Kenji Mizoguchi’s sublime cinema of doomed lovers and self-martyring women often mirrored his tortured soul and tumultuous life. His artistic beginnings and romantic exploits read like something out of a trashy pulp novel.
Born into the lower middle class, Mizoguchi’s father lost all the family’s money selling raincoats to the Japanese army during the brief Japan-Russian War of 1905. In dire straits, he gave up his eldest daughter, Suzu (Kenji’s favorite sibling) to foster parents for adoption. Suzu was soon sold to a Geisha house but, in time, she landed on her feet by becoming the mistress of a wealthy aristocrat. Kenji adored Suzu and he would rely on her for the next several years to find work and safe harbor from his common father, who he loathed.
Spoiled by Suzu, the neurotic younger brother turned into something of a ne’er do well. He dabbled as a painter and then as an illustrator at a newspaper before dropping all pretenses of earning his keep and became a poet. Mizoguchi finally took a job as an assistant director for a Tokyo production company and by the time he was twenty-five he had directed his first film.
Relocating in Kyoto two years later, he entered into a violent love relationship with a waitress who in a fit of rage slashed his back with a razor. Throwing his career to the wind, Mizoguchi quit filmmaking to track the woman down but the reconciliation didn’t last for long. Bored with the idle life, Kenji left her and the troubled woman drifted into prostitution.
In 1927 Mizoguchi entered into a turbulent romance with a restaurant hostess, who may have been a gangster’s moll, and married her. The union was troubled from the beginning, but it endured. After years of fighting with her complicated husband, Chieko Mizoguchi went insane and Kenji was compelled to commit her to an asylum in 1941.
Lonely and guilt-ridden, Mizoguchi took in his destitute sister in-law (and her children) and lived with her as man and wife, but that didn’t stop him from proposing to one of his finest leading ladies. Somehow, from this exceedingly sordid background the seeds of a great artist sprouted and flourished.
Like his early contemporaries and major influences F.W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg, Mizoguchi was one the cinema’s most painterly filmmakers. His early background as an artist piqued his interest in set design and the inner workings of the camera, most unusual characteristics for a Japanese director of his era. He helped bring his nation’s cinema out of its stage-bound doldrums by introducing western-style mise-en-scene techniques and controversial leftist themes to the screen. As nearly all of Mizoguchi’s films from the 1920s are lost it is impossible to pin down just when his distinctive style came into its own.
The first extant film, the pleasant, if undistinguished, The Song of Home follows the exploits of country carriage driver Naotaro Takeda (Shigeru Kido), a young man who yearns for a college education in the big city. Naotaro observes with some jealousy his friends returning home from university life with new found sophistication and plenty of pretention. After he saves the daughter of an American professor from drowning, he is offered a scholarship in Tokyo as a reward. But, feeling obligated to the community, Naotaro turns it down and pledges to become an important farmer.
The next Mizoguchi film to survive, Tokyo March, exists in a fragmented twenty-five minute print, but even from this mere segment it’s fair to say the director had grown by leaps and bounds. The film opens with a young woman who retrieves a ball for two tennis-playing yuppies. Unbeknownst to the smitten men, the girl works as a Geisha to support her aunt and uncle. As fate would have it her mother was also the lover of one of the men and she may actually be the poor fellow’s half-sister. Originally intended to be a talkie, Tokyo March has a bustling, snappy quality. After its breezy opening the events veer towards the melodramatic but the theme of the tragic fallen woman was pure Mizoguchi.
Another self-sacrificing woman would be the heroine in his first talkie Home Town. Ayako (Shizue Natsukawa) is the girlfriend-maid to a stuggling singer Fujimura (Yoshi Fujamara) who entertains travelers on a ship returning from Europe. The vain tenor finds a benefactor in the socialite Natsue Omura (Fujiko Hamaguchi) who sweeps him off his feet and propels his fledgling career. Meanwhile, Ayako seems destined to a life of misery until Fujimara is injured and turns to his old flame for comfort. Fujimara’s signature song in the film became a big hit in Japan and helped sell the light-hearted movie to audiences suspicious of the talkies.
As with his final silent film, Home Town has flourishes of the Mizoguchi visual style but it’s a conventional, commercial effort, giving little indication of the glories yet to come.
Mizoguchi’s many splendid films of the 1930s provides evidence he was one of the first sound filmmakers to champion the extended single take (often lasting up to five minutes) and the lyrical use of the tracking shot. Mizoguchi eschewed close-ups in favor of long shots and the less frequently used middle-range shot. These isolating techniques bring a tragic alone-ness to his characters; the romantics and cast-offs out to fend for themselves in a sexist, caste-conscious, and regimented world. Mizoguchi applied these skills to films made in his preferred genre, the Shimpa, Japanese melodrama with a woman as the protagonist.
We begin to get a feel for the mature Mizoguchi in The Water Magician, a tale of misbegotten love between a performer and the young man she puts through law school. Based on a novel by one of the director’s favorite authors, Kyoka Izumi, Mizo’s film is the story of Tokyo’s popular illusionist Taki no Shiraito (Takako Irie), who falls in love at first sight with Kin-San (Tokihiko Okada), an insolent carriage driver. After he loses his job, the smitten Shiraito seduces Kin-San under the moonlight, takes him in and insists on paying for his education. But, when rural audiences disappear during the winter months Shiraito takes to sleeping with the one of the show’s sponsors for money.
After one such occasion Shiraito is sabotaged then robbed and comes to the conclusion she has been victimized by one of the sponsors. She confronts the man who brutalizes her until, in an act of self-defense, she stabs him to death. After fleeing from the law Shiraito is captured and once incarcerated she learns she will be prosecuted by Kin-San. She convinces her lover to do justice by the law and he succeeds in getting Shiraito sentenced to death. Later, in despair, Kin-San retreats to the bridge where the couple spent their most romantic evening and shoots himself in the head.
The rapturous, erotically charged The Water Magician is one of Mizoguchi’s most uncompromising feminist films. Although she would clearly become the victim of a puritanical justice system, Shiraito has no regrets in first seducing the handsome Kin-San then propping up the inexperienced lawyer as a great man, even at her own expense. Through her expertise in her peculiar art and the art of seduction we know Shiraito to be a creature of the senses. Before the film nearly succumbs to its conventional courtroom sequence, the very fine Takako Irie turns in something quite extraordinary for 1933, a female performance heated with sexual desire.
Based on another story by Izumi, The Downfall of Osen is a similar sort of tragedy about a gangster’s mistress who sacrifices her health and sanity for an aspiring doctor. It opens in a most striking fashion with Osen (Isuzu Yamada), a moll for the “antiques dealer” Kumasawa (Shin Shabata), stumbling upon the destitute Sokichi (Daijiro Natsukawa) in a dark backstreet ready to commit suicide. She saves the unhappy man and brings him into the gangster’s fold. But the cynical Kumasawa has little patience for the pair and makes their lives a misery until Osen breaks from the thug and takes to the streets as a prostitute in order to support the younger man.
