Kenji Mizoguchi | Osaka Elegy | The 47 Ronin | Utamaro and His Five Women | Gion Festival Music / A Geisha
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Immediately after this, we see the first humans in person. Their loathsome behavior is both typical of their daily lives, and apparently casual and petty. But it also announces the themes of the films. In Osaka Elegy, we see the rich factory owner being abusive of his women servants. He is pouring out a stream of malice over them; the viewer just wants to reach out and slug him one. This is the theme of men's mistreatment of women that is the subject of the film. In The 47 Ronin, we see the lives of the feudal court, and the struggles of the nobles to one up one another, and gain status at each other's expense. This is a fight to the death, all for the pettiest of rewards, and one that will take the lives of the 47 loyal ronin of the title.
Several scenes in Osaka Elegy and The 47 Ronin show similar techniques. Much of the opening of The 47 Ronin shows the deadly confrontation of two nobles in a corridor of the castle. These recall the confrontation in Osaka Elegy between the factory owner Asai, his wife and his mistress, in the corridor outside the puppet theater. In both stories, the confrontation attracts public attention, and more and more people intervene and get involved. Both of these fights are mainly about struggles for power and social prestige. Both women derive their status from their relationship to Asai, and they are going to fight over it. They are like the feudal nobles in the court of The 47 Ronin, all of whose social standing comes from their position at court. Suggesting that all relations between men and women are the equivalent the social system of a feudal society is a startling position for someone to take. However, the main business of Osaka Elegy is to propose exactly such a view.
Hardly anyone in Osaka Elegy has any real feelings. The heroine tries to help her family, and wants a relationship with her boyfriend, but no one else in the movie has any real feelings strong enough to act on. It is a world colder than death, where there are no true feelings at all. Similarly in The 47 Ronin, only the loyalty of the ronin to their dead master shows any true warmth. (One should also mention the loyal woman who loves one of the ronin.) Everyone else in this world is entirely looking out for number one, in a feudal world dominated by arbitrary, vicious rules.
The scene where the father walks along, carrying his fishing pole, reminds one of the early scene in Sternberg's The Last Command (1928), where all the extras, made up as soldiers, carry a rifle with a bayonet. In each case, the figure is carrying a long, tall stick, something the director factors into the screen's composition.
The scenes are the office are original. Like Sternberg, Mizoguchi was able to take a place of business, and stylize its activity so that it turns into a series of elegant, complex visual patterns. These scenes recall the factory in Sternberg's An American Tragedy (1932). Sternberg's factory shows a sense of rhythm, with the slow steady, repeated movements of the factory workers and the cloth forming a rhythmic motif or pulse running through the film. However, in both Sternberg and Mizoguchi's vision, the fact that the business place is reimagined as a complex series of visual imagery does not preclude a detailed look at its business operation. Sternberg's factory is a real place of work, where real young women struggle hard to make product for low wages. And Mizoguchi's office is a place where a working woman cannot even take a break to talk to a colleague, but has to sneak a communication with him over the phone so that her supervisor will not come down on her neck.
Both this Sternberg film, and Mizoguchi's, deal with the sexual harassment of a poor female employee by her boss, and the devastating long term consequences it has on the woman's life. However, the poor girl in Sternberg is more seduced and emotionally manipulated by her handsome but worthless boss, whereas Mizoguchi's heroine is pressured financially by poverty, her rotten family, and ultimately, by the low economic and social status of women in Japanese society. The factory owner in Mizoguchi is such a pig, that one cannot imagine any woman sleeping with him voluntarily under any circumstances other than extreme financial distress and coercion.
There are two scenes in the woman's apartment, the first with her boss, who is keeping her there, the second with her boyfriend, whom she is pleading to marry her. Only on the second scene do we see the apartment as a spatial whole. The earlier scenes shows a beautifully composed series of shots, some including tracking. The apartment looks like a lovely series of geometric shapes, including an impressive circular window. The place is an Art Deco love nest, at once sophisticated, chic, and totally cheap, as befits the back street home of a kept woman. But in these earlier shots, it is impossible to get a sense of the layout of the apartment, how the various rooms and shots interconnect. Later, when her boyfriend visits, we get a very different visual approach to the apartment, with long shots and deep focus scenes that show the geometric layout of the apartment as a whole. One can assign some glib thematic meanings to this: when the heroine is with her keeper, we see the elegant surface of things; when she is with the man she loves, we see the underlying reality in a plain way. However, this is shortchanging a complex visual experience.
One might also note that both scenes begin with the men going up the stairs and along corridors to the apartment, where the heroine is waiting. These two shots are the most elaborate camera movements in the film. Both cover the same territory, and show the hero taking the same path. However, they are full of subtle differences. The young boyfriend moves much faster that the older factory owner. He is sincere about hurrying to see her, whereas the factory owner is simply motivated by his lechery. On a purely technical level, Mizoguchi can stage the second scene faster than the first: the first shot must move slowly, so that the audience can absorb and study the details of the apartment building; while the second shot can proceed swiftly, as the audience is familiar with its terrain. However, there are may other subtle differences of angle and staging.
