Unusually for a film by the great master Mizoguchi Kenji, I found Lady Oyû quite difficult to get into. Oddly though, I now find myself thinking about it quite a lot. Viewed by many critics to be one of the weakest of Mizoguchi’s films and disowned to some extent by the director himself, it still has much to offer and according to Sato Tadao in Mizoguchi Kenji and the Art of Japanese Cinema “Every single scene [in Lady Oyû] is like viewing a masterpiece of Japanese painting” (2008: 66-7).
I would agree with Sato, especially in relation to the first sequence in the film (from which the still image above is taken), but there are quite a few other issues here. Mizoguchi made three films for three different studios in 1951 and this one was for Daiei, with whom Mizoguchi would have great success overseas in the next few years. (This DVD is one of the twin packs of Mizoguchi Daiei releases from Masters of Cinema.) Mizoguchi was faced with a studio job that was frustrating in several ways. The problems began with the property itself.
Lady Oyû is an adaptation of a novella by Tanizaki Junichiro, one of the most important figures in 20th century Japanese literature. The novella appeared in 1932 as The Reed Cutter. It is a ‘tale’ told to a traveller by a reed cutter on a moonlit night. The tale is about a marriage triangle in which a young man goes to a marriage meeting where he falls in love immediately, not with the young woman who has been chosen for him, but with her older widowed sister. The younger sister eventually marries the man, but refuses to consummate the marriage and explains that she agreed to wed in order that the man could be close to the widow (who shouldn’t marry in deference to her in-laws because she is bringing up her small son). The story is about the obsessive love for a beautiful aristocratic woman who is on a pedestal. Mizoguchi was faced with two changes imposed by the studio – the title was changed and the narrative structure of a tale told in flashback was replaced by a linear narrative. The title change seems a commercial decision to draw audience attention to the image of obsession – but it does mean that the images (and songs) which reference the reeds become puzzling. The shift to a linear narrative is more problematic however. My main criticism of the film is that it has three distinct aesthetics which for me don’t blend together. If they had been presented as flashbacks this might not have been such an issue.
The three different types of sequence presented in the film are: (i) the formal and highly ritualised meetings which include musical performances as well as the initial marriage meeting and the wedding (ii) interior and more intimate scenes, shot in the studio, involving the three main characters and (iii) location shots by the sea and river bank or in the woods. The mix between studio and location seems quite abrupt and reminded me of many Hollywood films of the 1940s (with some quite unconvincing background shots of railways which I thought might be models). On the other hand, scenes are separated by quite long fades to black.
Mizoguchi is best known for two aspects of his work. His wonderfully fluid camera, sometimes adopting a slightly high angle, often follows characters as they move diagonally across the frame. This has been likened to the unrolling of Japanese scroll paintings (emakimono). This camera movement is part of a ‘long take’ style which in more confined spaces becomes translated into what the French call a plan-séquence. In Sato’s book he offers an anlysis of a single take of 6 minutes and 57 seconds from one of the interior scenes in Lady Oyû. I intend to use this analysis in a class so I’m going to watch it again a few times. The stunning cinematography is the work of Mizoguchi’s long-time collaborator Miyagawa Kazuo.
The other well-known aspect of Mizoguchi’s work is his fascination/obsession with the lives of ‘suffering women’. Partly this was connected to his own early life spent with his mother and older sister (who was forced by economic circumstance to become a geisha in order to support the family). In 1946 women in Japan got the vote for the first time as a result of the ‘democratisation’ process set in motion by the Occupation Authorities. Several of Mizoguchi’s films of the period featured protagonists struggling for women’s rights. Some of these films, like Lady Oyû were set in the later Meiji period (i.e. between 1880 and 1910). One was My Love Has Been Burning (1949) starring Tanaka Kinuyo. Tanaka was a major star in Japanese Cinema throughout the 1930s and into the 1960s and since 1940 she had become Mizoguchi’s ‘go to’ star. But as Tony Rayns, in the useful intro to each of the films in this MoC series, points out, she was known as a ‘strong woman’, positively animalistic in her vigourous portrayal of women fighting for what they believed was right. She was therefore not well-cast as a reserved aristocratic beauty – the kind of woman a young man would put on a pedestal and admire from afar. Much as I respect and highly rate Tanaka, I cannot see her as an ethereal beauty. In Lady Oyû her usual star persona comes to the fore in a remarkable scene where she ‘joshes’ and tickles the young man, laughing joyfully and mischievously all the while.
While I can see these problems with the film, I’ve enjoyed researching Mizoguchi in this period and I’m now looking for the other films that I’ve not seen made around the same time. Does anyone know of an (English-subtitled) DVD of A Portrait of Madame Yuki (1950) made by Shintoho?
