Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kurosawa, Ozu & Mizoguchi (Part 3 ot 3)

As I originally posted, I saw four films directed by Kenji Mizoguchi at the Viz/New People series on Japanese directors in June.

Sisters of Gion directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1936)
Ugetsu directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1953)
Utamaro and His Five Women directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1946)
Street of Shame directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; Japanese with subtitles; (1956)


Prior to this series, I was not very familiar with Mizoguchi. His Sansho the Bailiff is high on my list of "to see" films. Ugetsu or Ugetsu Monogatari is probably his most renowned film.

Mizoguchi's family life is could be a film. Actually, it is very near the plot of Memoirs of a Geisha. While a boy, Mizoguchi's father suffered a financial setback. As a result, his father gave up his eldest daughter for adoption. Later, the girl was sold to a geisha house. After his mother passed away, Kenji went to live with his geisha sister in Tokyo. These events had a profound effect on Mizoguchi as can be evidenced in his films. Known as a proto-feminist, Mizoguchi's film told stories about women. Typically, the women in his films were oppressed or exploited (as was common in Japanese society). Mizoguchi gave these women a certain degree of dignity or indignation at their treatment. Rather than Grrl Power, it's more like Look at the Injustices Women have to Endure.

In the 1920's Mizoguchi was slashed with a razor by a prostitute he was living with during a domestic disturbance. Add that to filter by which his films are to be viewed.


Of the Mizoguchi films screened, Ugetsu or sometimes Ugetsu Monogatari which translates to a fabulous English title of "Tales of Moonlight and Rain." Mizoguchi won the Silver Lion Award for Best Direction for this film at the 1953 Venice Film Festival.

Ugetsu follows two peasant couples in the 16th century. One husband (Genjurō) is a potter and yearns to be wealthy. The other husband (Tōbei) is...well I'm not sure what is job is. He's seems to be a ne'er-do-well but his dream is crystal clear. He wants to be a samurai; i.e. he wants power & glory. After some modest success selling the pottery (Tōbei gets a cut for helping haul the ceramics to a village), Genjurō decides to fire a massive batch of ceramics and make his fortune.

The wives are more circumspect with respect to their husbands' activities. Miyagi, Genjurō wife, notes that his husband has become obsessed with making pots and by extension money. Genjurō is short-tempered with their son. Ohama, Tōbei wife, is weary and wary of her husband's dream of becoming a samurai and recognizes that any money he makes might well go towards this foolish endeavor. Tōbei has been humiliated by some samurai and told he can never be a samurai's assistant until he gets some armor & a spear.

Genjurō's village is attacked by soldiers and everyone flees to the woods. Genjurō ventures back to save his pottery. Braving marauding soldiers and pirate, the trio get the pottery to the town where they will sell it. Before they cross the lake into town, Genjurō drops Miyagi and their son on shore for safety. Once in town, the trio gets separated. After selling most of the pottery, Tōbei runs off to buy samurai gear. Ohama chases after him but loses him in crowd. Genjurō continues selling the ceramics but is approached by a wealthy lady and her servant. They order several pieces and ask him to deliver it to their estate.

I'll cut to the chase since my words can't do the plot or cinematography justice. The noblewoman who orders the pottery is a spirit or ghost. She seduces Genjurō but he is saved by some Sanskrit writing painted onto his body by a priest as protection. Later, he is robbed of all the money he made selling pottery.

Ohama is raped and eventually ends up working in a brothel.

Tōbei purchases some armor and lies by claiming to have killed a general in battle. Despite being dubious of his claim, the rival general rewards Tōbei with a battlefield commission, in essence making him a samurai. Tōbei rides into town like the cock of the walk on his horse and with his honor guard. He sees his wife at a brothel arguing with a customer over money. He sells his armor and horse to buy his wife's freedom.

Miyagi, but not her son, is killed by soldier for her food.

Anyway, this morality tale was a little heavy-handed for my tastes. The moral of the story is simple - women have to endure their husband's foolish dreams and behavior. One is killed for it and the other is raped and forced into prostitution. Compared to the other films in the series, this one had some redemption in the end. The men seemed to truly learn their lessons although the cost was high.

Notwithstanding the Silver Lion Award, I didn't enjoy Ugetsu. The period setting, slow pacing and heavy-handed misandry left me cool to this film.


18th century woodblock artist Kitagawa Utamaro is the nominal subject of Utamaro and His Five Women. However, film scholars and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda have claimed the film is autobiographical with Utamaro standing in for Mizoguchi.

Unlike Ugetsu, Utamaro was more circuitous in divulging its morality tale, if for no other reason than having to introduce and contrast the five women of the title. For the record, the five women are #1) the daughter of the wealthy nobleman/artist. Her fiancée abandons her to study under Utamaro. #2) the beautiful courtesan who is about to get a tattoo. Utamaro uses her back as a canvas for his painting. #3) His geisha/regular model who saps his inspiration because she is distraught and upset because her lover has eloped with another geisha. In response, she takes up with #1's ex-fiancée. #4) his new model, a peasant girl whom he discovers while spying on a lord's ritual of having 100 women bathe or swim in the ocean as he watches. #5) I can't remember what she did. She might have owned a teahouse/restaurant but the main I remember is that's she's marrying Utamaro's servant and acts as a girl Friday for Utamaro.

