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Related Reading: Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi in the 1930s, by Donald Kirihara, Japanese Film Directors by Audie Bock, and Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History edited by Arthur Nolletti Jr. and David Desser.
Related Article: Life of Oharu, featured in Issue No. 22 of Senses of Cinema.


Naniwa ereji, 1936
[Naniwa Elegy/Osaka Elegy]

YamadaSonosuke Asai (Benkei Shiganoya), the manager of a pharmaceutical company, begins each morning with a familiar ritual: selfishly praying for "wealth and health"; harshly berating the servants; complaining of his wife's (Yoko Umemura) untraditional behavior. Yet, having married into prominence and career, he is unable to censure her conduct, and is compelled to submit to her authority. Frustrated by his loveless and subservient home life, Asai has turned his attention towards a young, attractive telephone switchboard operator named Ayako (Isuzu Yamada). Ayako's father, a cowering, yet boastful office worker named Junzo Murai (Seiichi Takegawa) has embezzled money from his employer in a failed attempt at stock trading. Unable to return the missing funds, Murai has been evading company officials who have threatened legal action for the theft. Despite Ayako's developing feelings for a meek, devoted clerk named Nishimura (Kensaku Hara), she moves out of the family home, leaves her job, and reluctantly agrees to become Asai's mistress in exchange for settling her father's financial transgression. However, as Asai's wife becomes increasingly suspicious of her husband's extramarital affair, Asai is compelled to sever his relations with Ayako. Abandoned by her benefactor, unwilling to return home, and faced with incessant pleas for financial assistance for her brother, Hiroshi's (Shinpachiro Asaka) college tuition, Ayako turns to the streets.

Kenji Mizoguchi presents a poignant and caustic tale of obedience, duty, and the inequity of a patriarchal society in Osaka Elegy. Similar to Robert Bresson's A Gentle Woman and L'Argent, the repeated imagery of transactions reflects the devaluation of moral dignity, as money becomes a convenient surrogate for human interaction: Asai's marriage arose from economic and social gain; Mrs. Asai imposes herself on Asai's subordinate, Nishimura, by handing him theater tickets; Murai defends his parental skills by citing his payment for his children's education; Ayako accepts Asai's proposition in exchange for clearing her father's debts. Ironically, as Ayako attempts to follow cultural tradition by assuming responsibility for familial obligations, she is stigmatized as a shameless, delinquent moga (modern girl). In the end, Ayako's search for independence and happiness proves to be elusive ideals in the impersonal commerce of human emotion.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Gion no Shimai, 1936
[Sisters of the Gion]

Shiganoya/UmemuraSisters of the Gion recounts the story of two geisha sisters in the working class district of Gion. The elder sister, Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) is old-fashioned and traditional, and believes in the loyal duty of a geisha to her patron. Her younger sister named Omocha (Isuza Yamada), which literally means "plaything", is modern and unsentimental, and casually exploits her influence on men in order to improve her quality of life. Upon hearing that a young textile salesman has fallen in love with her, Omocha persuades the gullible Kimura (Taizo Fukami) to embezzle materials for a proper kimono so that Umekichi may attend an exclusive social event and network among wealthy potential patrons. Inevitably, the disparate ideologies of the two sisters collide when Umekichi's bankrupt patron, Shimbei Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) seeks refuge in their house after a quarrel with his wife. Umekichi believes that she is obligated to help the destitute Furusawa in return for his past patronage. Omocha, on the other hand, sees Furusawa as an intrusive burden to their modest life, and persuades an amenable curio dealer, Jurakuso (Fumio Okura), to invest money towards Furusawa's eviction in order to secure his arranged patronage with Umekichi. However, despite Umekichi's selfless devotion and Omocha's underhanded machinations, the sisters find that true love is an elusive concept in the life of a geisha.