The Japanese director Mizoguchi Kenji died, far too young, aged 58 in 1956. His last production was a ‘modern’ film, both in setting and style and therefore something of a surprise from a director who had become well-known in the West for a strong ‘personal style’ of cinematography, staging and editing developed mainly in period films. Street of Shame is that familiar genre of melodrama associated with the decline of Tokyo’s ‘pleasure districts’ in the 1950s – see Naruse’s Flowing and Mizoguchi’s own Uwasa no onna for comparison. But whereas those two films dealt with geisha houses in which young women were still trained to serve men as hostesses for an evening’s entertainment – supposedly including singing and playing the shamisen – Street of Shame is set in an open brothel (named ‘Dreamland’!) from which the women dash out into the street to drag customers in.
Mizoguchi worked on this Daiei film without his usual scriptwriter and though the focus on ‘suffering women’ is familiar, the pacing and the multi-strand narrative seems a departure. We meet the brothel owner and his wife (the ‘madam’) and a varied selection of ‘working girls’. Yumeko is an older woman with a grown-up son she has left behind in her village. Yorie wants to marry and settle down in rural Japan. Hanae is married to a tubercular man who can’t work and they have a baby. Yasumi is the most attractive and the highest earning of the women, but she has large debts to recover. Finally ‘Mickey’ arrives in a pair of capri pants as a young woman from Kobe who has been jilted by her American boyfriend. She is pleased to be away from her parents. The short narrative (under 90 minutes) follows all five women, each of whom have their reasons for needing to sell themselves in the brothel. But times are changing, Members of the Diet (the Japanese Parliament) are intent on making prostitution illegal. The routine of the house is interrupted at various times by radio announcements about the progress (or lack of) of the campaign. The brothel owner takes a paternal stance, telling the women that what he does is a ‘social service’ in finding them work that pays more than any other employment they could find in Tokyo at the time.
The DVD I viewed was a Masters of Cinema disc with both an Introduction and a very detailed commentary on the film by Tony Rayns (unfortunately since I rented it, I didn’t also get the informative booklet). Rayns is of course a diligent scholar and he talks entertainingly about Mizoguchi, Daiei, the cultural and political context of the legislation on prostitution and also on the aesthetic deployed by Mizoguchi. The only aspect of this that I found surprising was his observation that most of the film was shot on a Tokyo studio lot – after Mizoguchi was refused co-operation on a location shoot by the brothel owners in Yoshiwara, the pleasure district. It is true that indoor scenes are all studio bound and also some street scenes, yet there are also several scenes set away from the pleasure district, seemingly on location. For this reason, it felt different from some of Mizoguchi’s other films. I was struck by the way that Mizoguchi used locations in a more energetic way (i.e. for dramatic, even ‘action’ scenes) than Ozu. But of course, the studio scenes are beautifully designed and staged. I’m sure that many will agree with Rayns when he argues that Mizoguchi’s staging of scenes in depth with foreground and middle-ground action and unconnected activity in the background is never ‘show-off’ stuff like Welles in Citizen Kane, but just the solid professionalism of a master.
Most of all, however, I enjoyed this film very much for the energy of the playing by the whole cast, including some wonderful melodrama moments and for the skilled editing which maintained the pacing across five stories so brilliantly. It’s a humanist story – the women have problems and they attempt to solve them. Sometimes their behaviour towards clients is deceitful, at other times they show compassion. Everyone is good and bad in this sense. The film doesn’t take any kind of moral stance. Mizoguchi himself had used brothels as a younger man and he understood the world of the film. Prostitution was finally made illegal soon after the film was released.
I can’t wait to get really stuck in to 1950s Japanese Cinema again, so I think some more short reviews will follow.
In one of my fantasies, I learn how to manage time so well that I am able to work my way through all the available films of the directors I love. In reality, this means being decisive now and again and buying a DVD which might get watched.
Mizoguchi Kenji is my sentimental favourite amongst the Japanese and I was delighted to discover that Masters of Cinema are releasing a series of double DVD packs of his films. Of course, this means that I will probably have to buy films that I have already got (or rent the films separately). However, in the case of Uwasa no onna it has been paired with Chikamatsu monogatari, which I think I did see many years ago, but certainly haven’t got.
Uwasa no onna is an untranslatable title that has sometimes been rendered as ‘Woman of Rumour’ or ‘Woman in the rumour’ – summoning up a common Mizoguchi theme of the lives of women in the context of restrictive social mores. This is one of Mizoguchi’s contemporary set films (although most of it takes place in the ‘pleasure’ district of Kyoto, where many of the women are employed as geisha). It’s a melodrama based on a triangle of mother, daughter and young male doctor. The great Tanaka Kinuyo plays the mother, a widow who has invested in a geisha house. Her daughter returns from Tokyo after a failed suicide and is shown as shamed by her mother’s profession. The doctor who comes to visit her is the ‘house doctor’ in whom the mother has more than a professional interest.