Ultimately, she commits a petty crime which gets her arrested and thrown into jail. A fateful accident separates the aspiring young doctor from his patron until years later when he finds her unconscious at a railway station, a victim of syphilis. Sokichi tries to nurse Osen back to health but, alas, she is too far gone.
Those only familiar with later Mizoguchi films may well be surprised by The Downfall of Osen. As is his wont the director uses a dynamic camera, but by employing a series of startling swish pans, vigorous tracking shots, luminous close-ups, and slightly jarring editing, the visual style often borders on the Expressionistic. Yet, the story is pure Mizo and piquant leading actress Isuzu Yamada turns out to be one of the best interpreters of the director’s tragic vision.
Before Mizoguchi truly hit his stride in 1936, he completed two conventional, but not uninteresting, assignments. Based on a story by Maupassant Oyuki the Madonna opens quite literally with a bang during the Seinan War (1877-78) where a bickering upper-class family flees an invading army of samurai in the back of a carriage. To their horror, they find they are accompanied by two prostitutes but when the vehicle breaks down on the side of the road they are given much needed food by Oyuki (Isuzu Yamada), the kinder of the two fallen women. When the family is confronted by the government’s army for being sympathetic to the rebels, it is Oyuki who volunteers to soothe the soul of the angry colonel.
After the rousing opening sequence, Oyuki the Madonna settles into a slightly clichéd character study made enjoyable by the presence of Oyuki’s feisty partner Okin (Komako Hara), who mocks her snobbish comrades and the young army officer who looks down upon her slutty demeanor. Message cinema wasn’t Mizoguchi’s bag, but even if he was underwhelmed by the scenario he always found a singular angle to deliver the dramatic goods.
Poppy is the sort of middle-class drama Yasijuro Ozu specialized in during the 1930s, but here the story takes on Mizoguchian gravitas. The orphan Seizo Ono (Ichiro Tsukida) is raised and given an education by the schoolteacher Inoue (Yukichi Iwata) who hopes the bright boy will one day marry his daughter Sayoko (Chiyoko Okura). But when the young man goes to Tokyo to complete his degree he falls in love with his student Fujio (Kuniko Miyake). The urbane Ono finds the sophisticated Fujio more appealing than the sweet and traditional Sayoko but marrying the Tokyo woman would mean reneging on a solemn promise made to his mentor.
Under Ozu’s serene direction Poppy could well have been transformed into a comedy of manners where passion takes a backseat to social graces but here, one feels all the major players will end up miserable regardless of who Ono chooses for his wife. This unsettled anguish, brought on by crippling social dogma, would soon become a predominant theme in Mizoguchi’s films for years to come.
Although the name Mizoguchi is synonymous with historical epics, he came into his own as a director of edgy, sophisticated urban dramas in the mid-1930s. The films of this period are restless and highly critical of a patriarchal society soon to stand front and center on the global stage. During this time, Mizoguchi also found his muse in his greatest collaborator, screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, one of the few professionals, technicians and actors capable of forming a lasting working relationship with the notoriously difficult director. Ten years younger than his mentor, it is safe to say Yoda’s input gave many of these films much of their stinging bite.
Shot at a time when Japan was embracing its feudal past and drifting towards fascism, Osaka Elegy had to come as a shock to the general public. It is a sharp and cynical story of an intelligent and ambitious working woman who is frustrated and finally done-in by the cruelty of men. Ayako (Isuzu Yamada), an attractive phone operator enters into an affair with her manipulative boss Asai (Benkei Shiganoya) to help her father pay back the money he embezzled from his employer. Unable to turn to the other weak and self-centered males in her life she finds herself at the mercy of Asai and his vindictive wife. Desperate, Ayako teases Asai’s business partner Fukino (Eitaro Shindo) but he takes exception to her unwillingness to put out and ruins her reputation once and for all.
Tough and unapologetic, Osaka Elegy was Mizoguchi’s most controversial effort to date. Immaculately shot (by cinematographer Minoru Miki) and decorated, it is a film of exceptional, if chilly, beauty. Ayako is seduced by the aura of powerful men, swanky apartments and the material goods riches can buy. In the end she is punished for daring to step foot on such fields of battle and bringing the men to their knees.
Set in modern Kyoto Sisters of the Gion is the unforgiving story of two sisters who possess very different philosophical takes on their Geisha trade. Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) is a traditional Geisha and loyal to her suitors while her bitter sister, the educated Omocha (Isuzu Yamada), is more opportunistic and ready to shake down her gullible clients for all they are worth. Their differences rise to a head when their old “patron” Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) decides to leave his wife and move in with them. Omocha resents the old cheapskate’s presence and wants him gone, but the gullible Umekichi lets Furosawa stay on and drain their resources. Looking to pad her pockets by running with a younger and rougher crowd, Omocha falls victim to her latest John when she gets pushed out of a moving car.
This taut and bitter tale ends with the paralyzed Omocha being rushed to the hospital. Taking little comfort from her gentle sister, Omocha rails out against men and the Geisha life before the chilling, final fade out.
In 1937, the disbanding of Mizoguchi’s longtime production house (Daiichi Eiga) gave him an opportunity to sign with Shinko, an outshoot of the famous Shochiku Studios. For his first film for Shinko he made The Straits of Love and Hate, another powerful drama (based on Tolstoy’s Resurrection) about a fallen woman, but this time Mizoguchi’s heroine rises over the ashes of her broken love affair.
Having been impregnated by the son of her rich employer, housemaid Ofumi (Fumiko Yamaji) follows her ne’er do well lover Kenchiki (Masao Shimuzu) to Tokyo where they set up house. Ofumi gives birth to a son but Kenchiki can’t be bothered to support a wife and child, so she resorts to prostitution to pay the bills. After the spoiled Kenchiki returns home, Ofumi is recruited by old friend Yoshitaro (Seizaburo Kawazu) to join her uncle’s touring acting troupe.
Life on the road is arduous for the little troupe but Ofumi seems to have found peace of mind in her love affair with Yoshitaro. When the troupe visits Kenchiki’s idyllic village in the Japanese Alps, Yoshitaro encourages Ofumi to get recompense from her old lover. Hoping to make up to Ofumi he proposes they wed, but his father refuses to give his approval. But, Ofumi could care less as she has already moved beyond this unhappy affair of her youth.
The Straits of Love and Hate is one of Mizoguchi’s most gorgeous-looking films and the picture-postcard, village locale marks an appropriate bookend for the fall and rise of Ofumi. In the opening scenes, the house maid is a frightened mouse who pleads for Kenchiki to do the right thing and take her away from a community that will have little tolerance for their illegitimate child. Once in Tokyo, Ofumi becomes the stronger of the two and her contempt grows strong for this man who cannot be bothered to find work. The boozy Ofumi is in danger of being consumed by her tawdry world until Yoshitaro appears and provides for her a reason to exist: acting.
