Japanese Classics VIII

I decided to have myself a Kenji Mizoguchi film festival…

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Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) [Tales of the Rain and Moon, aka Ugetsu] is a highly acclaimed masterwork of Japanese cinema. Based on a pair of 18th century ghost stories by Ueda Akinari, the film’s release continued Mizoguchi’s introduction to the West, where it was nominated for an Oscar and won the the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion award (for Best Direction).

In 16th century Japan, amidst the pandemonium of civil war, potter Genj r (Mori Masayuki) and samurai-aspirant Tobei (Ozawa Sakae) set out with their wives in search of wealth and military glory respectively. Two parallel tales ensue when the men are lured from their wives: Genj r by the ghostly charm of Lady Wakasa (Kyo Machiko); Tobei by the dream of military glory.

If this isn’t a perfect film, I don’t know what is. Sublimely lyrical and a subtle blend of realism and the supernatural. I know I was watching a fable slowly unfolding to its devastating ending, but in my mind the story feels so relevant and hard-hitting. The characters may hail from a begotten time in Japan, but the themes of the ethics of war, the neglect of family duties, the consequences of lust and greed, are still as relevant now as then. Nothing changes much for mankind, we are still consumed by these notions. One just needs to open a newspaper and see a bombardment of people playing these deadly games. The beauty with Mizoguchi’s revered film is that he doesn’t shout any slogans and yet it hits you like a punch to the guts. I felt like I was in an ethics classroom and the auteur Mizoguchi is my teacher. What a privilege it is to have seen this. (5 / 5)

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Oyu-Sama (aka Miss Oyu) (1951) feels like a window to another time in Japan. Shinnosuke is introduced to Shizu as a prospective marriage partner, but he falls in love with her widowed sister Oyu. Convention forbids Oyu to marry because she has to raise her son as the head of her husband’s family. Oyu convinces Shinnosuke and Shizu to marry so that she can remain close to Shinnosuke.

I love the composition of moving shots and compelling characters. Mizoguchi hardly used any close-ups, his camera always follows the action, letting us observe everything and feel its tragedy slowly unfolding. Nowadays movies depict men like “they see what they like they must take”, instant gratification. The collision of genitals is inevitable. Here, they are refined – when they love someone, they love with their total being. There is a scene where Oyu is unconscious from heatstroke and Shinnosuke eyes her longingly. The way the camera stays on him as he battles himself is amazing. The film also shows the oppression of females in Japan’s society then and how unfairly treated they were. (4 / 5)

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Mizoguchi considered Osaka Elegy (1936) his first serious effort as a director, and it was also his first commercial and critical success in Japan. Osaka Elegy is often considered a companion piece to Mizoguchi’s next film, Sisters of the Gion, which was released the same year and featured much the same cast and crew.

The story is about young Ayako who has to bear the burden of her father’s debt and his brother’s education. She becomes a mistress to her sleazy employer in order to make ends meet, while hiding the truth from her family and fiancé.

The film moves in a straight arrow but the joy here is in the compelling characters and situations. It is a startling critique of the inequalities between the sexes. At just 68 minutes, the film doesn’t waste any scenes and I felt like I had known Ayako all her life. (3.5 / 5)

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Sisters of the Gion (1936) is about about two sisters who work as geishas in the Gion District and it is often considered one of Mizoguchi’s finest pre-war films. The tradition-bound and submissive Umekichi resolves to stand by her lover after he goes bankrupt and leaves his wife. By contrast, the rebellious Omocha views her patrons purely as a means to attain financial security. Determined to improve their fortunes, Omocha embarks on a reckless course of action that has devastating consequences for both sisters.

This is once again a potent and searing indictment of Japanese’s society’s treatment of women. Mizoguchi’s humanist approach to female subjects is never anchored on histrionics, but close observations and honest performances. Almost the whole movie is from the female’s perspective. Remarkable and un-showy film. (3.5 / 5)

 

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