From the opening composite long shot of the Furusawa household, as the camera traverses from a public auction, to a shot of Furusawa and his assistant, and finally to the image of Furusawa's wife packing, Kenji Mizoguchi creates a chaotic and disorienting portrait of love, duty, and opportunism in Sisters of the Gion. Using successive short takes, medium shots, and unusual camera angles, Mizoguchi visually isolates the characters from their environment. The recurrent imagery of fragmented space further reflects the impermanence and dynamic instability of the geisha trade: an inebriated Jurakuso passes through a series of seemingly discontinuous spaces before reaching the living room; Furusawa's relocation of a partition screen during Jurakuso's visit; the claustrophobic shot-reverse shot dialogue between Omocha and Kimura in a hired car. Inevitably, Sisters of the Gion demystifies the exoticism and romantic ideals of contemporary geisha life and exposes the imbalancing entropy and transience of an existence bound in the underlying artifice of mercantile love.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Zangiku Monogatari, 1939
[The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum]

Mori/HanayagiThe Story of the Last Chrysanthemum opens to a majestic shot of the Shintomi Theater in the heart of Tokyo in 1888, as a popular acting troupe performs a lush, enthusiastically received Kabuki play. Passionate about the theater and eager to perfect his craft, Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi) seems destined to continue the revered tradition of his adoptive father, the great actor, Kikugoro V (Gonjuro Kawarazaki). But Kikunosuke lacks the personal discipline and skilled execution required to become a great actor. His attempts to solicit constructive criticism inevitably result in hypocritical flattery and empty reassurances of talent. Only his infant brother's nurse, Otoku (Kakuko Mori), counsels him: "Please don't be satisfied with flattery or shallow popularity". Kikunosuke is encouraged by Otoku's honesty, and becomes inspired to apply himself into becoming a great actor. Kikunosuke's focused attention towards Otoku fuels gossip among the household servants, and Otoku is dismissed for fraternizing with a master of the house. In anger, Kikunosuke defies his family's demands and turns his back on his privileged life in order to marry Otoku and establish himself as actor on his own merits. However, without the legacy of his famous family, Kikunosuke quickly sinks into obscurity, resorting to occasional work as an itinerant actor. As the young couple lead an increasingly difficult life of poverty far away from Tokyo, Kikunosuke falls into despair.

Kenji Mizoguchi creates an exquisitely realized film on love, perseverance, and the pursuit of artistic excellence in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. Through odd camera angles and changes in elevation, Mizoguchi uses visual imbalance as a metaphor for social inequity. Note the mesmerizing angled tracking shot of an early encounter between Otoku and Kikunosuke, as Otoku provides an honest critique of Kikunosuke's performance, reflecting their social disparity despite compatibility. Another scene shows the reunited couple traversing an inclined street, after a popular actor is driven away by carriage. The visual incongruity further serves to reinforce the insurmountable challenges, both personally and professionally, that lay ahead of them. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is a serenely beautiful, haunting, and profoundly moving portrait of the interminable power of love, the cruel inescapability of social class, and the ultimate price of fame.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Genroku Chushingura, 1941
[The 47 Ronin/The Loyal 47 Ronin of the Genroku Era]

KawarasakiIn the feudal society of 1701 Japan, the samurai code of honor is slowly becoming irrelevant as provincial laws, nepotism, and bureaucracy replace ritual and tradition. The elder ceremonial lord, Kira (Mantoyo Mimasu), fails to instruct Lord Asano (Yoshizaburo Arashi) on proper court etiquette (primarily due to Lord Asano's oversight in offering a bribe to the corrupt Kira), and openly insults the young lord. In a fit of anger, Lord Asano slightly wounds Kira, and is sent before the court for judgment. The court has relational ties to Kira, and exacts a swift, severe punishment for the unrepentant Lord Asano to commit hara-kiri (ritual suicide). Lord Asano's house is abolished, his property is confiscated, and his samurais are reduced to the ignominious state of ronin (masterless samurai). Lord Asano's most trusted samurai, Chamberlain Oishi (Chojuro Kawarasaki) petitions for the restoration of the house under Lord Asano's brother, a futile request designed to conceal the samurais' blood pact to avenge Lord Asano's disgrace. But in an unexpected turn of events, the petition draws public support, and the samurais are forced to await its final outcome before plotting their course of action. Meanwhile, Oishi's reputation becomes tarnished as he is compelled to act out a charade of disinterest and self-service in order to cast off suspicion for his ulterior motive - to lead the samurais into a final, noble act of vengeance.