Ofumi and Yoshitaro’s act resembles vaudeville but the transient life seems to agree with them and she grows as a person and a mother. Later, when she is confronted by the guilty Kenchiki, Ofumi briefly considers his proposal to provide a home for their sickly child but she comes to her senses and realizes this prejudiced community would be no place to raise a son.
Mizoguchi’s next film about struggling thespians, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (based on a play by Sanichi Iwaya) finds an inexperienced young actor Kikunosuke Onoe VI (Shatoro Hanayagi) from a conservative Kabuki family taking advice from the lowly maid Otoku (Kakuko Mori) in order to perfect his art. Fearing he is falling in love with the girl, Mrs Onoe fires Otoku leaving Kiku heartbroken but determined to find the maid. He leaves the family womb to join Otoku and her acting troupe where he experiences true hardship for the first time in his life.
Over time Kiku becomes bitter and breaks off with Otoku but an unexpected stage triumph changes his life fortune. Kiku returns home an accomplished actor and cultivated man, but he is devastated to find his true love and inspiration, Otoku, on her death bed.
Having completed three bold pictures about modern Japan, Mizoguchi returned to a kinder and quieter period (the early 1900s) to shoot this evocative study of the great Kabuki actor’s early life. The slightly fey Hanayagi was an inspired choice to play the insecure Onoe who worships the delicate Otoku. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is expansive and ambient. One feels like a voyeur peering at and listening in on gossiping geishas, spiteful relatives, catty actors and, of course, the two sensitive leads whom are falling hopelessly in love.
Like many an aspiring artist, Onoe is plagued with self-doubt and when it looks like he will never live up to his father’s expectations he pushes Otoku away and begins a life of debauchery. Onoe finally puts it all together to become a great Kabuki actor, but he is far from a complete person. It will take the calming words from the dying maid to soothe the restless tiger lurking in his soul.
The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums marked another significant step in Mizoguchi’s progress as a master filmmaker. The stylistic devices here (the long takes, subtle camera movement and off-screen sounds) would be exploited to even greater effect in his masterpieces of the 1950s, but this sublime tragedy should be ranked among the director’s five or six finest achievements.
As Japan drifted towards war the left-leaning Mizoguchi was “gently” persuaded to make a purely nationalist film to inspire the public at large. Based on a historical tale and a modern play, the two-part samurai epic The 47 Ronin was just the ticket.
Ronin is the sweeping story of a large group of samurai who dutifully sacrifice themselves to avenge their master’s death. When Lord Asano (Yoshizaburo Arashi) is dishonored at the corrupt Shogun’s court, he takes matters into his own hands and attempts to slay the master. He is caught in the act and sentenced to perform Hari-Kari. His outraged band of samurai, the Ronin, vows vengeance upon the shogun, fully aware their actions will mean death upon all of them. The determined warriors overwhelm the shogun’s guard, deliver the man’s head to Asano’s widow and accept their inevitable executions gracefully.
Massive sets were built, 18th century palaces recreated, and no expense was spared as the director plunged into the giant task, but Mizoguchi found the samurai ethos elusive. Not surprisingly, his films in the genre are typically more decorative and introspective than Kurosawa’s violent, Expressionistic fare. In fact, there is hardly any bloodshed or Martial Arts action at all in The 47 Ronin, the revenge of the Samurai happens elsewhere and the ritualistic seppuku takes place behind veiled screens.
The film evolves into a tense drama of anticipation and reaction, especially where the Ronin’s women are concerned. Having little say in the suicidal deeds of their men these sacrificing women may not understand, but they do what is expected of them. Although these two expansive and philosophical films are lesser Mizoguchi they tap heavily into the artist’s tragic ethos and provide a template for his sublime and poetic historical photoplays of the 1950s.
Mizoguchi was something of a lost soul during the War. Most of his filmmaking efforts during these years were impersonal projects or propaganda films, but since several of them are lost it is hard to make a qualitative judgment. His wartime Samurai films have been treated like black sheep by both the filmmaker and his critics, yet there is much to admire about Mushashi Miyamoto, the first of these two short features. The author of the ever-popular book of strategy The Book of Five Rings, Mushashi was samurai swordsman from the early 17th century who had a bit of the mercenary in him.
As befits a national hero, Mushashi (Chojuro Kawarazaki) had to look ethical on the silver screen, so it is with trepidation he takes on the job of training the persistant Shinobu (Kinuyo Tanaka) and her brother Genichiro (Kigoro Ikushima) in the martial arts to avenge the death of their father. The siblings meet up again with the murdering bandits and this time they kill Genichiro. After being called-out to face-off against a rival swordsman of equal ability, Mushashi disposes of the two bandits before fighting the duel of his life.
With a running time clocking in at under an hour, Mizoguchi didn’t have a chance to give Mushashi Miyamoto much subtext but it is refreshing to find his samurai is more a man of reflection than action. His Mushashi is almost pacifist, preferring to create art than shed blood. As befits Mushashi’s philosophy his swordplay is effective but deadly, his victims die quickly and painlessly. Since she doesn’t have much to do beyond pleading for the Samurai’s help, the great Kinuyo Tanaka initially seems wasted here. But the determined woman’s pluck and courage finally does touch the sword man’s soul in the end.
Set in the 1860s The Famous Sword Bijomaru is the story of Kiyone Sakurai (Shotaro Hanayagi), a sword maker whose faulty work causes the death of an imperial soldier. After failing an attempt at suicide, Kiyone is encouraged by the ghostly presence of the soldier’s daughter Sasae (Isuzu Yamada) to create a flawless sword to avenge her father’s death. After spending countless hours perfecting the heavy-duty metal, Kiyone gives the sword to Sasae who impales the rebel who killed her father.
The Famous Sword Bijomaru is a more conventional samurai film than its predecessor. Kiyone’s obsession with creating the remarkable weapon is his redemption but it doesn’t make for riveting cinema. The poetic post-script of the lovers Sasae and Kiyone floating down a river on a small boat seems curiously out of place in such determinist fare. On the bright side, Sasae’s attack on her father’s killer is a doozy and ranks with the best action sequences in Mizoguchi’s ouevre. Fortunately, the war would be over in a matter of months and Mizoguchi would be freed from the constraints of propaganda filmmaking.
The post-war years saw Mizoguchi return to more socially-conscious filmmaking with interesting, if not always successful, results. Most of these films featured his favorite actress Kinuyo Tanaka playing earnest, intelligent women running up against Japanese tradition and chauvinistic males. In Victory of Women Tanaka is Hiruko Hasakawa, a lawyer defending a despairing mother and friend who has smothered her child to death. Hiruko’s liberal sensibilities upset her sister Michiko (Michiko Kuwano), a contented homemaker married to the conservative magistrate Kono (Katsushira Matsumoto). Hiruko and her sickly, pacifist boyfriend Yamaoka (Shin Tokudaira) are among the progressives who hope the new democracy will revolutionize an antiquated court system and bring Kono and his ilk to their knees.
