The Lady of Musashino (Japan 1951)

Tsutomu and Michiko in the woods by Musashino

Tsutomu and Michiko in the woods by Musashino

Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956)

“The comparisons are as inevitable as they are unfashionable,” wrote James Quandt, introducing the centenary retrospective of the films of Kenji Mizoguchi. “Mizoguchi is cinema’s Shakespeare, its Bach or Beethoven, its Rembrandt, Titian or Picasso.” If this remains a minority opinion, it’s not because others have tried him and found him wanting. Mizoguchi is either admired or ignored. If he is, as I believe, the greatest of Japanese directors, then he has eluded general recognition as such only through unpropitious circumstances. (

So begins Alexander Jacoby’s impassioned presentation on Mizoguchi in Senses of Cinema’s ‘Great Directors’ series. As he suggests, Mizoguchi became the focus for cinephiles in Europe in the 1950s (including the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma) whilst Kurosawa was the more popular arthouse choice in America (and Ozu would later become the film theorist’s choice).

In his career of some 36 years, Mizoguchi directed more than 90 films. Many of the early silents and some of the wartime sound films have been lost, but the international success of his late films did allow some of the earlier works to get a showing outside Japan. Mizoguchi was famous for films in which women were given leading roles. Some of these were historical dramas (jidaigeki), some were contemporary ‘social problem’ pictures or melodramas (gendaigeki). All were on the side of the women, exposing their maltreatment in Japanese society (female suffrage was not achieved until 1946 under the Allied Occupation) and empowering them through artistic representation. There are varying critical viewpoints on the extent to which Mizoguchi could be classified as a ‘feminist’ director. Some critics have suggested that he exploited the suffering of his heroines (and of his actresses, with whom he was tyrannical in the search for perfection). But there is no dispute that women are invariably at the centre of his films.

Mizoguchi’s remarkable success internationally with the early 1950s films was partly to do with a familiarity in the West with the idea of a ‘woman’s picture’/melodrama and partly a recognition of a strong cinema aesthetic, which although ‘exotic’ and ‘Japanese’ was also visually striking. Robin Wood (1976) offers a view of Mizoguchi as demonstrating a style that has affinities to European directors as diverse as Max Ophüls and Roberto Rossellini and features strong diagonals in the compositions The famous later films featured fluid and extensive tracking shots as well as distinctive compositions that drew on traditional Japanese painting styles (although like Kurosawa, he had studied Western painting). In his earlier films the camera is sometimes less mobile and the arrangement of characters in the frame and the editing seems to ‘break the rules’ of Western continuity editing (see Gallagher 2001). In the 1940s, some Western critics suggested an affinity to the long take, plan séquence style of Jean Renoir. (Plan séquence means carefully choreographing a whole scene involving actions by characters and camera movements within a single take.) The opening shots of The Lady of Musashino certainly resemble the Renoir of The River (France/India 1950). Richie (2001: 81) dismisses The Lady of Musashino as ‘static’ and therefore not ‘modern’. Is he right?

The Lady of Musashino
This film dates from the period immediately before Mizoguchi was in effect ‘introduced’ to the West through the Venice Film Festival (The Life of Oharu, Mizoguchi’s next film in 1952 won the International Award at Venice). It is one of a trio of ‘bourgeois melodramas’ that Mizoguchi directed between 1949 and 1952, but the only one of the three to have become available in the UK (the others are A Portrait of Madame Yuki (1950) and Miss Oyu (1951)).

The Lady of Musashino is remarkable for a number of reasons (even though it is not one of Mizoguchi’s widely discussed films). First is the seemingly simple and perhaps even abrupt editing and mise en scène. Some scenes are very short and major changes in the central character’s life are documented very quickly (the abruptness of death and funerals for instance). This would have been seen in Japan as a straight genre film, albeit at the ‘quality’ end of the market. The audience at the time would have picked up quickly on the important changes in social mores and the implications in the behaviour of family members, but we might have more of a problem in assessing the importance of the narrative information we are offered.

This leads to the question of thematics and the context of production. The film is contemporary for its period and traces what happens to a middle class woman over the years from the latter stages of the war in 1944-5 up to the present (i.e. 1951). This is the period of the Occupation (which ended in 1952), when Japanese people were recovering from the shame of defeat, trying to rebuild their lives and starting to come to terms with the new ‘democratic’ Japan and the promise of ‘modernisation’ and economic recovery.