Much of the light here falls on two sets of white curtains, extending from the floor to the top of the semicircle. Just as a sensuous experience, these two sets of curtains are dazzling. The photography of Osaka Elegy looks like no other film. Here the curtains look like a very shimmering piece of fabric, and also as a curtain of light. Through the window, we can barely see the lights of Naniwa at night. The lights are shining through the curtains themselves. These lights have been a visual motif throughout the whole film. They open and close the film, and appear also through the window at the department store, when the heroine and her boyfriend are discussing marriage. They partly suggest the false world of corrupt night life which fatally draws in the heroine. But their sheer fragility, of small white lights against an immense darkness, suggest the heroine's attempt to flourish spiritually in a dark world.
Ayako goes into a second room. Here she stands by a circular window: a complete circle this time. We see her from further away than before. The effect is of a priest performing some religious ritual. She looks like a saint, being canonized in a religion of circles. A shaft of light pours on her from one side, like saints in religious pictures.
The camera work in several of the scenes is outstanding. They show genuine originality, from a point of view of composition and camera movement. The most important of these scenes are:
Many of the shots feature people standing up. This recalls such films as Sternberg's The Last Command (1927), which also features vertical figures as the basis of Sternberg's compositions. Sternberg's figures tend to be a little closer together, and to be more overlapping in their placement, while Mizoguchi's are often separated by blank spaces on the screen.
Already at this date, Mizoguchi is favoring the slightly elevated angle. This allows him to include a panoramic composition on the screen. The individual people are never lost in these large panoramas, however. It also shows in precise detail, the floor plan of a room or courtyard, including what is going on on both sides of a courtyard wall, or both sides of a folding screen. These scenes show imagination; the elevated scenes in the Pine Room are especially beautiful. Yet Mizoguchi's technique is less magical here than it will be in the 1950's. One thinks of the overwhelming scenes with the overhead traveling shot in The Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955), where the Emperor and the heroine travel through the bazaar, and it represents them discovering all the joy and visual interest of life.
This film is choked with militaristic propaganda. It constantly glorifies the idea of revenge, and uses it to encourage World War II era Japanese people to violence and warfare. In many ways it is just a bad movie. It was sponsored by the Japanese government of the era as a primer in traditional samurai values. But the Japanese public didn't like this film, and it was a box office flop. It would be deservedly forgotten today, except for its visual qualities.
In addition, Part II has a long sequence towards its end where a young woman suddenly becomes the center of the drama. This is a welcome change over to the sort of love scenes that Mizoguchi does so well, and here at last, the film turns on its emotional electricity.
Utamaro and His Five Women has a highly formal plot structure. Utamaro keeps being overwhelmingly attracted to some woman, who he struggles to get an opportunity to paint. Meanwhile, his hot-heated young follower, Seinosuke, immediately is attracted to the same woman, but starts a real life love affair with her. Utamaro's painting is considered a pleasant, socially harmless activity, and causes no problems, while Seinosuke's romancing makes his life messier and messier. At the end, Seinosuke's actions lead to tragedy, while Utamaro has created a stream of great art. This parallel saga of the two men can be looked at from two perspectives. On the one hand, Utamaro is satirized. He has romantic impulses, but they are entirely sublimated in his art, and he never has any relationship with a woman. There are suggestions that he is a romantic failure, a man who should be using some of the real life passion of Seinosuke. By contrast, Seinosuke is criticized, compared to Utamaro, for lacking control, maturity and common sense. Human beings cannot act out every romantic impulse they have, without their lives degenerating into total chaos, with tragedy for everyone around them.
All of this sounds good on paper. In practice, it seems a bit schematic and uninvolving. It also simply criticizes everyone in the film, without giving us any character we can completely admire. However, Utamaro is the only artist character in Mizoguchi's three films that does not harm anyone. He is much closer to a genuine hero and good person than any of the others.
The finale of Utamaro is much imitated. Films about artists often end with a display of their works.
When Utamaro paints the model indoors, the scene is lit at night with a solemn looking candle-light. This recalls equally solemn and somber scenes in The 47 Ronin, towards the end of that film, at the widow's house. These scenes emphasized loyalty to an ideal cause, and to the widow of the murdered liege. There are suggestions that Utamaro's devotion to women's beauty is also an ideal, highly noble calling. Both scenes have a unique quality of melancholy. The feelings of the heroes are symbolized by the light in the darkness, frail but all-important in the world.
One suspects that Mizoguchi lacked a crane while filming Utamaro and His Five Women. There are tracking shots in the ground, but none that zoom through the air. The recreation of the past through large scale sets also seems a bit more low budget here than in other Mizoguchi works.
A Geisha (1954) is a great film. It takes place in three acts: