After releasing dual format Blu-Ray & DVD double sets of Ugetsu Monogatari with Oyû-Sama and Sanshô Dayû with Gion Bayashi, Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label is bringing all of these films together and adding the remaining 1950’s Kenji Mizoguchi titles they had previously released on DVD. So with Uwasa No Onna, Chikamatsu Monogatari, Yôkihi and Akasen Chitai and the aforementioned titles, you get Late Mizoguchi on Blu-Ray ready for every lucky cinephile’s Christmas stocking.
Below are reviews of the latter half of the films in the set and seeing as I’ve already posted reviews of the first Blu-Ray sets, I’ll just link back to my thoughts on those:
Uwasa No Onna (a.k.a. The Woman in the Rumor)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Masashige Narusawa, Yoshikata Yoda
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Tomoemon Otani, Yoshiko Kuga
Running Time: 83 min
Mizoguchi returns to his favourite setting, the geisha house, in Uwasa No Onna. This is not a period piece though, instead looking at a house of pleasure in the modern era (at the time of the film’s release of course).
Kinuyo Tanaka plays Hatsuko Mabuchi, the middle aged owner of a successful Kyoto geisha house. Her daughter Yukiko (Yoshiko Kuga), who was studying in Tokyo, comes home after a failed suicide attempt over a broken heart. A modern woman, she is disgusted with her mother’s line of work and is initially not happy to be back. She begins to brighten up as she warms to young local doctor Kenji (Tomoemon Otani) who falls for her instantly. Unfortunately, Hatsuko had her eyes on Kenji and was discretely forming a relationship with him, saving money to buy him a proper practise in town so that they can move in together and live a respectable life. So the mother and daughter struggle to come to a conclusion over this dilemma, which can’t end well.
The film opens with a shot of an old fashioned street that wouldn’t look out of place in a period piece, but a modern car cuts through the frame, driving a little recklessly, almost knocking over a pedestrian. From this first shot it’s clear Mizoguchi is examining the impact of modern sensibilities on the traditional values held so dear in Japan. Hatsuko is proud of the heritage of her geisha house and feels strongly against her daughter’s damnation of the oldest profession. The film goes on to suggest that modern values can’t shake the universal desires and needs of men though, making for an interesting look at a controversial subject.
Like the majority of these later period films, it is suggested (by expert Tony Rayns on the supplemental material at least) that Mizoguchi’s heart was not in this project and it was imposed on him by the studio. For quite a melodramatic love triangle story, the film doesn’t have the emotional impact something like Sanshô Dayû has, which probably backs up this claim. Nevertheless, Mizoguchi’s skill as a filmmaker is still apparent and I don’t think Uwasa No Onna should be pushed aside by any means. Despite it not being quite as subtle or moving as some similar films, it is still beautifully measured and finely constructed with Mizoguchi’s handling of mis-en-scene as impressive as ever. In particular, a scene where a noh theatre production mocks a woman in a similar situation to Hatsuko, causing the realisation of her situation to dawn on her, is incredibly effective.
It may not be Mizoguchi’s strongest film, but it shouldn’t be considered a mere ‘bonus’ addition to the set and compared to many films of the time it is still effortlessly impressive.
Chikamatsu Monogatari (a.k.a. The Crucified Lovers)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Yoshikata Yoda
Based on a Play by: Monzaemon Chikamatsu
Adapted by: Matsutarô Kawaguchi
Starring: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyôko Kagawa, Eitarô Shindô
Running Time: 102 min
Chikamatsu Monogatari sees Mizoguchi in period piece mode, telling a story of adultery in 17th century Kyoto.
Osan (Kyôko Kagawa) is married to Ishun (Eitarô Shindô), the wealthy owner of a printing house. Her troublesome brother is heavily in debt, but she doesn’t want to ask for money from her miserly husband so instead approaches Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa), Ishun’s most trusted worker, who she is clearly quite fond of. Mohei agrees to help her get the money by doctoring the accounts, but due to his conscience getting the better of him and a combination of misunderstandings, the pair are accused of adultery, a crime punishable by crucifixion at the time. The couple go on the run and over time their true feelings for each other are revealed, leading to an inevitably bleak climax as the authorities and the treacherous Ishun’s men bare down on them.
