uses imagery reflective of the heightened sensations and new way of experiencing narrative that cinema provides through its intrinsic aspects of magnification and luminosity. In the story, the mermaid's skin is described as "of such a whiteness that it recalled the glow of moonlight, which made him wonder if there was not a source of light concealed in her bones that shone through her flesh." LaMarre's analysis of this short work is aptly entitled Screen Sirens.

Interestingly enough, Sato's film seems to visually cross-references this story - the abducted beauty (Yoshii) is first seen sculling around in a swimming pool strongly lit from below, situating her in the element like a fly trapped in amber. After falling asleep during a massage after her swim, she awakes to find that her masseur (Yuge) is now her abductor. A mermaid's fish-scale pattern on her legs is but one part of the full body tattoo.

Tanizaki of course wrote in the Japanese language, whose kanji characters are representational rather than phonetic. In the 1920s Sergei Eisenstein drew a parallel between the cinematic qualities of the Japanese written language and his own theory of montage. For the native Japanese reader, the physical form of each word evokes an associated mental image, something which Tanizaki himself dwelt upon in his 1917 essay, Poetry and Characters: "For poets, characters truly are jewels. As in jewels, there is sparkle in characters, and hue, and scent." (26) Again, note the poetic way that light and colour are invoked in this description, alongside the non-visual, a-modal sense of smell.

One of the things the film adaptation of Shisei got me thinking about is this question of reality and representation; the disjunction between appearance and meaning, which can be detected in the characters of the title itself. Shisei is not actually a proper word, but the phonetic reading of the two kanji characters used to write the Japanese word 'irezumi', or tattoo. (Confusingly, while Tanizaki's original story is called Shi-Sei, the two earlier film adaptations seem to have been known as Irezumi, according to the 'furigana' or 'romaji' accompanying the title and giving its pronunciation. Also there are several other films in Japan bearing the title Tattoo, or Irezumi, such as the 1982 title from Banmei Takahashi and a couple of yakuza films, not connected with Tanizaki's source in any way.)

In many respects, Tanizaki's early work is natural territory for Sato (and in fact I recently had the opportunity to ask him as much - for the record he's a big fan of Tanizaki's earlier more popular and sensationalist work such as this, but hasn't read the later novels like The Makioka Sisters). Tanizaki conjured images out of words. Sato uses images to evoke other senses. The director's title for his first pink film was Distorted Sense of Touch, and texture and feel is a major component of a lot of his films - the tattooist dons rubber gloves before starting work on her bare flesh, and when her soft white skin is not being inked, actress Rei Yoshii's form is swathed in such tactile materials as a silver catsuit, a shiny black PVC jacket, or cocooned in polythene (strapped down so that, like the wounded war hero of Rampo Noir's The Caterpillar, she can be touched but not touch herself).

Aside from the effect on inducing the experience of touch visually, the attention to onscreen textures also deliberately obfuscates the distinction between surface and object, between 'seeing' and 'knowing', - in other words, between two-dimensional representations and three-dimensional reality. Where exactly does the tattoo derive its aesthetic power from - the visual form of the spider, or the skin of the tattooed?

I want to digress back to another Tanizaki short story now, also translated in LaMarre's book, which really seems to demonstrate Tanizaki and Sato's approach to their art, aware as they both are that they are creating complete fictional worlds from the basic symbolic components of their craft (kanji characters for Tanizaki, images and sound for Sato), which take on a life of their own divorced from reality. The story, published in 1918 is The Tumour with the Human Face, and given that it is so cinematic, it is strange that it has only been filmed once, and in fact, not even faithfully: Tetsuji Takechi only used very superficial elements of the story in tandem with similarly superficial elements of Shisei to create a work of fairly dubious intent, the aforementioned Oiran. More surprisingly is that it hinges on a very powerful idea that still seemed novel and exciting eight years later, when Sadako's grainy video image became actuality in Hideo Nakata's Ring.

The story is of a famous actress just returned to Japan after a successful career stint working in America who learns of a film playing in a single theatre in Tokyo in which she is cast in the leading role. However, she has no recollection of ever being on the shoot of a film with this particular plot. The film itself has no credits, and tells the tale of a young woman who is cursed by the appearance of a grotesque face which appears on her knee, the face of a man she has cheated. She originally thinks the film has been constructed through outtakes or spliced-in footage from her other films, and that the face materialises on her knee through a clever use of cinematic superimposition techniques, but when she finally sees it, she realises this would be impossible. As a projectionist who watches it solitarily in the darkness of a private screening room ends up driven insane by the amplified images cast from the projected print, the story ends with the possibility of thousands of copies being made and distributed across the world - a case of the material representation taking on a life of its own divorced from its original source.

Tanizaki is not the only writer of this period whose work was so self-consciously modelled on cinema and in awe of its power. It is commonly known that the Shin Kankaku-ha group, or New Sensationalists (kankaku, meaning sense, feeling, or touch, is a word that incidentally crops up often in the dialogue of Shisei) including Riichi Yoshimitsu and Yasunari Kawabata were thoroughly in tune with the new art form: Kawabata collaborated with the director Teinosuke Kinugasa on the early example of Japanese avant-garde film A Page of Madness for example. LaMarre's book brilliantly unearths a quote from an essay written in 1925 by Japan's master of mystery fiction Edogawa Rampo, within the first few years of his career (and interestingly the year before his short story The Hell of Mirrors - in which a mad mirror maker seals himself in the centre of a spherical mirror ball), entitled "The Terror of Film" (Eiga no Kyoufu) that I think finds some kinship with what Tanizaki was exploring in his fiction and Hisayasu Sato in his film - the impact of the magnified image, the breakdown of the emotional boundaries between viewer and object, and the schism between reality and the exaggerated new way of experiencing it:

