Kenji Mizoguchi is probably the third most famous director of Japanese cinema’s golden age after Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu. He wasn’t very well known in the West for much of his career but when the aforementioned filmmakers started to gain followings they also caught up on Mizoguchi’s work and as such some of his later work like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff became classics of 1950s arthouse cinema. When I recently decided to start collecting Mizoguchi’s work on blu-ray and DVD in earnest I eventually picked up Criterion’s Eclipse set entitled “Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women,” which doesn’t look at any one particular era of the director’s work but instead focuses on movies that fit into one of his most common themes: the lives of women who are failed by society. I’ve had the set for a while but the time feels right to finally explore these four films.
Osaka Elegy (1936)
Osaka Elegy was Mizoguchi’s critical and commercial breakthrough and he himself viewed it as his first truly successful film even though he’d made dozens of (mostly lost) films before it. Criterion has labeled the boxed set this was in “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women” which invokes the “fallen woman” genre that I tend to think of as a very western genre embodying Victorian values. Essentially proto-after school specials, they tended to be movies about women who make mistakes that ultimately result in them descending into sin and becoming social pariahs who would ultimately be punished at the end. Some of these were made out of genuinely puritanical urges, some of them were more like exploitation movies that used the “cautionary tale” as a presence to get “dirty” stories past the censors. Mizoguchi’s film sort of falls into that broad characterization, but he’s a lot more sympathetic about the circumstances that led his fallen woman into such a situation. The film actually reminded me a lot of another movie I watched earlier this year: Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star. Both movies are about women in crappy ungrateful families who sort of ruin their lives trying to help them, but here the woman tries helping them by having an affair with her boss and essentially prostituting herself (off screen) and suffers for her choices. There’s nothing phenomenally special about any of that on paper but despite her ostensible “delinquency” you do get the feeling that Mizoguchi cares about her as much as Ghatak cared about his protagonist and in the last moments he has her give a look directly to the camera which sort of suggests that despite everything that’s happened to her she’s not fully defeated and there is still hope for her. This is far from the most well-made film of Mizoguchi’s career and the production values are limited (I’ve come to keep my expectations in check while watching pre-war Japanese cinema) but his humanism was clearly there from the beginning.
***1/2 out of Five
Sisters of the Gion (1936)
Sisters of the Gion is often viewed as something of a companion piece to Osaka Elegy as both came out the same year, were made by more or less the same crew, and have a similar interest in the treatment of women by society, but they are also somewhat different movies in a number of other ways. Firstly, the film is about two women instead of one, secondly it manages to be at once more didactic about certain issues and at the same time more nuanced about what it has to say about the specific characters. As the title implies this is about a pair of sisters who live in the Gion district of Kyoto, which is an entertainment district that was known for its geisha houses. The two sisters are in dire financial stakes and become geishas to make ends meet. One of them is something of a “true believer” in the concept of the geisha and the other is highly suspicious of them and speaks of men in general as something of an abusive enemy to women. That sister’s anti-male rants are a touch on the nose and could almost seem like parodies of the “man-hating feminist” archetype, but were there even such feminists to parody in 1930s Japan? Over the course of the movie that sister’s attitude leads her to treat her clients rather immorally and this ultimately leads to her downfall, which would seem to be something of a rebuke of her worldview but it doesn’t entirely feel like that. The other sister isn’t exactly rewarded with fame and fortune for her own “go along to get along” attitude and many of the men they’re dealing with in the film don’t exactly seem worthy of the sympathy she gives them.
In some ways I feel like I’m a bit out of my depth with this one. A lot of how you read the film rests on how reasonable you think the anti-geisha in her anger about the treatment of geishas by society and I don’t really know enough about the topic to judge that and the movie doesn’t really show a whole lot of that supposed mistreatment on screen. The relations between the sisters and their clients in the movie seem fairly chaste, but I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be implied that there’s something more akin to prostitution happening off screen and it isn’t being made explicit in order to appease the censors. That matters because outside of the final assault scene, which could be read as more of a punishment for how the one sister treated her clients than as a rebuke of the system, there aren’t really that many harsh realities of the trade shown. However, the film’s final moments, when the one sister lets out a primal scream questioning why the profession of the Geisha even exists certainly seems to be something the film is showing in solidarity. I think the point is that the movie suggests that it doesn’t exactly agree with how she treats her clients but ultimately blames a corrupt system for putting her in that position in the first place. So there are some interesting themes to wade through in this, but I’m not sure it’s exactly a great movie. It runs a very brief 68 minutes, and a lot of that time is spent with these elaborate plot machinations where the sisters juggle clients, it could have really used some extra running time to breathe.
*** out of Five
Women of the Night (1948)
With the third film in the Mizoguchi Eclipse set we take a pretty big jump from 1936 to 1948 and obviously kind of a lot happened in the nation of Japan between those years. The differences between pre-war and post-war Japanese cinema are pretty stark and movies made during the immediate aftermath of the war in the bombed out cities are very much their own thing. With this film Mizoguchi took a bit of a page from the neorealist movement that was on the rise in order to make a social realist film about people trying to find their footing in a post-war Japan with a focus on the issue of prostitution, which was running rampant given the poverty of the time. In fact one of the first images in the film is of a sign which reads that any women found in certain areas at night were going to be assumed to be prostitutes and rounded up. Once again the focus here are on a pair of sisters one of whom does end up falling into the life of a streetwalker, and the movie doesn’t beat around the bush about that like it did in some of those earlier movies. It sort of gets away with that because it’s very much an “issue” movie and it treats the subject fairly tastefully, but even with that in mind I doubt something like this would be made in America under the Hayes code. The movie does kind of tread into some of the questionable territory of making a female character who’s essentially an angry feminist trying to take revenge on male-kind, which is not a terribly productive trope and seeing it in two of these movies now gives me a little bit of pause, but Mizoguchi is clearly on these womens’ side in aggregate. In general this is a lot more watchable and accomplished than the last two movies, but in some ways feels a bit less unique and gets a bit… unsubtle in some of its dialog and storytelling.
*** out of Five
Street of Shame (1956)
For the last film in the “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women” boxed set takes us to the very end of the director’s career with his final film Street of Shame. Once again Mizoguchi looks at the plight of prostitutes, but instead of impoverished streetwalkers in bombed out streets this movie looks at “high class” hookers working at a licensed brothel in Tokyo. I was not aware that such things were legal in 1950s Japan but I know they aren’t legal now because this movie is alleged to have actually swayed public opinion on the topic and led to the formal illegalization of prostitution in the country (which was being debated for years beforehand). That is perhaps a bit of an ironic legacy because the movie offers a slightly more conflicted look at the problem than the kind of polemic that you’d expect to inspire such a response. The film certainly highlights the exploitation that goes on at these places and also the highly unhealthy relations many of these sex workers have with their various Johns, but it also acknowledges that these places essentially act as last places of refuge for women who are in some in tough spots and how shutting them down could push some of them into the streets. To explore this the film looks at five characters who are workers at a brothel whose stories are meant to represent something of a cross-section of different situations that different prostitutes might find themselves in. The film is open and frank about what’s going on at this house of ill-repute but rarely goes into any kind of graphic or exploitative detail and there’s never even a whiff of sensationalism to the whole thing. It also kind of goes without saying that Mizoguchi’s visual style is fully evolved here and also that we’re finally being given a film whose print has been correctly preserved. A lot of the rest of the movies in this boxed set are movies I would probably discourage people from seeing unless they’ve already experienced some of the director’s more refined films first but this feels like one I can recommend a lot more freely.
**** out of Five