Japanese cinema has an odd relationship with crowds for assorted reasons; two of the chief come from genres like horror and anime. The usual response to the question of what a person’s favourite Japanese film or film-maker is will often be met with any number of studio Ghibli films a J-Horror (in its diversity of cyclical guises) or at the very best either Kurosawa or Ozu. The simple reason being the aforementioned are all fashionable components of the Japanese cinematic identity and the global perception of that identity is missing out on some of the greatest film-makers who ever lived, for the sake of fashion. This brings me to the topic of the day in Masters of Cinema latest release, a Boxset of films that made up the last 5 years of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career (1951-1956). This is a director who won Venice film festival’s Silver Lion two years running for films included in this set, a director who saw Kurosawa as a relative upstart.
Instead of running down each film in laborious detail, I’m picking out the three highlights and discussing them. Those three films are Akasen Chitai, Sansho Dayu and Ugetsu Monogatari. But before that, there’s the set at large. Each film has been given a polish of variable quality, which is no slight on the work of the people at Eureka & Masters of Cinema, it’s more to do with the fact that these are old films and the people who clean and master such things can only work with the best print available, so it goes without saying that the image quality is inconsistent. But if this set is appealing to you in any way a slight niggle here and there in the visual presentation is hardly enough to dissuade you from buying this limited run Blu-ray compendium. Instead, the problem comes in the introduction each film receives from Tony Rayns. Again, that’s not a slight on Rayns; on the contrary he is informative and engaging, adding a layer of historical understanding to these films. It’s when there is a lesser film that he is introducing that these segments fail to fit purpose, especially with Chikamatsu Monogatari he does the opposite of selling the film.
Of the three highlights, I’ll be starting on his last film Akasen Chitai (Street of Shame). The reason to start with his untimely swansong is that it is the most striking example of his themes and the best substantiation on the claim that he is the first major feminist film director. Taking place in the Dreamland brothel in Yoshiwara, Akasen Chitai follows the trials and tribulations of the prostitutes as well as the looming threat of a government bill that if passed will illegalise prostitution. It’s of historical significance too as it depicts the rarest of things, the evolution of a nation. In Akasen Chitai, Japan is changing from a traditional & dutiful country restricted by its borders into the beginnings of the country we now know Japan to be. It’s a fascinating era of Modern history and Mizoguchi brings it to life in his most conventionally modern film. The score that can only be described as peculiar aides this modernism in establishes an uneasy atmosphere. The score makes Akasen Chitai both confounding and appealing.
Most of the stories around the girls’ personal lives are melodramatic but add in that score and you have something quite unique and all the more affecting for it. Melodramatic is such a broad term and the way Mizoguchi works it is bleak more than anything, but giving each character their own story allows the broadest of scope. There are themes of poverty, social stigma, globalisation, familial shame, suicide, misogyny all through a thick application of suffering. The suffering of women is a norm in Mizoguchi’s films (the central theme of Ugetsu), but here there is a level of subtext applied that few directors could apply without suffocating the central arc of the dreamland girls. One could only dream of the films that Mizoguchi could have gone on to direct if he didn’t die before his time, life being the cruel mistress that it is, that wasn’t to be. As it stands, Akasen Chitai or The Streets of Shame is one of the greatest final films any director has ever made and demands to be seen by all fans of Japanese cinema for the true original that it is.
Moving onto the other highlights in Sansho Dayu and Ugetsu Monogatari; Ugetsu before Sansho as it marks on odd parallel to western tropes. Ugetsu Monogatari (or tales of the rain and moon) follows two families and how the desires of the men causes more damage than they would ever expect. Genjurô gets sired by a mysterious young maiden and Tobei dreams of samurai and the glory of war. There is an imbalance in that, in the respect that Genjurô’s tale is the more interesting and the amount of time dedicated to it substantiates this. As such the melodramatic resolution of Tobei’s ambition really struggles to pay off with any degree of impact. Despite the leads being typical Japanese in their dramatics, the significance is utterly negated when the narrative spends so little time on them.
Genjurô though, he is a totally different story. In the West a ghost is a malevolent spirit who seeks to cause physical or emotional harm to those in its immediate vicinity. In the East, ghosts can represent lingering memories and unfulfilled desires and along with Mizoguchi’s pure cinematography, Ugetsu sees the director at his best. With this thin premise, Mizoguchi contends with Japan’s history and the suffering (there it is again) that woman have to suffer in a country that has a heritage dictated by masculine pride. Even a ghost who steals a man from his wife is met with sympathy thanks to the incredibly simple lines that script has been written with. Where the other tale focused on the village idiot coming good, Genjurô, his son and wife and the spirits with whom he connects with are all beautifully considered and performed. Then there’s the ending, it’s played with a greater level of subtlety, but still achieves the impact that the other arc was fishing for. With cinematography like German Expressionism and a story about pure human loss, it’s very easy to get lost in Ugetsu as it often reaches the very pinnacle of the medium we call cinema.
Leaving the most typically Jidaigeki (period drama) to last with Sansho Dayu –Sansho the Bailiff; which also happens to be the highest profile of all his films (sans Life of Oharu, an unfortunate omission from this set). Sansho Dayu confronts class, slavery, freedom and once again woman’s place in society as a high-ranking official is exiled and his family reap the vicious wrath of 13th Century Japan. Betrayed by a priestess, of all people, his wife is sold as a courtesan and his children into slavery at the manor of the titular bailiff. Now, what makes Sansho Dayu such a fascinating piece to modern eyes is its immediacy to the modern awards bait picture. The suffering may be bleaker and the triumph may be more restrained, but this is without a doubt a triumph against the odds film.
With its classy set work and gorgeous cinematography from collaborator Kazuo Miyagawa, Sansho is a ravishing piece of work. Anthony Lane sums up the power of Mizoguchi’s opus like no other. He said “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal”.
Completing the set is Oyu-Sama (1951) an adaptation of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro: a poignant tale of two sisters and their ill-fated relationship with the same man: a tale of the social mores and affairs of the heart that might destroy siblings. Gion Bayashi (1953) is a drama set in the world of the geisha, a subtle masterwork that yields a myriad of insights into the lives of Japan’s “service-class” in the early ’50s. Uwasa no Onna (1954), another Mizoguchi picture set in a modern geisha house, pits mother against daughter, with the ensuing drama forcing both to confront their attitudes toward family and business in what is one of the filmmaker’s most astute filmic examinations of oppressed femininity. Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954), aka The Crucified Lovers, is the tragic story of a forbidden love affair between a merchant’s wife and her husband’s employee, was hailed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa as “a great masterpiece that could only have been made by Mizoguchi.” And finally, Yokihi (1955), aka The Princess Yang Kwei-fei, recounts an 8th-century Chinese story of a widowed emperor and his imperial concubine, filmed in sumptuous, hallucinatory Agfa-stock colour.
There we have it then, this is Mizoguchi and that was the Boxset in all its glory, even though the quality of the films varies from masterpieces of the form to great and the lesser films being derivative, this is a must own collection of films for anybody with an interest in the Masters of Cinema label, World Cinema at large or Japanese film.