Based on a historical event, Kenji Mizoguchi's adaptation of The 47 Ronin is a visually resplendent, understated and elegant film on loyalty, fraternity, and honor. Despite the overt manipulation of the Japanese government to showcase the film as a propaganda tool during World War II, The 47 Ronin transcends its intended nationalistic purpose by favoring character development over glorified, sweeping battle sequences. Throughout the film, Mizoguchi uses precise composition, framing, and space in order to reflect the rigidity of the deeply rooted tradition and class structure of feudal Japan: the overhead shot of Lord Asano's isolated confinement behind a folded screen; the loyal samurais pleading for justice before the biased court; the locked gate separating the vassal from witnessing his master's fate; Oishi's reverent visit to Lady Asano (Mitsuko Miura) on the anniversary of her husband's death. Inevitably, it is the undying allegiance and personal sacrifice of the samurais that elevate them to legendary status. Like the Genroku samurais of Lord Asano, Mizoguchi's The 47 Ronin is a stellar moment in an otherwise ignoble and tragic period of Japanese history.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna, 1946
[Five Women Around Utamaro/Utamaro and His Five Women]

KawasakiUtamaro and His Five Woman opens to a languid tracking shot of a formal procession of men and women performing a near static, ceremonial dance. The setting is the Tokugawa Era of late eighteenth century Japan, and the impassive courtship is a reflection of the rigid class structure and behavioral code instilled during their feudal rule. A young apprentice artist from the official Kano Art School named Seinosuke (Kotaro Bando) decides to amuse his mentor by purchasing some inexpensive wood block print artwork of Edo's famous courtesans at a nearby market square, and is insulted to find the artist, Utamaro's (Minosuke Bando) scathing indictment of the prestigious art school, commenting that the school's pervasive trait of using unnatural colors depict their women as freaks. Seinosuke sets off to find Utamaro against the wishes of his fiancée, Kano's daughter, Yukie (Eiko Ohara). A robust, former courtesan named Oshin (Kiniko Shiratao) decides to warn Utamaro, comically rationalizing that he has not yet had the time to paint one of his flattering portraits of her. However, upon hearing that a courtesan renowned for her flawless skin, Takasode (Toshiko Iizuka), is about to be tattooed by a local artist, Utamaro leaves home in order to study her form, and Seinosuke encounters him at the pleasure quarters. Agreeing on a painting challenge instead, Seinosuke quickly finds himself outmatched by the talented Utamaro when the master decides to improve on the novice's work. Later in the evening, Utamaro comes to the aid of the tattoo artist when he is unable to create a portrait worthy of Takasode's beauty. After witnessing Utamaro's great skill, a humbled Seinosuke decides to abandon his privileged life and Yukie in order to study under Utamaro. But soon, Utamaro's house is thrown into crisis when his model, Okita (Kinuyo Tanaka) learns that her lover has eloped with Takasode, and the embittered Okita decides to retaliate by seducing the impressionable Seinosuke. Left without inspiration and constantly quarreling with the tenacious Okita, his friends take him to watch a feudal lord's bizarre daily ritual of sending a chorus of young women to swim in the ocean to retrieve an object. Utamaro becomes captivated by the winner, Oran (Hiroko Kawasaki), and asks her to become his new model.

