Gegege no Nyoubou -- Film Review

Quirky and delightful portrait of the artist as a young-at-heart pauper

TOKYO –- "Gegege no Nyoubou" (literally "Wife of Ge Ge Ge"), a film about the early marital life of Japanese manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, is a refreshing alternative to biopics that put the subject on a pedestal or wallow in manufactured period nostalgia. Director Takuji Suzuki employs an impish, macabre tone to help one see the world through the eyes of the one-armed, war-traumatized anthropologist of supernatural beings. As ironic, deadpan portrait of the ups-and-downs of married life, it’s enhanced by the two principals’ utterly winsome performances.

Since this production was never conceived as a blockbuster, it was released only in alternative cinemas in its native Japan. Critical response however, was unanimously positive, with one eminent critic hailing it as the best Japanese film of 2010. Offshore demand should come from the Japanophile DVD market.

The narrative, set mostly in the ‘60s and derived from the memoirs of Mizuki’s wife Nunoe Mura, is told from her perspective. Considered over-the-hill at 28, Nunoe, (Kazue Fukiishi), the daughter of a provincial sake shop owner, goes to Tokyo for an arranged marriage with a war veteran who’s lost an arm in action and 10 years her senior. He is Shigeru Mizuki (Kankuro Kudo), creator of Gegege no Kitaro, one of the most beloved Japanese children’s manga, the source of Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai Warand two Kitaro features.

Nunoe’s insecurity of living in new surroundings with a total stranger is exacerbated by the discovery that he is penniless as his comics are too dark to be popular. He quibbles that “one lies to get married” and in the film’s cheekiest and most endearing scene, sticks a Y-shaped twig up her chin to force a smile from her pursed lips.

Suzuki gives an amusing twist to the miseries of the struggling artist, with scenes such as Mizuki intimidating inquisitive tax collectors with a shower of pawn tickets. He also is sensitive to Nunoe’s tremendous endurance, charting her marriage as a sentimental education as her practical worries are surmounted by growing insight and admiration for her husband.

The script grasps the essence of Mizuki’s art, and elucidates how his compulsion to write about yokai (the Japanese’s general term for goblins, spirits, monsters et al) is not just morbid fascination with the grotesque. Rather it’s a valiant though lonely stand against modern empiricism that is destroying human affinity with nature and imagination. “Nowadays, people only believe what their eyes can see,” he laments.

The film exudes a ghostly, bizarre atmosphere, which mirrors Mizuki’s inner landscape – it is a place where yokaimingle with humans as if they are residents in their home, while humans behave eerily like the sublet tenant who lurks around like a phantom, or a young admirer who disappears, leaving behind a pile of sand. As Mizuki persists with his drawings, more yokai appear in his midst, as if he writes them into existence.

It is a relief that Gegege does not go the mainstream and sentimental path of the NHK TV drama of the same title. Shunning the young heartthrob Osamu Mukai in the series, the film casts director-writer-actor Kudo (The Shonen Merikensack) as Mizuki. Not only does he look his age with his scruffy appearance, he also devices a distinctive body language that oozes weirdness, making his occasional gestures of tenderness both awkward and funny.

Fukiishi (Noriko’s Dining Table, 13 Assassins) has a star’s looks, but she makes herself physically plain as Nunoe. She doesn’t conform to stereotyped Japanese images of docile, long-suffering wives. Instead she conveys the exhilaration of an intelligent mind discovering her calling when she gradually shares Mizuki’s vision.

Opened in Japan on Nov. 20, 2010
Sales (Japan): Phantom Films
Production companies: Phantom Films, Slow Learner, W-Up Entertainment, Wako, PIA, Maimu Pro, Little More, King Record, Yomiuri TV, Jitsugyou no Nihonsha, Asahi Shimbun
Cast: Kazue Fukiishi, Kankuro Kudo, Maki Sakai, Jun Murakami
Director: Takuji Suzuki
Screenwriters: Michiko Onishi, Takuji Suzuki
Based on the memoirs of Nunoe Mura
Producer: Masaki Sato
Director of photography: Masaki Tamura
Production designer: Kozumi Koji
Music: Nobuyuki Kikuike, Keiichi Suzuki
Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto
Editor: Takashige Kikui
No rating, 119 minutes