Friday, November 5, 2010

The Return of Kenji Mizoguchi

In June, Viz Cinema screened four films each by acclaimed Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. In October, Viz Cinema screened four new films by both Ozu and Mizoguchi.

Of the three directors, I was least familiar with Mizoguchi's works. I was down on two of the films but thoroughly enjoyed Street of Shame (1956) which happened to be Mizoguchi's final film. I am happy to say that I was more impressed with the four films in this second Mizoguchi series much more.

The title of the series was "Mizoguchi and His Muse: Kinuyo Tanaka" so all the films featured actress Kinuyo Tanaka in the lead roles or co-lead roles.

Women of the Night; Japanese with subtitles; (1948)
Life of Oharu with Toshirô Mifune; Japanese with subtitles; (1952)
Sansho the Bailiff; Japanese with subtitles; (1954)
Miss Oyu; Japanese with subtitles; (1951)


Life of Oharu was the most epic and heart-wrenching of the films. Tanaka plays a woman who ages 30 years during the film. 43 years old when the film was released, Tanaka was quite believable as a younger woman. Her character, Oharu, is a lady-in-waiting at the royal court in Kyoto during the 1600s. She tries to resist the advances of a lower-ranking page (Toshirô Mifune) but his persistence and her own attraction to him prove too much for her. They give in to their desires and this starts Oharu down the path of misery. Her dalliance is discovered. She and her family are banished from Kyoto; losing their spot in the royal court. For his part, Mifune's character is beheaded.

Stuck in the hinterlands with a resentful father, Oharu's life is uncertain until a representative of Lord Matsudaira, a daimyō in Edo (Tokyo) comes to town looking for a concubine. He has very specific criteria and is worried he won't find his woman until he encounters Oharu. The perfect match, it is arranged for Oharu to take up residence in Edo and produce a male heir for the daimyō as Lady Matsudaira is not up to the task. Resentful from the start, Lady Matsudaira and the court nobles conspire to send Oharu back home once she has fulfilled her task. Oharu is returned home with little money in the way of severance. She discovers her father has run up debt in anticipation of her stipend as a concubine. What's a family to do? In feudal Japan, the sell the daughter off to be a courtesan. The English subtitles kept using the word courtesan but to me she was more like a geisha since she recited poetry or played music and sang.

Oharu is ultimately a failure there as well. Rather than recount her whole wretched life, I'll summarize. Oharu is then sent to work as a maid of sorts for a tailor's family. When the head of the household discovers Oharu was a former geisha, it unlocks long held desires on his part to have carnal knowledge of a geisha. The only thing that has kept him from his dream is that he doesn't want to pay for it. Now with Oharu under his roof, his pecuniary concerns are eliminated by brute force.

After being cast from the house by the jealous wife, Oharu finally lands a nice man and gets married but shortly finds herself a widow when he is killed by robbers. At this point, Oharu tries to become a nun but the pesky and randy tailor tracks her down and forces himself on her again at a Buddhist temple. Discovered in flagrante delicto, Oharu is cast out of the nunnery. At this point, she hits rock bottom and turns to prostitution, a straight-up streetwalker.

After several years of this, Oharu is reunited with her mother (her father having passed in the ensuing years). She is told that the new daimyō (Oharu's son) wants her back at his court in Edo. Excited by the prospect of meeting her son, Oharu is once again bitterly disappointed when she is instead lectured on the shame she is bringing to her son by being a common whore. Especially ironic since the men lecturing her are the same ones who cast her out of the court years earlier without compensation. Sentenced to house arrest for the rest of her lifetime, Oharu escapes and the film ends with her homeless and begging (too old to even be a whore).

The synopsis I just wrote was for a 2.5 hour film. The relentlessly bleak plot consists of Oharu enduring countless misfortunes although most of them were precipitated by rigid gender roles and blatant sexism in Edo Period Japan. That Oharu directed films with similar plots set in post-WWII Japan only add to the poignancy and sadness of the plight of Japanese women.