As with many American films made during this time, the political dogma in Victory of Women grows tiresome and Mizoguchi seems to lose inspiration as the action grinds to the inevitable courtroom climax. The most riveting scenes involve Hiruko’s friend Tomo (Mitsuka Miuro), a mother driven to commit her heinous act out of fear and desperation. Alas, the depiction of the shocking murder and Tomo’s chilling confession failed to jump start this disappointing film.
Mizoguchi likely felt he had a kindred spirit in the late 18th century artist Kitagawa Utamaro. Both men were irritable and restless spirits, only lived into early middle age, and were drawn to women as subjects in their respective arts. Mizoguchi’s take on the woodblock artist, Utamaro and His Five Women, is predictably episodic but captures the rapture of creation in several memorable sequences. Women from all walks of life flock to the kind and understanding Utamaro (Minosuke Bando), who uses these intriguing creatures as sources of inspiration. When a tattoo artist finds he cannot blemish the immaculate back of a naked courtesan (Tashiko Izuka), Utamaro steps in and finishes the job with a flourish.
He becomes infatuated with the idea of women as his subjects, even risking his life peeping on swimming damsels at a private gathering. His intentions towards his five women are not necessarily always erotic and he even “sponsors” one in her quest to become a liberated artist. But even in this enlightened floating world jealousy raises its ugly head when Okita (Kinuyo Tanaka) murders the tattooed courtesan and her weak lover. The grisly incident horrifies and inspires Utamaro (already under house arrest for another “crime”) to strip off his manacles and set forth on a new artistic project.
Mizoguchi’s next two takes on historical figures turned out to be much meatier stuff. The Love of Sumako the Actress is another biographical narrative about a maverick Japanese artist who dared to buck tradition, Sumako Matsui. We first see Sumako (Kinuyo Tanaka) as the eager protégé of Hogetsu Shimamura (Ho Yamamura, the director of a new art theatre aiming to produce daring plays from the west. Sumako’s first big production is Ibsen’s The Doll House but the public’s response to the new theatre is lukewarm. Inevitably, Sumako and Hogetsu fall in love prompting him to leave his wife and children to live in sin with his leading actress.
In order for the troupe to survive they tour Japan and Korea for months on end, bringing tension and sickness upon the players and Hogetsu. The director contracts pneumonia and suddenly dies, sending Sumako into an emotional abyss. She pulls herself together enough to direct and star in a lusty production of Carmen before taking her own life.
Set in a conservative place and time (Japan of the 1910s), The Love of the Sumako the Actress vividly chronicles the joy and suffering of artists who try to bring the new, psychological European plays to Eastern stages. The players are resigned to the fact audiences come to see their productions because of the titillating subject matter and their adulterous leading lady. The romance between Sumako and Hogetsu is a mostly unhappy one. They are ostracized from their society of professionals, family and friends and their love affair must take a backseat to the needs of the acting troupe.
Yet, they struggle on in hope of building their theatre. Hogetsu’s death causes the unstable Sumako to crack but she has succeeded in breaking down barriers bringing a new theatre to her public. It’s not often we see Asian actors portray European characters, so it is a joy to watch Tanaka cut loose in a wide range of roles—venting her rage against conventional marriage and falling in love with whoever she fancies. For Japanese audiences weaned on Kabuki theatre, it would often prove too much to digest.
My Love Has Been Burning, a dramatization on the life of the late 19th century Japanese feminist Eiko Kageyama (Kinuyo Tanaka), is Mizoguchi’s most political film and a damning indictment of a nation that treats its women as second-class citizens. Upon learning the family maid Chiyo (Mitsuko Miyo) has been sold to a sweat shop Eiko breaks with her conservative parents and moves to Tokyo where the schoolteacher hopes to join forces with her activist fiancé Hayase (Eitaro Ozawa). But when she learns Hayase is a mole for the repressive government she dumps him and sets out on her own trail as an agitator for social change. Eiko soon finds herself under the wing of Kentaro Oe (Ichiro Sugai), a charismatic liberal pundit who wants to lead a peaceful revolution.
Their hopes are dashed when the left-wingers are arrested as political demagogues and Eiko is falsely convicted for burning down Chiyo’s sweat shop. After being savagely abused by the guards in the women’s prison, Eiko and Chiyo are liberated by a government declaration that frees all political prisoners. Eiko takes up with Oe again as a lover and campaign worker during his successful run for office. But, she is soon betrayed by the arrogant man who flaunts his love affair with the simple Chiyo. Tired of having to depend on hypocritical men Eiko gives up politics to teach young women at her progressive school.
Although My Love Has Been Burning is certainly a feminist film, its loud, combative world is almost entirely populated by assertive men. The idealistic Eiko sets out to try and fix man (and woman) kind, but she is rejected at every turn. Her father resents Eiko’s liberal politics and boyfriend Hayase fears her presence in Tokyo will “out” the traitor to his activist friends. Even the kindly Oe turns out to be a product of a misogynist environment by taking Chiyo as a lover, thus cruelly marginalizing Eiko’s standing in his political party and life. Still, Eiko puts up the good fight, heroically sacrificing her happiness for Chiyo, Oe and, ultimately, the rights of women.
Nowhere is Eiko’s heroism more evident in the harrowing scene of the sweat shop inferno. After bearing witness to unspeakable and graphic torture, the indentured servant Chiyo kicks over a lantern to burn her tormenting guards and fellow workers alike. Eiko rescues her former maid and after they are arrested she shields her friend by taking responsibility for the crime. Steeled by a lifetime of disappointment, Eiko survives all this treachery and we are led to believe her life will have a more fulfilling second act.
Mizoguchi’s career-long fascination with the female of the species wouldn’t have been complete without some sort of glimpse into the world of middle-class Japanese wives and widows who led lives of quiet desperation in the post-war years. A Picture of Madame Yuki, Miss Oyu and The Lady of Mushashino are rarely featured in film retrospectives of the director. While they don’t pack the sort of emotional wallop of his famous historical or geisha dramas these suburban melodramas remain subtle and moving portraits of quietly suffering women.
In A Picture of Madame Yuki the heroine (Michiyo Kogure) is the victim of a father with no business sense and her husband Naoyuki (Eijaro Yanagi), an insensitive monster who crushes her spirit. After the death of her father Yuki is ceded a mansion where she plans to open a hotel. Naoyuki scuttles that idea and installs his mistress Ayako (Yuriko Hamada) in the house where the pair shamelessly carries on their lovemaking oblivious to Yuki and the servants. The unhappy wife finds solace in her platonic friendship with the handsome Masaya (Ken Uehara), but ultimately she is unable to overcome a complicated attraction to her beast of a husband.