Inspired by the life and work of the wood block print artist, Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806), who revolutionized the medium by capturing human emotion into his artwork, Utamaro and His Five Women is a fascinating study of a man's dedication to his art and adherence to self-expression in a time of rigid conformity. Filmed in 1946, Utamaro and His Five Women presents the curious dichotomy of postwar Japanese cinema by providing a Western-influenced perspective on the subversion of social class and artistic freedom, while simultaneously alluding to the creative control and cultural suppression imposed on Japanese artists during the American occupation. An intriguing analogy is presented by screenwriter, Yoshikata Yoda, in revealing that Utamaro's aesthetic perfectionism, personal indulgence, and emotional distance were modeled after Kenji Mizoguchi. As Utamaro finds solace in the ideas of his unrealized paintings amidst the chaos of his environment, Mizoguchi, too, perseveres through his imposed artistic limitations in Utamaro and His Five Women, his only film during this period of uncertainty. For Mizoguchi, what results from this creative exile is an inexhaustible resolve and unparalleled technical maturity that would continue until his untimely death in 1956.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Saikaku Ichidai Onna, 1952
[Life of Oharu]

TanakaIn 17th century Kyoto, a beautiful, young lady-in-waiting, Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), falls in love with a low ranking page, Katsunosuke, (Toshiro Mifune). During a raid on a local lodging house, their affair is discovered, leading to her family's exile, and Katsunosuke's execution. When Lord Matsudaira (Toshiaki Konoe) dispatches an attendant from Edo to seek out a concubine to bear an heir and successor, Oharu's father (Ichiro Sugai), obligingly offers his daughter for the ignominious task, believing that her services would bring him financial gain and favors from the court. In a subtly poignant, emotionally revealing scene, Lady Matsudaira (Hisako Yamane), is resigned to receive Oharu in court during the evening's entertainment, attempting to mask her shame and contempt for her husband's new mistress. After the birth of a son, Oharu's station in Lord Matsudaira's court proves temporary, as the council decides to send her back for fear of the lord's growing fondness for her. Oharu's father, who had grown accustomed to living beyond his means, is financially unprepared for Oharu's homecoming, and promptly sells his daughter to a geisha house. Inevitably, even Oharu's marriage to an honest, good hearted fan maker, Yakichi (Jukichi Uno), and postulancy at a Buddhist temple prove fleeting, and she is cast into the street. Alone and destitute, she resorts to prostitution.

Kenji Mizoguchi, considered to be one of the most compassionate directors of women, paints a caustic and harsh existence of a male dominated society in Life of Oharu. In contrast to the hopeful, life-affirming conclusions of Ugetsu and Sansho Dayu, the tone of Life of Oharu is bleak and unforgiving. Visually, Mizoguchi uses thematic cycles to envelop the film with a sense of perpetual despair. The opening scene of a 50 year old Oharu slowly walking the dark, empty streets is repeated in chronological sequence, revealing a deeper subtext to an earlier, seemingly idle chatter with other prostitutes in the street. Oharu's homecoming shows an aging former courtesan named Shimabara playing a shamisen (traditional string instrument), an act that is similarly performed by Oharu herself, years later. A bisected shot of Oharu leaving the Buddhist temple is reflected in the overhead, open market image of Oharu playing the shamisen, and in her departure from the house of a morally strict nun. Life of Oharu is a hauntingly transcendent and profoundly devastating portrait of a woman brought to ruin by the rigidity of social class: a cruel testament to the blind, hypocritical legacy of traditional honor, virtue, and duty.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953
[Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain]

Mori/KyoIn the provincial village of Ohmi, in the era of the Countries in War feudal war, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) leaves his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and son in order to undertake a dangerous trip to the city where he can profit from the widespread shortage by selling his pottery. He is accompanied by his well intentioned brother, Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), a peasant farmer who dreams of providing a better life for his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) by becoming a samurai. Encouraged by their successful venture, the brothers return with loftier ambitions that quickly turn to greed. During the evening of the kiln firing, the village is attacked, and the two families are forced to abandon their homes, traveling by boat to the city of Omizo, where they can sell the undamaged pottery. Along the way, they encounter a lone, wounded boatman, who warns them of pirate ships in the vicinity, and Genjuro decides to leave Miyagi and their son behind for their safety. While selling pottery at the open market square, an enigmatic young woman named Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) approaches Genjuro and orders several articles for delivery to the Kutsuki mansion, and immediately captivates him. Tobei seizes the momentary distraction to run away with their profits and purchase a samurai outfit, attempting to join the army of a local feudal lord. The abandoned Ohama, in a vain attempt to find her husband, encounters a band of pillaging mercenaries, and is violated.