Anchoring the film is Kinuyo Tanaka who plays Oharu from a naive and headstrong teenager to a weary old woman. The most brutal scene was towards the end. A man (a monk I believe) brings Oharu back to his inn. Rather than paying for her sexual services, he shines light on Oharu's face and uses her as an example to the young men in his company. If you desire the flesh, you'll end up like this withered old whore. Oharu meekly accepts the man's insults and money but showing the last vestiges of self-respect and fire-in-the-belly, Oharu rises up to kick and berate the man.

I didn't the enjoy the film as much as I was emotionally drained by it. Only a man with a heart of stone could stay dry-eyed throughout the film. Life of Oharu was the first film in a five year run at the Venice Film Festival. Each year from 1952 to 1956, a Mizoguchi film was accepted and nominated for that festival's highest honor, the Golden Lion Award. At the time, Mizoguchi rivaled Kurosawa as the most famous and admired Japanese director in international film circles. Melodramatic by modern standards, the film allows Mizoguchi to engage in long takes and deliberate pacing to a degree which is no longer allowed in most commercial films.


Women of the Night reminded me of Street of Shame which was my favorite Mizoguchi film from the June screenings at Viz.

In post-WWII Japan, two sisters must ultimately resort to prostitution to feed themselves. The two sisters (Tanaka and Sanae Takasugi) take slightly different paths. Tanaka's character is more resistant but once they hit rock bottom, she seems more accepting of her circumstances. The film had a moralistic tone which is offputting 60 years later but it had an emotional scene at the end where Tanaka's character is brutally beaten by a gang of prostitutes for being an outsider.

Women of the Night, Street of Shame and Life of Oharu are variations on the same theme which is the second class role women had in Japanese society and that without the protection of a husband, women have only one asset to sell. As I mentioned in my previous post, Mizoguchi's sister was sold to a geisha house (like Memoirs of a Geisha) and the experience profoundly affected Mizoguchi and his films.


Sansho the Bailiff is a well-known legend in a Japan. It's ultimately about the price of staying true to one's convictions but as is de rigueur in Mizoguchi films, the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) resorts to prostitution.

Set in feudal Japan, a province governor refuses to raise taxes on the poor despite direct orders from his lord. For this offense, he is banished and sends his wife and small children to live with his brother. The three of them are deceived by strangers and sold into slavery and prostitution. The brother and sister are sold to work as slaves for the eponymous Sansho while the mother is sold to a geisha house (which in Mizoguchi films always seem to be a temporary stop on the road to street walking).

As the children grow into adulthood, they keep alive the hope to be reunited as a family. The kids discover their mother is still alive and plan their escape. The sister has to sacrifice her life to allow her brother to escape. However, once he finds his mother, he discovers her blind, crippled and homeless. That's how the film ends which I find more powerful than some ridiculous, tacked-on happy ending which would have happened in a Hollywood film of the time and perhaps still today.

As I watched these films, I wondered what kinds of film Mizoguchi would have done if he wasn't Japanese. Japanese customs and experiences were such a part of his stories that it's impossible for me to imagine any other kind of film from the man. Whereas Ozu's films on family are universal and Kurosawa's epic influenced and were influenced by Western films, Mizoguchi's films are resolutely Japanese not to mention relentlessly downbeat.


My least favorite film of the quartet was Miss Oyu. Set in 1951, Miss Oyu is a love triangle featuring two sisters - Tanaka as the older sister who is a widow and Nobuko Otowa as the younger, titular sister. Actor Yuji Hori is cast as the young man whose marriage to Miss Oyu is arranged by others. The odd part of this film is that Oyu is well aware of the attraction between her sister and her fiancé but rather than taking steps to put herself in the predominant position or conceding to her sister, she goes through with the marriage and asks her husband to make her sister be happy. Equally ridiculous is that Tanaka's character seems oblivious to the peculiarity of her relationship to her brother-in-law, the scandal it causes or ever her own not-so-latent attraction to him.

All three characters suffer for their inability to admit the truth as well as the social pressure put on them to behave a certain way. In that sense, the film was engaging but the plot was so contrived by 2010 American standards that I lost interest.


Having seen 8 Mizoguchi films now, I can say that he's your man if you are looking for a good cry. In particular, if the plight of women in male dominated societies is something that interests you, you would do well to see some of his films.

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