Yuki’s mysterious suicide is one of the most extraordinary sequences in Mizoguchi’s cinema. A long, one take shot follows Yuki on what seems to be an aimless visit to a restaurant where she sits at an outside table and places an order. The camera follows her waiter to the door of the deserted establishment but when he reappears we pan back to reveal Yuki is gone, presumably drowned in the nearby lake. This nearly wordless, chilling sequence is groundbreaking visual stuff, clearly anticipating the post-Il Grido films of Antonioni…but without the existential angst.
Based on The Reed Cutter, by one of Mizoguchi’s favorite authors Junichiro Tanizaki, Miss Oyu is the tragic tale of a modern day ménage-a-trois. A local matchmaker plans to introduce Shinnosuke (Yuji Hori) to the young Oshizu (Nobuko Otawa) with hopes they will wed. But the romantic fellow falls in love with the pretty girl’s older sister Miss Oyu (Kinuyo Tanaka), a widow with a young son. Oshizu senses Shinnosuke and Miss Oyu are in love but since her sister is still obligated to the family of her dead husband the pair cannot wed. Aiming to keep her sister (and mentor) content Oshizu enters into a sexless marriage with Shinnosuke.
Unaware of her sister’s sacrifice and Shinnosuke’s feelings, Miss Oyu spends much time with the couple and flirts harmlessly with the unhappy husband. When Miss Oyu’s son dies she is freed to take up with Shinnosuke, but not wishing to create scandal she sacrifices her happiness by marrying a rich merchant and moving to the country. Oshizu ends her vow and consummates her marriage with Shinnosuke but the weak young woman dies after delivering a son. The devastated Shinnosuke leaves the infant with Miss Oyu and wanders away, aimlessly.
Given all the deeply moving films about unfulfilled passions in the Mizoguchi canon, Miss Oyu comes off as a bit bloodless. Although it starred the director’s favorite actress (Tanaka), Nobuko Otawa has the more interesting role as the frigid and slightly disturbed younger sister. The most haunting scene comes a little past halfway through the film when Oshizu discreetly excuses herself from the lovers to take a walk by a nearby lake. Through suggestive camera movement and montage, we are led to believe she will take her own life (the ultimate sacrifice), so it comes as a disappointment when Shinnosuke discovers his sad wife lingering at shore side. At what should have been a climactic moment, Miss Oyu shrinks away before our eyes.
Set near Tokyo in the uneasy years after the war, The Lady of Musashino contrasts the values of traditional Japan with the mores of a new generation looking to put the sordid past behind. The film features Kinuyo Tanaka as Michiko Akiyama a conservative, semi-aristocrat married to the free-thinking college professor Tadao (Masayuki Mori). Practicing what he preaches, Akiyama enters into an affair with Tomiko (Yukiko Todoroki) the wife of Michiko’s cousin Ono (So Yamamura).
Once again, Mizoguchi’s men prove to be spineless, galling subjects. The scurrilous Tadao is anxious to get a hold of Michiko’s inheritance so he can run off with Tomiko, while the shiftless Ono wants a loan from his cousin for a suspicious business proposition. Michiko’s one friend turns out to be an old classmate Tsutomu (Akihiko Katayama), a lost refugee from Burma. Michiko ruminates with Tsutomu in deep conversation on long walks until even he lets her down by sleeping with Tomiko. In despair over her family’s greed, Michiko decides to rewrite her will before committing suicide. To everyone’s surprise Tsutomu becomes the sole beneficiary but he rejects the money to continue on his aimless path.
In contrast to Ozu’s benign takes on westernized Japan, Mizoguchi paints a much more cynical portrait. Tomiko and Tadao’s students are remarkably sophisticated and fashionably blasé. They think nothing of having multiple sexual partners and look down their noses at contemporaries who cling to old values. The virginal Michiko and the androgynous Tsutomu long to escape the ugliness of modern Tokyo and bond in a fading dream world of their own. In an unexpected shift from her passive nature, Michiko’s final action serves twofold as an act of revenge against a family that wants to control her and a gesture to help Tsutomu find what he’s looking for. The ambivalent ending suggests he—and the youth of Japan—may never get there.
While his great historical epics were being discovered by international audiences the “other” Mizoguchi continued to make films about fallen women in the brothels and backstreets of the big city. A neo-realistic saga set in gritty Osaka in the aftermath of WWII, Women of the Night is a bitter tale of two sisters and sister in-law who confront their debts and demons by resorting to prostitution. The oldest, Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka) struggles to feed her sickly son while awaiting word about her husband who went missing before the end of the war.
Her downward spiral begins with the news of his death which is followed by the passing of her little boy. Soon after, Fusako meets her long lost sister Natsuko (Sanae Tokasagi) who has returned from Korea and found work as a hostess in the city. Fusako learns from Natsuko about the death of their parents, devastating news that symbolically puts an end to her innocence. Fortunately, Fusako soon gets a good job for a shady businessman who, in turn, seduces Natsuko leaving her pregnant and with the clap.
Embittered by her sister’s betrayal, Fusako takes to the streets where she becomes a successful prostitute. She makes up with Natsuko but after her sister’s child is stillborn, a bewildered Fusako disappears back into city’s bleak underworld. She finds salvation in the form of her teenage sister in-law Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda) who after being raped and humiliated wants to become a streetwalker. Fusako saves Kumiko from a band of angry prostitutes and convinces the girl to give up the sordid idea of following her footsteps.
For a director who made tragedy his forte, Women of the Night is still pretty rough stuff. Taking inspiration from Rossellini and De Sica, Mizoguchi shot much of the film on location in bombed-out parts of Osaka where these shadowy, sad women could ply their trade. The documentary-style brings some unusual (for Mizoguchi) punch to the mise en scene and heats the neurosis of the three women to a boiling point. Yet, the grim surroundings turn out to be claustrophobic as well—there is no escape from what fate has in store. The women’s despair leads to desperation and here we find them capable of as much cruelty and unjust behavior as their male counterparts.
Geisha (AKA Gion Festival Music) is more of a spin on, than an updating of, the similarly-themed Sisters of Gion from 1935. Here, the two heroines, the sixteen year-old orphan Eiko (Ayako Wakao) and her deceased mother’s friend Miyoharu (Michiyo Kagure) are obviously not sisters but the older woman plays the role of mentor to the aspiring Geisha. Eiko’s education is a costly one, so Miyoharu borrows money from a prominent businesswoman Okimi (Chieko Naniwa), unaware the favor comes with a hitch. Eiko has been essentially sold to one of Okimi’s clients who intends on deflowering the virgin Geisha once she becomes seventeen.
The rebellious Eiko resists the man’s advances, savagely biting his face and sending him to the hospital. Infuriated, Okimi blacklists both women from working in the district until Miyohara accepts a proposal to become the mistress to another local businessman.
There is a certain resignation in A Geisha not evident in the angrier Sisters of Gion. Though critical of the geisha lifestyle, Mizoguchi is respectful towards the demeaning profession. Miyohara trains Eiko as she would a musician or an athlete and she is proud when she gets to present the finished product to the men in her court. Unfortunately for the gentle mentor, Eiko does not have the sort of subservient personality necessary for the job. But, when faced with becoming social pariahs and poverty, both women make sacrifices in order to survive. A Geisha ends on a curiously upbeat note with the grateful Miyohara and Eiko eagerly returning to their wretched work.