"When I watch a moving picture, I become frightened. It is the dream of an opium smoker. From the one-inch celluloid springs a crowd of giant players, who weep, laugh, become angry, and fall in love. An apparition of the Land of the Giants described in Swift unfolds vividly before my eyes. Filling the screen, a face one thousand times larger than mine looks my way and grins. What if that were my own face! Film actors carry on without going mad. Have you ever seen your face in a concave mirror? In the concave mirror, your face, smooth as a baby's, changes into something terribly pitted and bumpy, like the surface of the moon seen through a telescope. Skin like fish scales, pores like caverns - I find the concave mirror horrifying. Screen actors must be staring endlessly into concave mirrors. Truly it is odd that they don't go mad." (110)

It's an evident truism that you can do things on film that you can't do in reality. Horror and the fantastique are intrinsically cinematic, and as Rampo's essay frames it the other way round, cinema is intrinsically horrific and fantastical. What is interesting then is that before horror had even become a film genre per se in Japan then, nor even in fact the rest of the world, commentators were already writing about the 'horror of film'. Tanizaki wrote a lot about cinema, venting his opinion at length in one essay in LaMarre's book on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, seen nowadays as an important precursor to the genre. Certainly a lot of Tanizaki's short stories and scripts occupy territory that might well be considered that of horror nowadays, such as for example Mr Aozuka's Story from 1926, a macabre tale of soulless simulacra, or the screenplay for Lust of the White Serpent (1921), which plays something like a Heian-era Buddhist harbinger of The Exorcist.

I've just bounced around a few ideas here, drawn together a few threads and in no way followed them as far as they might go. Perhaps essentially what I am getting at is that Hisayasu Sato's adaptation of Shisei becomes considerably more interesting when viewed through such different contexts as the 'shock of the new' emergence of cinema in the 1910s that had such a profound influence Tanizaki's literature, or of Sato's own body of work, in which women are often the subject of multiple gazes and the divisions between image and reality are blurred. As a movie experience in itself however, Shisei has its limitations.

Shisei's main hurdle is that for a film like this to keep its one-room setup fresh and invigorating, the only effective options are to keep the interplay between the two leads sparkling through use of snappy insightful dialogue, and to capitalise on the visual possibilities inherent within the location. The film is rather wanting on the dialogue side of things, with the two actors leadenly bouncing portentous lines delivered in flat monotone off one another while studiously avoiding making eye contact.

As for the second aspect of the overall look and design of the film, well, budget and the visual creativity of the director are the two deciding factors here. Sato has a lot of the latter but evidently not a lot of the former. Coming right after his most opulent work to date, The Caterpillar segment of Rampo Noir, this new film, the first ever of his features to be shot on HD video can't help looking a little cheap. In itself this seems a little surprising: Sato has tackled low-budget single-room scenarios like this before in his pink days, and they've never seemed visually wanting. For example, The Secret Garden (a.k.a. Lolita Vibrator Torture) took place almost entirely in the back of a truck, its scenario conceived with such a lack of production funds in mind. I can only really conjecture that one of the reasons the film doesn't quite work is its sound design, especially the cheap-sounding synth score, which falls way behind every other aspect of the production.

But overall, even using video, the images and set design are pretty striking, with the cold grey colour palette contributing to its unique atmosphere. Sections of the location are wallpapered over with black bin bags; light reflected from the rippling surface of the swimming pool dances rhythmically on the walls; distorting mirrors open up the visual possibilities of the cramped location, while huge glass orbs sitting in the foreground refract the light from behind and add further visual interest. The look of the film is also the key method by which Sato updates the material to the 21st century. Yuge mocks up his designs on his PC, using PhotoShop to superimpose various images selected from an ero-guro artbook onto Yoshii's bare back. As he circles around her clutching a video camera, the close-ups of her face are projected onto a different large screen occupying the rear wall behind. Yoshii appears blond and bright-eyed, as at one point he fumbles with her recumbent body in the dark while wearing a pair of UV night goggles, underscoring how different mediums catch and record different aspects of reality.

I opened this review by raising the question of authorship with regard to film adaptations of literary works. There is no question that Sato's cinematic identity isn't strong enough to make the material here entirely his own. With its fixation with screens, spray cans, mixed visual mediums, and rubber gloves, Shisei is readily identifiable as belonging to this particular director's oeuvre, and it should also come as no surprise to learn that its script was written by Sato's regular collaborator Shiro Yumeno. Even if the end results don't rank among his best, it at least provides a good introduction for those less familiar with his unique and fascinating filmmaking philosophy and style. Bearing little resemblance to previous versions of the story, I think it would be fair to label this "Hisayasu Sato's Shisei" rather than "Junichiro Tanizaki's Shisei", and on this level it can be gauged as a success.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note how the film seems to have been conceived as the first part of a diptych, with fellow former Four Devil Takahisa Zeze alongside his regular script collaborator Kishu Izuchi being the next to turn his hand to Tanizaki's debut, with Si-Sei: Ochita Joro-gumo (or 'Tattoo: Lapsed Whore Spider'), to be released theatrically not long after this review goes up. Judging from the cast list alone, in which Remi Kawashima replaces Rei Yoshii as the fleshy canvas, the film is more intended as a "second take" on the source material than a sequel. If Sato's film focused on the male character and the process of him leaving his mark, Zeze's seems to be more about the changed character of the woman in the aftermath of his inky deeds. Perhaps we need not probe too deep beneath the surface for a subtext.