If I can make a Hollywood reference for Manji, I'd suggest it's a little bit like Closer, except that it's a lot more intense with its expressions of love and lust, and extremely manipulative characteristics built into its four lead characters, each faced with selfish desires and dilemmas, centred around things like blackmail, suicide pacts and adultery.
Housewife Sonoko Kakiuchi (Kyoko Kishida) narrates her tale to a stern looking man (A cop? A biographer? A shrink even?) who maintains his silence throughout that it seemed a little creepy. From nowhere in her account of her tale did this chap feature in it, so one can only wonder that he must be someone significant enough to warrant her to spill the beans to.
Being victims of art school gossip, Sonoko and Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao), the pretty daughter of a wealthy industrialist and a fellow student in Sonoko's school, decide to take one step forward in killing off malicious talk, and that is to play along to make it all seem real to quash delight in talking behind someone's back. A short trip to Nara later, and the duo seem to have clicked and hit it off like best pals with common interests.
Soon their friendship ventured into some crazed sexual obsession, especially when Mitsuko's model looks and figure drive Sonoko wild with envy and strange desire, paving the way for some lesbian moments. And as if their passion for each other isn't enough, soon they are joined by Kotaro (Riji Funakoshi), Sonoko's questioning husband, and Watanuki (Yusuke Kawazi) the clingy fiance of Mitsuko. Various threesome relationships soon start to form, with credit going to magic powder that contributed to blending reality and fantasy, and Sonoko and Watanuki engaging in a blood pact of sorts in a strange ritual to possess their object of desire in Mitsuko to themselves.
For all the characters' cunningness, especially in master manipulator Mitsuko and the equally shady Watanuki, I was half expecting some of its plot elements to venture into a more conventional, and material blackmail and ruin with contracts so casually signed and sealed (in blood), but I guess director-in-focus for the festival Yasuzo Masumura had other ideas, opting for the psychological and the emotional turmoil that each of the characters face. There's this tremendous trust-mistrust emotional ping-pong that the characters go through which will keep you constantly questioning and probing their intent and hidden agendas. To me the actual highlight is exactly these mind games the four characters play, the tussle to gain upper ground to fulfil their personal wants, brought to life excellently by the actors themselves who will keep you engaged all the way to the finale.
For those looking forward to its exploitative moments, this is not that film. Comparing it to its genre peers, Manji seemed a little tame, where sexual acts are mostly implied and nudity falling victim to strategic cover-ups. I suppose that the lip locks too didn't actually happen and had to rely on camera angles, and body doubles aptly used in the gazing of the naked flesh. But then, the largest sexual organ is firmly in top gear here, not as a stimulant but as a weapon in coming up with brainy, conniving schemes to gain the upper hand, which in itself is a horrific thought since we are all innately capable of falling prey to temptation enough to design plans that hurt.
The festival films thus far had steered clear of the more conventional thought of the themes presented, and clearly it's an eye opener as to how many more films could fit into the themes in an unorthodox way. One thing though, from last night's screening and today's, artists or artists wannabe have been shown as souls willing to engage in deviant acts in the name of their art, and more so too in satisfying their strange fetishes. I look forward to see what more is in store in the subsequent screenings!