The DVD carries a Tony Rayns introduction in which spends most of the time discussing how Mizoguchi didn’t wish to make the film which was forced on him by his studio Daiei and how it was the last film he made with Tanaka, with whom he fell out when she became a successful director herself (the first significant female director in Japan). The introduction is both tantalising and frustrating. Rayns reminds us that Mizoguchi himself knew about the world of the pleasure houses (i.e. brothels) both from personal experience (common and acceptable for middle-class Japanese men of his era) and from his research for several other films which explored the same milieu. In this sense, it is clear why Daiei thought that this was a suitable property. It was written by Yoda Yoshikata, Mizoguchi’s long-term collaborator and Narusawa Masashige, who would go on to be a major collaborator, so something was wrong if Mizoguchi turned away from the script. Rayns suggests that he was simply tired after winning three successive prizes at Venice or disdainful of what was clearly a straightforward genre piece. Daiei’s motives become clear in the trailer included on the DVD which announces a ‘dramatic epic’ with all the sumptuousness of the geisha world. These now seem rather ridiculous claims for what turned out to be an 84 min film with relatively little visual splendour and none of the bravura camerawork that graces a film like Sansho Dayu from the same year.
But this lack of epic scale doesn’t detract from my pleasure in watching the film. What I see is the competent genre work of a team of highly skilled filmmakers and performers. Most of all it makes me wonder about how films like this were seen in Japan in the 1950s. Presumably, this would have been half of a double bill in an upmarket cinema in Tokyo or Osaka. What would it have shown with? Were cinemas at this time controlled by the studios themselves? As one of the newer, smaller studios did Daiei have access to their own cinemas or did they have to rely on their larger competitors for bookings? An interesting brief history of Daiei by Greg Shoemaker answers some of these questions, but raises further seeming contradictions — writing in a fantasy magazine, Shoemaker is more interested in the science fiction and exploitation films which Daiei were making in the same period. Mizoguchi’s more artistic work was an important part of Daiei’s attempts to produce commercially successful period films that would appeal to foreign markets (hence the festival screenings). The more generically inclined period films would then become reliable commercial earners at home in the later 1950s and early 1960s. But though I love Mizoguchi’s period films, I find his contemporary films equally interesting. My question remains. Who were the audiences who got to see what appear now to be small genre pictures for older middle class audiences – in the 1950s perhaps the equivalent of audiences who enjoyed Douglas Sirk’s melodramas?
The obvious thing to do is to compare Mizoguchi’s contemporary films with those of Ozu and Naruse — something increasingly possible now that the DVDs are appearing. Mizoguchi seems to me the more painterly (he was a trained painter I think), less realist but perhaps more concerned overall with ideas of art and society. I think three representations will remain with me from the film. First, the daughter (played by Kuga Mishiko) reminds me so much of Audrey Hepburn and is wonderfully fresh and modern in a mise en scène which is otherwise so traditional. Secondly, Mizoguchi offers us the contrast of the stage life and ‘real life’ with performances of both kabuki and noh plays (the latter being relatively rare in contemporary set films). Finally (and another Mizoguchi trait) is the sense of community shown by the girls in the house who effectively introduce us to all sides of the courtesan’s life.
A note on the DVD: these are direct transfers from Daiei masters and surprisingly for UK DVDs they are NTSC discs. My DVD player/TV set can cope, but the image is never as good as PAL and appears here as rather lacking in contrast. It works fine on my Mac, though here the primitive sound quality is more evident. The DVD twin pack also has a small 56 page booklet, most of which deals with Chikamatsu monogatari, but there is a short extract from Keiko McDonald’s out of print book on Mizoguchi. I found this useful in thinking about the mise en scène of the geisha house itself with the contrast between the cramped quarters of the girls and the more lavish use of space (so precious in Japanese buildings) in the mother’s and daughter’s rooms. No mention of Mizoguchi’s reluctance here but McDonald does note, the Western style of camera work and editing and she concludes that Mizoguchi was, in terms of social critique, adopting an attitude of detachment and of “showing us how it is”.
The final page of the booklet is something to cheer every cinephile – a set of instructions about how to watch a film in Academy ratio on a modern TV set, complete with illustrations showing how the image will be distorted or cropped on widescreen TVs set to ‘fill the screen’ defaults. What an excellent idea — all DVDs should carry this!
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. (http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/mizoguchi.html)
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
Tag Gallagher (2001) ’Mizoguchi and Freedom’ http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/firstrelease/fr1201/tgfr13b.htm
Alexander Jakoby (2002) Profile of Mizoguchi
Gary Morris (1998) Profile of Mizoguchi
Tim Smedley (2003) Review
Roy Stafford 18/10/04