Ugetsu Monogatari is an exquisitely realized, serenely composed allegorical film on love, greed, and betrayal. Kenji Mizoguchi's seamless fusion of poetic realism and surreal mysticism creates a rarefied atmosphere that is paradoxically beautiful and austere, redemptive and tragic, symbolizing Genjuro's coexistence between the physical and supernatural realm - a reflection of the duality of the human soul. Chronologically, the protracted feudal war surrounds every villager with the pervasive specter of death. Episodically, Mizoguchi uses an overhead shot of a woman dressed in a soft, fluttering white kimono to introduce us to the transcendental Lady Wakasa. Genjuro passes through a series of open and screened spaces at the Kutsuki mansion, creating a visual dichotomy of physical reality and ethereal shadows, before his formal introduction to Lady Wakasa. Inevitably, the tortured Genjuro is forced to confront his beguiling temptress - a metaphor for the dark passion of the soul - and returns to his fractured, haunted past: a diligent, simple potter, inspired by the love of his devoted wife.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Gion Bayashi, 1953
[Gion Music Festival/A Geisha]

Wakao/KogureA naive, idealistic young woman named Eiko (Ayako Wakao) ventures into the Gion district in search of her late mother's geisha "sister" - an independent-minded, and old-fashioned geisha named Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure). Shamed by her uncle for her disreputable social status and disowned by her burdensome, ailing father, Sawamoto (Eitaro Shindo), Eiko has turned to Miyoharu in the hopes of following in her mother's footsteps. Unable to secure a guarantee from Sawamoto, Miyoharu decides to use her own financial resources to assume responsibility for Eiko's formal training as a maiko (apprentice geisha), and gives her the name of Miyoe. A year later, Miyoe is ready to debut at the Gion teahouses, and Miyoharu enlists the aid of an influential teahouse owner named Okimi (Chieko Naniwa) to raise money for Eiko's ceremonial kimono. Okimi invites Miyoharu and Miyoe to entertain at a business meeting between a company director named Kusuda (Seizaburo Kawazu) and his prospective client, Kanzaki (Kanji Koshiba). Kanzaki is immediately captivated by Miyoharu, and Kusuda exploits the opportunity by encouraging Okimi to use her influence on Miyoharu to accept Kanzani's patronage. However, when Miyoharu shows disinterest in the proposition, the geisha sisters find themselves increasingly excluded from Gion society and, inevitably, their sole means of economic survival.

A Geisha is a dispassionate, yet fascinating chronicle of a young woman's maturation in the geisha trade. From the opening medium shot of a narrow alley as a young Eiko walks by a street merchant, Kenji Mizoguchi uses the repeated image of confined spaces and restrictive passageways to reflect a sense of entrapment: the image of Eiko running across town in order to meet her maiko preparatory appointment; the ceremonial introduction of Miyoe through the Gion teahouses; Sawamoto's unexpected visit on a Tokyo-bound train; Miyoe's moment of decision to implore Okimi. The final shot shows Miyoharu and Miyoe walking from the narrow and empty alley of their house into the busy, festive street of the district. It is a symbolic realization of Miyoe's own emergence into the
harsh, unforgiving reality of a geisha's life - the dichotomy between obedient service and personal conscience in a socially marginalized, but culturally accommodated trade of human emotion.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Sansho Dayu, 1954
[Sansho the Bailiff]