Mizoguchi’s next saga of the streets, The Woman in the Rumor, opens with an owner of a teahouse Hatsuko Mabuchi (Kinuyo Tanaka) selflessly wanting to give money to a shiftless young doctor Kenji Matoba (Tomoemon Otani) to help set up his business. Short of the necessary funds, Hatsuko borrows from the kindly Yasuichi Harada (Eitaaro Shindo), the man who truly loves her. Meanwhile, Hatsuko’s daughter Yukiko (Yodhiko Kuga) returns from Tokyo where it is said she tried to commit suicide over a broken love affair. Yukiko looks down upon her mother’s business and keeps an aristocratic distance from the woman of the house. But, she develops sympathy for these poor country girls, especially a young geisha dying of cancer.
When Hatsuko becomes ill Yukiko swallows her pride and steps in to take over the business. Mrs. Mabuchi’s teahouse is a lively place where neighborhood men come to have a drink and let their hair down with the geishas. But even in this professional environment, passions erupt and several of the women, including Mrs. Mabuchi, find themselves at the mercy of cruel and tormenting lovers.
The film’s most surprising, and touching, scene comes when the working girls make friends with the aloof Yukiko at the bedside of the sick Geisha. This female bonding helps distract Yukiko from her unhappy plight. In light of Mrs. Mabuchi’s troubles with Dr. Matoba and her debilitating sickness, Yukiko also becomes a big sister figure to the rest of the women and we are led to believe she will run the family business effectively and with compassion.
Set in a bordello in the Tokyo Red Light district of Yoshiwara, Mizoguchi’s swan song Street of Shame follows the plight of a group of prostitutes who work hard at their trade but still plunge deep into debt to their greedy Madame. The director’s final film—he was taken ill on the set and died of leukemia shortly after—sets its merciless gaze on four of these indentured servants; a middle-aged woman who wants to reconnect with her son, a sickly wife who works to support her young child and suicidal husband, a teenage runaway with daddy issues, and a beautiful courtesan with enough money smarts to buy off the Madame and start her own business.
Given the plot, Street of Shame would seem like the signature film for a genius director who felt a deep sympathy and guilt towards fallen women, but the final product feels slick and oddly detached. The suffering women in the house (including the usually reliable Michiyo Kogure) come off as caricatures of the prototypical Mizoguchi female. The exception is a saucy performance by Machiko Kyo as the slutty teen Mickey, who wants revenge on her unscrupulous father. Street of Shame is by no means a failure, but Mizoguchi had been down this road once too often.
Mizoguchi’s reputation as one of the greatest narrative filmmakers is confirmed in four regal, late period masterpieces about sublime love and the depths of human suffering; Life of Oharu, Ugetsu Monogatari, Sansho the Bailiff and Chikamatsu Monogatari (The Crucified Lovers). Set in the late 17th century in feudal Japan, Life of Oharu is a crushing tragedy of a noble woman’s long fall from grace.
We first encounter Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) as a destitute, middle-aged prostitute entering a temple to keep out of the cold. There, she reminisces about her distant past as the daughter of an Imperial Guard. Her first love Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune) is a samurai who is beneath her social stature. When the intoxicated lovers are caught in the act, Ohara and her parents are expelled from the Imperial city and Mifune is sentenced to death. In his last will Katsunosuke pleas to Oharu to only give herself to a man she loves. Humiliated in exile, Oharu’s parents force her to become a concubine and produce a child for a prestigious royal family. Oharu gives birth to Lord Matsudaira’s son, but when it turns out Oharu appeals more to him than his jealous wife the concubine is sent packing.
When Oharu returns home with little to show for her efforts her furious father sells her into prostitution. The proud woman makes for a sorry courtesan, so she is sent to a rich merchant’s house where she becomes a beautician for the man’s jealous wife. The situation ends badly and Oharu returns home where, in her only stroke of luck, she is married off to a kindly shop owner who cares little about her sordid past. Oharu finds true happiness running her husband’s shop, but her fortune takes a turn for the worse when he is robbed and murdered, leaving nothing for her in his will. At wit’s end, Oharu joins a nunnery. But, a bill collector tracks her down and receives sex as payment, much to the horror of the Mother Superior who throws Oharu out.
On the streets, busking for her livelihood, Oharu is “rescued” by a group of prostitutes who offer her shelter and steady work. Since the harsh sunlight reveals her true age, Oharu can only pursue clients at night and even then she is largely unsuccessful. Just as it appears she is ready to sucuumb to sickness and despair, her aged mother arrives with good news. Oharu is to be presented at the Matsudaira court where she will finally meet with her twenty year old son. But her hopes are dashed when the boy’s handlers forbid the prositute from ever having an audience with the new Lord Matsudaira. Oharu makes a mad dash to her son’s quarters but she is intercepted by his guards and banished to an isolated house. Oharu escapes her comfortable prison and takes to the road as a wandering pilgrim.
Oharu’s saga unfolds bleakly. When it seems like her situation can’t get much worse it inevitably does. A victim of dark fate, Oharu manages to find the strength to persevere amist a streak of terrible calamities. As her world crumbles, she finds strength from the memory of her love affair with Katsunosuke, the existence of her son, and her God. It is, perhaps, Kinuyo Tanaka’s finest performance for Mizoguchi. While not a conventional beauty, the 40something actress is very convincing as the young, passionate Oharu, who is ready to die along with her doomed lover.
Set adrift by her greedy father and wronged by a series of spineless men, Oharu swallows her pride to survive and compiles little victories along the way. Life of Oharu is a stark, yet transcendent, portrait of a headstrong woman caught in the web of Feudal Japan. That Oharu outlasts such hideous misfortune is something of a miracle and offers hope to all women.
Ugetsu Monogatari (aka Tales of the Watery Moon), Mizoguchi’s most well-known and critically acclaimed film, is a haunting, supernatural masterpiece. Mizoguchi, Yoda and screenwriting partner Matsusaro Kawaguchi threaded together stories by 18th century writer Japanese writer Akinari Ueda and Guy de Maupassant into the film’s famous, circular narrative.
Set in a small, lakefront village during the unsettled Sengoku (“warring”) period of the late 16th century, the story follows the plight of two peasant married couples. Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), a foolish farmer, dreams of becoming a samurai much to the dismay of his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Miura). While pursuing his destiny on the battlefield, Tobei kills a soldier then steals his valuable booty, the decapitated head of a tribal warrior. Tobei delivers the prize to the head samurai and is rewarded with a suit of armor and his own army.
Searching for her wayward husband, Ohama is raped by a band of samurai and left for dead. Failing to fiud Tobei, she turns to prostitution in order to survive. His head swimming with wine, women and song, Tobei doesn’t notice or care that Ohama has disappeared until he finds her working at a brothel. In a fit of conscience, the warrior swears off his old ways and promises to make things up with his wife.
