Japanese Classics XI

My last Kenji Mizoguchi’s films…

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The Life of Oharu (1952) follows a woman’s fight and survival amid the vicissitudes of life and the cruelty of the society. It is about a fifty-year-old prostitute, no longer able to attract men, who looks back on her sad life. Once a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court at Kyoto, Oharu fell in love with, and became the lover of, a man below her station. They were discovered, and Oharu and her family were exiled. For Oharu there followed a life filled with one sorrow and humiliation after another.

This is a stirring masterpiece. In lesser hands, the film would have become a cloying sob-fest, but in Mizoguchi’s masterful hands it becomes so much more. His storytelling is delicate and never once descends down to cheap maudlin. He does this by pulling his camera back and never going for tight close-ups. I feel like an observer, albeit a helpless one. So many times I wanted to go inside the screen to whack up all the scumbags.

Kinuyo Tanaka is amazing as Oharu. She plays 30 years of the same character and in no time do I get pulled out of the passage of time.

This is essential cinema. Words elude me. I implore you to see this – an astonishing story of a woman’s fall from grace into utter destitution. It may be bleak, but it has great emotional heft. At one point I even punched my fist in the air when Oharu gets one over an evil woman with the unlightly help of a pussy cat. (5 / 5)

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Utamaro and His Five Women (1946) is about Utamaro, a great artist, who lives to create portraits of beautiful women, and the brothels of Tokyo provide his models. A world of passion swirls around him, as the women in his life vie for lovers. And, occasionally, his art gets him into trouble.

I can’t say I enjoyed this as much as his other films. The film lacks depth. I guess Mizoguchi’s intention is not to do a probing the main character, but to showcase the time and milieu of its time. The film has an episodic feel and doesn’t endear me. That said, there are scenes that are instantly memorable like a bevy of scantily clad beautiful women frolicking in the sea and a rich “dirty” man ogles on. I particularly love that opening confrontational scene of Utamaro and a rival artist-swordsman dueling over whose house of art is the best by using brushes. (3.5 / 5)

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Sansho the Bailiff (1954) is based on a short story of the same name by Mori Ōgai, it follows two aristocratic children who are sold into slavery. The story and plot can easily fill a 100-episode serial like Oshin, but Mizoguchi could effortlessly condensed it into a 2-hour epic that moves like a haiku. The story has a serene rhythm and the pace of a gentle stream. I had tears streaming down throughout the masterpiece. This is one of the best films I have ever seen. Beautiful framing, deft direction, marvellous acting, superb character arcs, amazing writing; this is one of those few films that will bless you with a renewed hope for human kind and it will make you want to become a better person. You know what… my words are rubbish. I am enclosing the following two extraordinary extolments by two critics who lauded it so much better… (5 / 5)

“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.” – Anthony Lane (The New Yorker film critic)

“I don’t believe there’s ever been a greater motion picture in any language. This one sees life and memory as a creek flowing into a lake out into a river and to the sea.” – Jim Emerson (rogerebert.com)

 

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