As a relatively well-off woman, Michiko, the ‘Lady from Musashino’ (a small city to the west of Tokyo, since the 1960s part of the outer suburbs of the metropolis) does not have to scrabble for a living like many working class Japanese, but she does have to face the dilemma of choosing between her obligations to her parents and other traditional Japanese customs and the rather different attractions (and problems) of ‘modernity’. The latter are attractive to both her husband, Tadao (who is normally referred to by his family name Akiyama) and Tomiko, the wife of her cousin Eiji.

Michiko’s family relationships are at the centre of the narrative. At the start of the film she returns from a bombed-out Tokyo to her family home with its house, land and servants. Her father is concerned that she maintain the family name (Miyaji) and he refers to her ‘samurai blood’ which helps her to stand the bombing. He doesn’t trust Akiyama who happily admits that he is of peasant stock, which is why he is happy to run away from the bombing. Akiyama has become a Professor at Tokyo University and he is so eager to see the ‘stupid war’ over that he earns a rebuke from Michiko’s father: “Do you want to see Japan defeated?”

Michiko’s cousin Eiji Ono owns a munitions factory and he will survive the war, but her father’s brother is a Chief of Staff who must commit hari-kari with the defeat. It is his son, Tsutomu, who carries the family name of Miyaji. Tsutomu returns in 1947 from POW camp in Singapore and enrols at the university. Michiko must follow her father’s teachings, but she finds herself torn between her husband, a moderniser who teaches Stendahl and espouses adultery as ‘freedom’, and Tsutomu, who yearns for the solitude of Musashino, but finds himself trapped in the Americanised world of post-war Tokyo. The ending of the film confirms that the struggles over ‘modernity’ and tradition’ are not simple, nor should characters be seen as wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’, based on their attitudes.

What lifts the film above the general level of well-made genre films is Mizoguchi’s direction, particularly his direction of his familiar star actress Kinuyo Tanaka (1910-1977). Ms Tanaka began her career at 14 and made a total of 117 films, including 15 with Mizoguchi, starting in 1940. (She later went on to direct six features in the 1950s and 1960s, according to IMDB becoming the first woman to direct in Japan. She also worked for Ozu.) In a useful essay on Tanaka and Mizoguchi, Chika Kinoshita refers to the way in which Mizoguchi ‘realises’ relationships on screen:

Mizoguchi’s films are almost always about women. It is, however, arguable that Mizoguchi strongly gravitates not toward women’s beauty or their sorrows but toward women in social relations, and in particular to hierarchical power relations between the sexes. Mizoguchi’s view is succinctly illustrated in a 1952 interview: “In the first place, I have long thought that after Communism solves the problems of class, male-female problems would remain.” Here his reference to Communism, though seemingly casual, reveals that he considered the male-female relation to be something like class relations, i.e., a historically specific hierarchical system that serves as mode of exploitation. Sato [Tadao] accurately points out Mizoguchi’s profound obsession with “the high/low positions in human relations” and maintains:

In Mizoguchi, even a state of love between a man and a woman is under the sway of hierarchy. Or, for Mizoguchi, the most desirable form of romantic relationships might have been a picture of holding down under him someone noble at whom he used to look up . . . He recognised that every human relation inevitably takes shape as either the act of looking up or that of looking down, even in romantic relationships. [Sato, Tadao. Mizoguchi Kenji no sekai (Tokyo: Chikuma-shobou, 1982)]

Sato’s observation is helpful in mapping out hierarchical power/romantic relations in the Mizoguchian world. In effect, modern romantic love, which theoretically bases itself on human equality in bourgeois society, is what his films often eulogise as an abstract ideal, but rarely realise in a concrete form.
(‘Choreography of desire: analysing Kinuyo Tanaka’s acting in Mizoguchi’s films’ by Chika Kinoshita Uploaded 1 December 2001)

Donald Richie (2001) A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Tokyo, London and New York: Kodansha International
Robin Wood (1976) Personal Views: Explorations in Film, London: Gordon Fraser

Web Resources
Tag Gallagher (2001) ’Mizoguchi and Freedom’
Alexander Jakoby (2002) Profile of Mizoguchi
Gary Morris (1998) Profile of Mizoguchi
Tim Smedley (2003) Review

Roy Stafford 18/10/04

One comment

  1. Srikanth Srinivasan

    Didn’t know where to post this, so am posting in the first one under melodrama…

    Could you elaborate on what is melodrama? Is use of “excess” as you had mentioned typical of it? Is it always a tear-generator? (But Fassbinder’s films were called melodramatic, though not tear jerkers)

    why is melodrama looked down upon nowadays? (is it widely so?). Is it because it is considered emotional manipulation. But if it is so, even subtleties like camera angles and use of colour, why even acting is emotional manipulation, right? Your comments will be enlightening…


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