The main thread of the film follows the strange and sorrowful exploits of the potter Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka). In the opening scenes we find the opportunistic Genjuro taking advantage of the raging wars to sell his pots to city merchants. After narrowly escaping a raiding army, Genjuro and Miyagi collect the pots and set sail with their child and friends Tobei and Ohama for a city across the lake. When they encounter a wounded soldier in an abandoned boat, they let Miyagi and her son off before following their dangerous path. Genjuro loses track of Tobei and Ohama, who have gone to pursue their unfortunate fates, but the potter soon becomes a successful street vendor. At the market, he meets the beautiful and genteel Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) who is impressed by his artistry.
Genjuro is invited to her mansion where he makes love to the ethereal aristocrat prompting her attendant to divulge the Lady’s strange secret. Not having experienced true love during her short lifetime, the ghostly Lady Wakasa returned this world to find a man (Genjuro) who could fulfill her desires. Genjuro doesn’t believe the attendant’s story, but the shattering truth becomes evident when invading samurai find the apparent looter unconscious outside the ruins of the Lady’s mansion. Genjuro escapes and returns home where the long missing Miyagi and son await him. After spending the evening with his wife he learns she too is a ghost, having died at the hands of deserting soldiers. Genjuro returns to his pottery trade with the sad spirit of Miyagi encouraging him every step of the way.
Though Mizoguchi’s filmic gallery had already been filled with portraits of useless men, it’s fair to say he outdid himself in Ugetsu. Upright women are made to suffer at the hands of greedy, capricious and spineless males, giving rise to the likelihood the director’s self-loathing and conflicted attitudes towards females left its imprint on the finished product. The craftsman Genjuro mirrors the artist Mizoguchi in his selfish and selfless pursuit of perfection, leaving their partners to clean up the mess behind them.
Upon first viewing this elusive and fantastic film about dreams, desire, suffering, and rehabilitation may not pack the emotional wallop of Life of Oharu or Sansho the Bailiff, but no matter how awful the stakes become in Ugetsu we are under the spell of a wizened filmmaker guiding us through what is likely his most personal work of art. Ugetsu also marked the beginnings of another extremely fruitful collaboration with Rashomon cinematographer, the brilliant Kazuo Miyagawa who would photograph all of the remaining Mizoguchi films, excepting The Empress Yang Kwei Fei (shot by Kohei Sugiyama).
In contrast to the complex, elliptical Ugetsu, Mizoguchi’s next historical epic Sansho the Bailiff was stripped down to the bare essentials. Based on a short story by early 20th century writer Ogai Mori, the action takes place in a dark place and time; tyrannical 11th century Japan.
The film opens with pacifist Governor Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu) being forcefully exiled from his district by the military, leaving his wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and two children to fend for themselves. Years later, on a dangerous journey to reconnect with her husband, Tamaki is ransacked by two fishermen and separated from her thirteen year old son Zushio and eight year-old daughter Anju who are kidnapped and sold into slavery. The children wind up doing hard labor at a manor run by the sadistic Sansho (Eitaro Shindo) who rules the working camp with an iron fist.
Ten years pass and Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayaki) has turned his back on his father’s peaceful teachings to become a camp trustee to get in good with Sansho and lessen the work load on Anju (Kyoko Kagawa). Troubled by her brother’s cynicism, Anju tries in vain to interest Zushio in a plot to escape the compound and search for their mother. One day, while dumping a sick prisoner in a burial ground, Zushio and Anju believe they hear the eerie wailings of their mother carrying over the water from the far away mainland. Zushio broaches the subject of escape to Anju. She fears she is not strong enough for the journey and tells him to get away while she distracts the guards. As her brother makes a mad dash from bondage, Anju eludes the watchmen then drowns herself in a nearby pond.
Zushio finds refuge in a Buddhist monastery then presents himself at the court of the Emperor’s right hand man. This friend of his father recognizes the boy by a religious icon in his possession. After learning of his father’s death, Zushio becomes governor of a territory which includes Sansho’s compound. In his first act as governor he immediately grants freedom to all the slaves under his domain. He banishes Sansho and after getting the sad news of his sister’s death he watches the former slaves burn the compound to the ground.
His task completed, Zushio resigns his post to go in search of his mother who has become a courtesan. Zushio finds the brothel where Tamaki worked, but she is nowhere to be found. He is told Tamaki had been a beachcomber but is thought to have died in a tsunami two years previously. Miraculously, Zushio finds the crippled and blind Tamaki living in a shack on a beach. Initially suspicious of this stranger’s intentions, the grateful Tamaki reconciles with her long lost son.
At turns breathtaking and devastating, Sansho the Bailiff could be the pinnacle of Mizoguchi’s art. Buoyed by Miyagawa’s supple black and white cinematography and the spare, evocative Fumio Hayasaka score, Mizoguchi responds with scenes of luminous beauty and riveting drama, building to the almost unbearable poignancy of the finale. Mizoguchi is said to have be cruel to his actors but, here, he oversaw multiple marvelous performances.
As the adult Zushio Yoshiaki Hanayaki plays at a high, nervous pitch; befitting the traumatized son of a great man. During his shattering return to Sansho’s camp the former trustee’s voice cracks with emotion while freeing many of the slaves he had branded with hot iron. The serene Kyoto Kagawa is the latest in the long line of self-sacrificing Mizoguchi females. Here, she encourages her brother to change his evil ways then chooses to take her own life rather than let Sansho get his revenge.
Kinuyo Tanaka’s screentime is relatively brief but she lends a haunting presence as the ethereal voice that inspires her children in their darkest hours. Tamaki endures unimaginable hardships but her will to be reunited with her family conquers all. Tanaka saves her best work for the astonishing final scene where the crippled and devastated mother experiences late life rebirth through the touch of her husband’s icon and the appearance of the long lost son. In a work of such unrelenting tragedy, this faint glimmer of hope comes as a great relief.
Based on a farcical piece by the 18th century puppet playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Chikamatsu monogatari (The Crucified Lovers) is the story of a doomed love affair that transcends prejudice and social dogma. The drama unfolds in the chateau-factory of Ishun (Eitaro Shindo), a greedy merchant scroll maker. Early on, we find his young wife Osan (Kyoko Kagawa) in dire need of money to save her ne’er do well brother from shame and prison. Fearing Ishun’s wrath, the meek Osan enlists the help of her husband’s right hand man Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa) to procure the needed funds but his failed attempt to embezzle the money only succeeds in enraging the mean-spirited Ishun.