Once again, in the supplemental material, Tony Rayns claims that Mizoguchi wasn’t fully invested in this project and believes this can be seen in the lesser emotional impact of the film. I partially agree, as once again it didn’t deliver the same gut impact I got with Sanshô Dayû or Ugetsu Monogatari, but I found this to be the most beautifully crafted film of the four I’ve reviewed here. Mizoguchi is famous for his natural yet meticulously planned blocking and camera movements and, although here the setups maybe aren’t as dynamic or lengthy as in his more popular films, the effortless long takes are still there and every shot is beautifully realised. The lighting and framing in particular is on top form here.
I got a little confused with the plot at the start (the period costumes and haircuts mixed with black and white photography make it hard to follow who’s who), but generally Mizoguchi and writer Yoshikata Yoda keep the fairly complex plot moving along nicely. It’s quite melodramatic, but like Douglas Sirk in Hollywood at the time, Mizoguchi knows how to prevent proceedings from getting sappy or cloying. In fact, the film has a rather dark edge, with the crucifixion aspect on top of threats of suicide keeping a sense of menace bubbling under the surface.
So it may not have you sobbing by the end, but Chikamatsu Monogatari is quite stunningly beautiful in execution and proves that Mizoguchi, even on autopilot as is suggested, was a master craftsman.
Yôkihi (a.k.a. Princess Yang Kwei-fei)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Ching Doe, Masashige Narusawa, Matsutarô Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda
Starring: Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Sô Yamamura
Running Time: 91 min
Sticking with the period drama, but moving back to the eighth century, Mizoguchi chose Yôkihi as his first foray into colour filmmaking.
Yôkihi is, unusually, a Deiei and Shaw Brothers co-production, with the burgeoning Chinese company looking to their neighbours in Japan to bring a classic folk tale to life. The story tells of Emperor Xuan Zong (Masayuki Mori), who is grieving over the death of his wife. His advisors try to find him a new wife to re-establish his rule over the nation and help keep them on top. However, Xuan Zong isn’t interested in the high court ladies they present him. In desperation, General An Lushan (Sô Yamamura) finds a distant relative Yang Kwei-fei (Machiko Kyô) working in the kitchens and, seeing her beauty beneath the dirt of her job, presents her to the emperor. Due to her looking very much like his dead wife and a shared passion for music among other things, he falls head over heels for her and makes her his princess. However, when An Lushan isn’t given the dues he thinks he deserves for the discovery, he heads a revolt against the Yang family, suggesting a bitter end to the seemingly sweet love story.
Shaw Brothers never actually released the film in China, being embarrassed by the result and they even remade the story in their native China as Yang Kwei Fei (a.k.a. The Magnificent Concubine). This seems rather surprising for a film coming from the respected master Mizoguchi, but this is definitely a lower rung title in his oeuvre.
The first half of the film is very stuffy and slow moving. Mizoguchi seems comfortable using colour, with a fairly subdued tone still doing justice to the reds and golds of the sets and costumes. Perhaps his concentration on other aspects was lost though as the rest of the presentation is very disappointing. The film feels very stagey and although there’s a fair amount of camera movement, it all feels quite restrictive, sticking with rather small sets considering the palatial setting. These aren’t as lavish as you’d expect either and the production design pales in comparison to the epics Shaw Brothers would produce in the following couple of decades.
There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Yang Kwei-fei takes Xuan Zong in disguise to a peasant festival, showing him the true nature of happiness and freedom. This is genuinely warm and I breathed a sigh of relief as it felt like the stuffy first half could be justified in giving this shift the desired impact. Unfortunately, this improvement doesn’t last long as the story jumps forward several years with some clumsy subtitles (not translating any on-screen Japanese text or dialogue) explaining what has happened in the gap. From then on the film rushes towards its climax, ineffectively developing its plot and spoiling any chance of the climax having any emotional impact.