As you can tell by my lackadaisical synopsis, the film meanders along and I had a hard time following all the characters. Utamaro is arrested and as punishment, he is not allowed to paint for 30 or 60 days. The women are once again victimized except this time it is not only by men but by each other as the secondary effect of being mistreated by men. Even Utamaro exploits the women through his actions or emotional aloofness.

Once again, I didn't connect with a Mizoguchi film. The number of characters and foreignness of time and place were too much for me to overcome.


Lest one think me a complete philistine, I enjoyed the two Mizoguchi films set in the 20th century.

Sisters of Gion was filmed and set in the mid-1930s. The two sisters, Umekichi and Omocha, are geishas in the Gion District of Kyoko. Umekichi is the more kind-hearted sister. She allows a bankrupt customer to stay at their house. Omocha is more self-interested and looks upon men in general and her customers in particular as a obstacle to their money.

After various machinations, Umekichi is abandoned by her bankrupt patron when he gets a job out of the city. Umekichi who is clearly in love with the man even though he is married, is heartbroken. Omocha, after taking advantage one man too many, is injured when she is thrown from a moving car. The film ends with Umekichi tending to her injured sister and Omocha cursing the occupation of geisha and by extension, her and her sister's lives.

Sisters of Gion was relentlessly downbeat. It didn't matter if the geisha was kind to men or if they manipulated men, they ended up abandoned with only each other to turn to. This must have been a provocative film in the 1930s when the Gion District was teeming with geishas. I felt so sympathetic towards Umekichi which is a measure of my enjoyment of the film.


Yasuko Kawakami in Street of ShameMy favorite Mizoguchi film of the series was Street of Shame, his last film. Set in the 1950s Tokyo when prostitution was still legal in Japan, the film focuses on a brothel and its employees. Throughout the film, the news is reporting on attempts by the Diet to ban prostitution although, like human nature, the bill fails to pass.

Each of the prostitutes are there for various reasons and they cope in various ways. The juiciest role is that of Micki (Machiko Kyô from Kurosawa's Rashômon and The Teahouse of the August Moon with Marlon Brando & Glenn Ford). She's completely unsentimental and seems shocked when any of her co-workers exhibit anything resembling hope or decency. She is the only one who wears Western clothing and she wears them well ("I'm well-proportioned"). When her father comes to the house to take her home, she gives a glimpse into her past life. Her father frequented prostitutes and it seems she does it just to spite him.

Other denizens of the brothel include Hanae, a mother with a small child and suicidal husband; Yorie who is engaged to one of her clients; Yumeko whose son lives in the country with her parents; and Yasumi, the most popular whore who manipulates men into giving her money so that she can leave the profession and marry them. Yasumi bore a number of similarities to Omocha in Sisters of Gion.

Eventually, they all suffer the indignity of their profession although some more than others. Yumeko's son comes to Tokyo because he is harassed in his small village because everyone knows what she does. Yumeko has convinced herself that everything she is doing is for her son but the long absences and shame of the profession do not engender much gratitude from her son. He rejects her and she attempts suicide.

Yorie's husband married her so he could have a free, live-in maid and she quickly returns to the brothel where she can make her own money.

Yasumi is attacked by one of the men she has swindled but she survives and using the money she has made via her job, her marks and interest on loans to the other women, she buys a futon and bedding shop.

Beyond the flamboyance of Kyô's Micki, I enjoyed nad empathized the most with the quiet, bespectacled, dignity and perseverance of Michiko Kogure (Drunken Angel) as Hanae.

So after Mizoguchi condemns the system...and the human nature that led to the system...and to some extent, the women who participate in the system, he adds a haunting and heartbreaking coda. Throughout the film, there is a servant girl at the brothel. Her name is Shizuko (Yasuko Kawakami). She cleans, cooks and runs errands but she is not a prostitute. Of all people, Micki buys dinner for everyone and there is an extra serving. Micki offers it to Shizuko and after initial hesitation, she eats it with gusto, exclaiming it is the best thing she ever ate. With a little more prompting, she tells her story. If I recall correctly, her father died in the war and she was sold to the brothel. The specifics don't matter because as Micki says (paraphrasing), "What's the big deal, we all have the same story?"

When Shizuko is old enough (I'm not sure how old that is), she has her coming-out or debut party. It was nothing like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby. She has white make-up applied to her face and she's seated out in front of the brothel. Ever empathetic in her own way, Micki sees she doesn't have a barker so she yells for men to give the new girl a try. Shizuko, her spirit already a long way from resilient, follows Micki's lead and begin meekly calling out for customers. The viewer is left with the distinct impression that the cycle continues but also how this sweet, timid girl is going to survive.

It's sad that Street of Shame was Mizoguchi's last film because he incorporated bittersweet humor with his feminist storytelling to great effect. He even let one of his fallen angels escape her circumstances although through unethical means. It's clear that when compared to his jidaigeki films and even Sisters of Gion that is making films in a more modern style that is more accessible (at least more accessible to me).


So I give Street of Shame an unequivocal positive recommendation. Sisters of Gion - an equivocal positive recommendation. Utamaro and His Five Women and Ugetsu weren't my cup of tea.

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