Weary of unwanted attention from the lecherous scroll maker, Mohei’s fiancé Otama (Yoko Minamida) devises a plan to make Ishun look like an adulterer but the bedroom hijinks only further implicates Osan and Mohei. When Mohei decides to escape from Ishun’s compound, Osan begs him to take her along. Fearing they will be wrongly suspected as cross-class lovers (strictly forbidden in feudal 17th century Japan), the unhappy pair decides to commit double suicide at a nearby lake. There, Mohei declares his love for Osan and she, quite out of the blue, reciprocates his feelings. Osan convinces Mohei to abandon all thoughts of suicide and they begin a country-wide odyssey which finds them running from the law and consummating their forbidden love for each other.
Mizoguchi had few peers in filming tales of wrongful persecution and after the bewildering opening sequence Chikamatsu monagatari blossoms into yet another deeply moving and serene tragedy. As befits a brutal period where perceived indiscretions were judged harshly the events and character motivations are kept simple. Humiliated by his wife’s infidelity, his servant’s betrayal and subsequent public scandal, Ishun first demands Osan’s suicide then later pursues the lovers with a vengeance to save face.
Once again, Mizoguchi cast Eitaro Shindo to play his villain and he gives a purple performance as the cruel hypocrite Ishun. Observing their social standing, neither Mohei nor Osan fulfill their long dormant love until they are freed from the chains of society and outside the law. Fittingly, Mohei and Osan are caught in each other’s arms but their march to the gallows doesn’t shake their love. Indeed, their noble bearing during the sorrowful procession is viewed as a triumph by the gathering of gawking onlookers.
Mizoguchi’s newfound international fame led to more prestigious projects with bigger budgets. Princess Yang Kwei Fei and Tales of the Taira Clan, his only films shot in color, are not first-rate Mizoguchi but remain grand entertainments.
Set in the 7th century and based on a lyric poem of the period, Princess Yang Kwei Fei is the tragedy of a Chinese maid, and distant Yang descendant, recruited by the unpopular political family to become the Emperor’s top concubine. The unhappy widower Hsuan Tsung (Masayuki Mori) is impressed with the beautiful Yu-Huan (Machiki Kyo) and falls in love with the young woman who would be re-named Yang Kwei Fei. “Yokihi” offers comfort to the Emperor and, over time, falls in love with him, as well. Their enchanted world begins to fall apart when invading armies threaten the empire.
The war reaches a crisis point when the Emperor’s army mutinies and won’t pick up arms unless the hated Yang woman is executed. Unbeknowst to the unhappy Hsuan, Yokihi has already chosen to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep her country from splitting apart. From the opening sequence, where the now-elderly Emperor tries to channel the long dead Yokihi, it is clear we are in a world of make-believe created to prop-up and please an outdated royal family. Hsuan is a melancholic esthete, forever searching for the lost chord in music and affairs of the heart. Yokihi is a simple girl thrust into a greatness she is not ready for, but she finds solace and her place in life pleasing Hsuan. Their union is so comforting and joyful, that even the invading armies, dressed in colorful period armour, don’t seem like threats until they deliver their stunning ultimatum.
Set during 1137, a particularly tumultuous period in Japanese history, Legend of the Taira Clan is a sprawling epic that follows the exploits of Kiyomori, a young samurai who may or may not be the illegitimate son to the former Emperor Shirakawa. After returning to Kyoto after a particularly brutal battle against an army led by the monks of a sequestered King, Kiyomori (Raizo Ichikawa) learns that his mother Yasuko (Michiyo Kogure) had once been a concubine to the Emperor Shirakawa before being “awarded” to Tadamori (Ichijiro Oya), the samurai warrior believed to be his father.
But being an aristocrat appeals little to Kiyomori, so when he demands the truth from Yasuko the outraged woman decides to leave the family once and for all. Kiyomori reconciles with Tadamori and even saves his father from an assassination attempt. After the subsequent suicide of Tadamori, Yasuko admits to Kiyomori that his true father was Shirakawa. Rather than take on airs of the aristocracy, Kiyomori marries a poor girl and continues to lead the valiant effort in the fight against ths monks.
Perhaps motivated by the wildly successful historical epics of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi’s samurai saga may well have trumped his countryman by telling most of the story in flashback (ala Rashomon) and glorious color. But Mizoguchi’s contribution to this brawny genre has more to do with spectacle rather than action. He constructs a broad canvas for a rich and lively cast who are given great play in the breaktaking opening sequence where the wounded and weary warriors return to Kyoto. Still, the most memorable (and Mizoguchian) sequences are the flashbacks of Yasuko’s spooky past where Kiyomori learns his identity and chooses his fate.
The lavish and entertaining Tales of the Taira Clan is not a masterpiece but it is revealing that Mizoguchi remained true to his ethos as a man (and artist) of the people. Mizoguchi’s excessive work pace was halted when he was admitted to the hospital while working on Street of Shame. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died soon thereafter.
Books on Mizoguchi:
Mizoguchi and Japan– Mark Le Fanu ***** This is one of those rare modern studies on film than is wonderfully speculative, deeply informative, and a pure joy to read. Le Fanu looks at Mizoguchi’s oeuvre through the eyes of a westerner and comes to some profound (and witty) conclusions. An absolute must for any film scholar.
Mizoguchi – Keiko McDonald **** McDonald’s book fills some of the biographical gaps missing from the Le Fanu book and offers her own excellent take on this mysterious and often elusive artist. A first rate work of criticism that needs to come back out in print.
Japanese Film Directors – Audie Bock ****1/2 Bock’s ever-insightful feminist takes on Mizoguchi are a highlight of this bible of major Japanese cinema. Out of print, but well-worth tracking down.
Films by Mizoguchi:
1925 The Song From Home ***
1929 Asahi wa Kagayaku (re-edited 25 minute fragment) ***
1929 Tokyo March (25 minute fragment) ***1/2
1930 Hometown ***1/2
1930 Mistress of a Foreigner (4 minute fragment) ***
1933 The Water Magician ****
1935 The Downfall of Osen ****
1935 Oyuki Madonna ***1/2
1935 Ojo Okichi (w/Tatsunosuke Takashima) ***1/2
1935 Poppy ***1/2
1936 Osaka Elegy ****
1936 Sisters of the Gion ****
1937 The Straits of Love and Hate ****1/2
1939 The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ****1/2
1941 The 47 Ronin (Pts. 1&2) ****
1944 Musashi Miyamoto ****
1945 The Famous Sword ***1/2
1946 Victory of Women ***1/2
1946 Utamaro and His 5 Women ****
1947 The Love of the Actress Sumako ****
1948 Women of the Night ****
1949 My Love Has Been Burning ****1/2
1950 A Picture of Madame Yuki ****
1951 Miss Oyu ***1/2
1951 The Lady of Musashino ****
1952 Life of Oharu *****
1953 A Geisha (AKA Gion Festival Music) ****
1953 Ugetsu Monogatari (AKA Tales of the Watery Moon) *****
1954 The Woman of Rumor ****
1954 Sansho the Bailiff *****
1954 Chikamatsu Monogatari (AKA The Crucified Lovers) ****1/2
1955 Princess Yang Kwei Fei ****
1955 Tales of the Taira Clan ****
1956 Street of Shame ****