Another adaptation of a Tanizaki novel by Yasuzo Masumura, with concerns similar to his version of The Tattoo. Again the focus is on the ‘demon woman’, a sexually irresistible but manipulative creature who traps and kills her lovers. In The Tattoo we see the way such monsters are created quite explicitly – Otsuya is unwillingly transfigured by her tattooist and the gangsters that employ him. In Manji the infection is not consciously administered by representatives of the patriarchy. Rather it is imbibed unwittingly as a result of treating women like divine beings.
Like in The Tattoo, the femme fatale in Manji is shown a picture which provides the model for her later behaviour. It’s not a vampire standing on a pile of corpses, but the Goddess of Mercy – an extremely popular deity in Japan who guides the souls of the deceased to their final resting place. The picture is drawn by Sonoko in an art class she attends to get away from her boring husband. There she meets and is smitten by Mitsuko, who begins an affair partly to cause a scandal and escape her boyfriend.
Tanizaki’s protagonists are usually ‘women-worshippers’, and here he transfers that tendency onto a female protagonist. He was writing in the 1930s, and his motives may not have been entirely enlightened – the ‘unnaturalness’ of the lesbian love affair might be a way to highlight how ‘unnatural’ Mitsuko’s allure is. In any case, the urge to put people on pedestals becomes dangerous – Mitsuko becomes both infantilised and insatiable as a result of having disciples. The attention of one person isn’t enough. She wants many lovers, all jealous of each other.
Mitsuko ends up living up to her identification with the Goddess of Mercy. She ensnares Sonoko’s husband and instigates a ménage à trois in which she is the dominant partner, receiving all devotion. The final part of the film becomes increasingly weird – Mitsuko behaving like a cult leader with complete sway over the couple who love her. When their unconventional arrangement is revealed in the press, she argues for suicide, and in a very strange ritual the three light incense in front of her picture as the Goddess of Mercy, before drinking poison.
But Mitsuko cannot help toying with her worshippers, even after death. She spares Sonoko, who is now filled with doubt about whether Mitsuko truly loved her, or whether she preferred to spend the afterlife only with her husband. Her faith is tested – she's left agonising about whether the Goddess she devoted herself to was just a figment of her imagination.
Masumura’s title is the Japanese name for the swastika – the four bent arms of the cross symbolising the four crooked relationships in the film. But it also highlights the theme of bringing the sacred into profane matters. It's a warning that attaching a spiritual dimension to the workings of love and lust is a recipe for death or despair.