TanakaIn the austere society of ancient Japan, a beloved, altruistic provincial governor defies an order from the general of the reigning feudal lord to provide additional men for the army, and is forced into exile. In his parting words to his young son, he provides a fundamental principle with which to govern his life: "Without mercy, a man is not a human being." Six years later, the governor's wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), their children Zushio (Masahiko Kato) and Anju (Keiko Enami), and their governess, travel through the backwoods in search of a boatman for hire who will take them to the remote island of Tsukushi, where the father was exiled. While resting for the evening in the woods, a kind, elderly woman offers them shelter and a warm meal, and assists them in obtaining transportation for their journey. However, her seemingly benevolent intentions prove false, delivering the family into the hands of slave dealers, who quickly sell Tamaki to a brothel on Sado Island, and the children to the farm of a corrupt tax collector, Sansho (Eitaro Shindo). Soon, the children are forced to abandon any hope of reuniting with their parents and returning to their life of privilege, leading a brutal existence of hard labor, starvation, and punitive mutilation. Ten years later, an adult Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) has forgotten the meaning behind his father's thoughtful words as he exacts the inhumane punishment on other slaves that Sansho's own son, Taro (Akitake Kono), is unable to perform. One day, Zushio and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) are tasked to dispose of a dying slave, Namiji (Noriko Tachibana), outside the territorial walls of the farm. As the siblings collect branches for a makeshift roof for Namiji, a childhood recollection restores Zushio's hope for a family reunion, and the siblings plan an escape.

Kenji Mizoguchi strikes a delicate balance between man and environment (as Andrei Tarkovsky's films also convey), creating a visual composition that is spare and reserved, and achieves an understated grace that reflects the inexorable courage and nobility of the soul. Using high angle overhead crane shots, Mizoguchi extends the linearity of the images, creating a sense of eternity and dimensionality: the opening shot showing the travelers traversing a shallow river bed in traditional kimono and headdress; the indelible image of the family passing through an open field populated with tall, wispy blades of grass; the first glimpse of Sansho Dayu's fortress; Taro's departure. The theme of eternity is further manifested through the recurring imagery of water - from Tamaki's melancholic call to the sea, to Anju's sacrifice, to the tidal wave that decimated a coastal village - reflecting the timelessness of the moral tale. Sansho Dayu is a serene blow to the eyes: a subtly poignant and hauntingly beautiful film on compassion, perseverance, and human dignity.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Chikamatsu Monogatari, 1954
[A Story by Chikamatsu/Crucified Lovers]

Kagawa/HasegawaIn 1683 Kyoto, at the house of Ishun (Eitarô Shindô) the grand scroll maker, the printers are busy assembling the calendars for the imperial court in the absence of their senior artist, a diligent and conscientious worker named Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa). Suffering from a lingering cold, Mohei has been working from the privacy of his room, attended to by an attractive and modest young housemaid, Otama (Yôko Minamida). Otama's beauty has not escaped the roving eye of the master of the house and, at every given opportunity, Ishun exploits his privilege in order to proposition Otama into becoming his mistress. In an attempt to gently rebuff Ishun's inappropriate advances (while retaining her meager employment), Otama claims to be promised in marriage to Mohei - a declaration that Ishun meets with initial skepticism. Meanwhile, Ishun's wife, Osan (Kyôko Kagawa), encumbered with her family's entreaties to borrow money from her husband in order to settle her irresponsible brother, Doki's (Haruo Tanaka) debts, seeks assistance from Mohei in an attempt to mitigate her mounting financial obligation to her calculating husband. In order to raise the money, Mohei devises a plan to use Ishun's blank official seal in order to borrow five kans of silver from the treasury with the intention of replacing the money expeditiously, but is interrupted by a co-worker who attempts to coerce Mohei into withdrawing an additional sum from the dubious transaction. Unwilling to yield to extortion, Mohei decides to reveal his intent to Ishun in the hopes of gaining sympathy, but is met with violence and threats of prosecution by a vengeful Ishun who believes that Mohei's actions were motivated by his intent to redeem Otama from the household, and consequently, his oppressive control. Fearing arrest and determined to keep his promise of financial support to Osan, Mohei decides to escape detention and flee from the daimyo.