So, although there are hints of Mizoguchi’s skill behind the camera, the film feels like a missed opportunity and is quite clumsily written and lazily presented.
Akasen Chitai (a.k.a. Street of Shame)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Masashige Narusawa
Based on a Novel by: Yoshiko Shibaki
Starring: Machiko Kyô, Aiko Mimasu, Ayako Wakao
Running Time: 85 min
Akasen Chitai was Mizoguchi’s final film before his death at 58 years old and sees him return to his favourite subject matter, the life of the geisha. This subject was close to his heart as his sister was sold to such an establishment and the director was known to frequent them throughout his life.
Taking place in modern times (i.e. the mid 1950’s), Akasen Chitai examines the lives of a handful of prostitutes operating in Tokyo amidst rumours of a new law coming into play that will ban the practise. Various approaches and opinions of the oldest profession are displayed in this richly textured film through the women’s stories. The middle aged geisha Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) is struggling to re-establish a relationship with her son. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao), the brothel’s number one girl, is milking her clients dry, staying on top as everyone else seems to fall further into debt. Mickey (Machiko Kyô) is the new girl, representing modern woman, with the job seemingly not phasing her as she indulges her love of Western fashions and easy living. We follow the lives of another couple of prostitutes too as all of their struggles and strains come to a head.
The late 1950’s saw the beginnings of the Japanese New Wave, young directors keen to move away from the measured classicism of the nation’s cinematic output. Pioneers such as Nagisa Oshima and Shōhei Imamura wanted to tear up the rulebook Mizoguchi and Ozu had made, making a rougher more exciting brand of film. However, from watching Akasen Chitai, it seems that just prior to his death, the great Mizoguchi was already ahead of those young whippersnappers.
Straight from the opening titles you can see that the director wasn’t going to fade away as his health withered. An abstract modern score blares out at the viewer, signalling a film that is a slap in the face to those thinking Mizoguchi had lost his edge. This isn’t a slow, touching look at the stately geisha, this is an unglamorous and raw dissection of their lives. The female characters aren’t all sympathetic as in previous titles, with two in particular doing some rather heartless things to their clients and colleagues. It is still classily produced of course, but Mizoguchi’s frames are much busier than usual and he largely forgoes the use of long, elaborate takes.
It’s a tough film which rattles along at quite a pace as it flits from character to character without ever losing track of what’s going on. It’s not always subtle, with some of the debates of the issue being a little over-sensationalised, but overall it’s effectively hard-hitting and captivating to watch. It’s an astonishingly unexpected end to Mizoguchi’s career, giving a glimpse of a whole new chapter which unfortunately never got the chance to fully unfold. Truly one of the finest final films ever made.
The Late Mizoguchi box set is released on 28th October on Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I must admit I didn’t re-watch the 4 films I’d already reviewed, but I image the transfers are as before. From the four other titles, Akasen Chitai looks and sounds impeccable but the others have slight signs of wear and tear with Yôkihi coming off worst. Nonetheless, they still look and sound great for their age and relative obscurity.
There aren’t a lot of special features on the discs, just a handful of trailers and introductions to the films from Tony Rayns. These are a fantastic addition though, as Eureka’s resident Japanese cinema expert is a goldmine for background knowledge and insight into all 8 titles. He doesn’t hide the fact that some of them aren’t as well thought of as others either and suggests Mizoguchi didn’t put much effort into a couple of them. His honesty is refreshing to hear in supplemental material even though I didn’t always agree with his assessments.
And because this is a Masters of Cinema release, you also get treated to a booklet of essays and other writing on the films. Due to the number of films in the set, this booklet is a hefty 344 pages long and it’s well worth a read if you want to really get to the bottom of what makes Mizoguchi tick and hear fascinating thoughts on his staggering body of work.