Adapted from the bunraku play by Genroku-era (1688-1703) dramatist, Monzaemon Chikamatsu,
Crucified Lovers is a spare, evocative, and haunting portrait on the tragedy of love, duty, honor, and conformity in repressive society. By retaining the interiority and restrictive movement of jojuri puppet theater (visually emphasized through Mizoguchi's familiar elements of rectangular compositions and movement along the diagonal of the screen), Kenji Mizoguchi captures the pervasive sense of confinement and rigidity of social conduct ingrained in Japanese culture. Initially presenting Osan, Otama, and Mohei through parallel interior shots of Ishun's feudal estate, Mizoguchi illustrates their metaphoric - and inescapable - bounds of gender and socio-economic class: Osan's framing against window bars as Doki pays a visit that cuts to an image of a homebound, recuperating Mohei visited by Otama in a small, upper storey room enclosed by shoji screens, then cuts back to Osan, now listening to the ingratiating entreaties of her mother to curry favor from Ishun in order to save the family's reputation. Mizoguchi further confines the action of the first part of the film to predominantly interior locations (with the notable exceptions of Ishun's entrance through an escorted cab, and a subsequent crane shot of anonymous, disgraced lovers paraded through the street on the way to their public crucifixion) in order to contrast the subsequent "liberation" of Mohei and Osan as they flee to Kyoto, and eventually, to the rural countryside (visually distilled into the ethereality of Mohei and Osan's boat drifting down the river). By reflecting the figurative captivity and marginalization innate in a stratified class structure and accepted hypocrisy of the objectified role of women in society, Crucified Lovers serves as a sublime and provocative testament to the cultural legacy of codified behavior and tolerated inhumanity.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Akasen Chitai, 1956
[Street of Shame]

Machida/Kyo/Mimasu The red light district of Yoshiwara in 1956 bears little resemblance to its evocative tradition as the place "where flowery courtesans, romantic and proud gloried in years gone by". The government has waged an annual campaign to ban prostitution, but in the uncertainty and devastation of postwar Japan, it is a tragic and ignoble reality that women have turned to the streets for economic survival. At an establishment called Dreamland that proudly displays a euphemistic "Cafe and Tea Parlor Association" placard, the joyless lives and faded dreams of five women intersect. The widow, Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu), has entrusted her son to his grandparents in the province and is rarely able to visit him, ashamed of her disreputable profession. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) is a resourceful, manipulative young woman who uses her influence on men for personal gain. Hanae (Michiko Kogure) is a mother burdened with the responsibility of supporting her family when her husband loses his job. Mickey (Machiko Kyo) is an unsentimental young woman whose extravagant lifestyle perpetuates her indebtedness to the proprietors of Dreamland. Yorie (Hiroko Machida) is a hopeless romantic who dreams of settling into a tranquil, domestic life, and fondly shows off her prized collection of kitchen tools to her coworkers. However, with the increasing momentum of the anti-prostitution bill, the women find their allegiances tested by economic necessity and personal conscience.

Kenji Mizoguchi creates an elegant, poignant, and unsentimental portrait of adversity and human resilience in Street of Shame. Using the recurrent imagery of rectangular compositions, Mizoguchi reflects the estrangement and social isolation of the tragic heroines: Yumeko borrows money from the calculating Yasumi through a slight opening in a privacy screen; Mickey's interview with the proprietor is shown through a wall opening; Yumeko avoids seeing her son and watches through structural beams as Hanae sends him away; the haunting image of Yumeko singing a melancholy ballad by the stairs. In the end, what emerges is a self-perpetuating, tragic cycle of exploitation and personal disappointment - a lonely and painful existence inexorably bound to the physical compromise of the body - a desperate struggle to retain a vestige of purity within the human soul.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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