“I never realised how heavy this kimono was” a young woman exclaims towards the conclusion of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Miss Oyu (お遊さま, Oyu-sama), adapted from the Junichiro Tanizaki short story The Reed Cutter, finally collapsing under its weight having committed what amounts to an act of spiritual suicide in an internalised betrayal. Mizoguchi’s highly selective adaptation excises much of Tanizaki’s trademark perversity and targets instead the repressive social codes of the era which proceed to ruin three lives in frustrated affection, shame, and self-harming guilt.
The trouble begins when Shinnosuke (Yuji Hori), a young man in search of a wife, mistakes his prospective bride for her sister and is forever smitten. Oyu (Kinuyo Tanaka), a widow with a young son, is only accompanying her younger sister, Oshizu (Nobuko Otowa), but is perhaps herself taken with the handsome suitor whom she repeatedly brands a “fine gentleman”. Having objected to all of Oshizu’s previous matches, she encourages her sister to marry this one not least because of his physical proximity that would allow the pair to visit each other regularly. The pain on Oshizu’s face is however readily apparent as Oyu relates the amusing incident to their brother, the younger sister clearly consumed with an inferiority complex in the shadow of the beautiful and elegant Oyu.
It’s never quite clear to what extent Oyu is aware of her sister’s feelings, if she says these things thoughtlessly or with an intent to wound though she obviously cares deeply for Oshizu. Similarly the extent of her feelings for Shinnosuke remains oblique. As a woman well aware of her beauty and its power, perhaps she simply enjoys being desired or is so accustomed to male attention as to barely notice that Shinnosuke has fallen in love with her. Then again perhaps she knows all too well and for the sake of politeness pretends not to though in that case the decision to encourage her sister to marry him would seem perverse or suggest that she is attempting to deny her own feelings which she may not even understand by rendering Shinnosuke a “brother” in an attempt to remove him from the pool of potential romantic suitors.
Even so there is an underlying quality of incestuous desire of Oshizu for her sister to whom she remains devotedly besotted, willing to sacrifice her own happiness in the hope of ensuring Oyu’s. After agreeing to marry Shinnosuke, she explains to him that she intends their marriage to be purely symbolic. She refuses to consummate their union on the grounds that it would be a betrayal of Oyu whom she knows to be in love with Shinnosuke while realising that he has married her only to be connected with her sister. When the trio take a trip together the strangeness of the ménage à trois is brought home by the confusion of the hotel maid who assumes that Oyu and Shinnosuke are the married couple, commiserating with Oshizu for being a third wheel. While Oyu childishly makes light of it, Oshizu is hurt and confused, jealous in two directions but pleading with Shinnosuke to be only his sister rather than a wife.
Yet the wrongness of the arrangement is signalled on Oyu’s return home when she discovers not only that her son, Hajime, has fallen mortally ill in her absence but that rumours have begun to circulate about her unusual relationship with her brother-in-law. It is impossible to avoid the implication that Oyu is being punished firstly for betraying her maternity in having gone on holiday without her son to experience freedom as a woman, secondly for feeling sexual desire, and thirdly for feeling it for a married man who is now technically a brother in being her sister’s husband though as we know no one’s sexual desires are currently being fulfilled in this incredibly complicated and destructive arrangement.
Though Tanizaki might have been more interested in exploring the darker aspects of human sexuality, Mizoguchi pulls back from the author’s trademark perversity to take aim at the repressive social codes of a patriarchal society which brought such a fraught situation into being. Oyu is unable to marry Shinnosuke because she is bound to her late husband’s family and by the responsibility to her son whom she would have to leave behind even if she were given permission to take another husband. Once her son dies, her ties to marital family are severed and they, disapproving of the rumours surrounding her unconventional relationship with her sister and brother-in-law, send her back to her brother who is also reluctant to accept her. On learning of the reality of her sister’s marriage, she decides to accept a proposal from a sake merchant in another town but the separation breeds only more destruction. Oshizu and and Shinnosuke move to Tokyo and three years later are living in poverty, Shinnosuke now dishevelled and dressing in Western suits with a modern haircut and a scraggly, half-hearted moustache. Oshizu’s eventual pregnancy which confirms that theirs is now a “full” union while Oyu’s is “symbolic” only the slows implosion of the trio’s repressed desires.
Mizoguchi stops short of arguing for a transgressively new arrangement that would have allowed the trio to live together as a family but nevertheless attacks the repressive social codes that prevent them from speaking honestly about their feelings and force them into self-sacrificing acts of subterfuge which create only more suffering. He dramatises the claustrophobia of their lives through the obvious artificially of the stage sets which stand in such stark contrast to the expansive beauty of nature albeit sometimes unruly but always free, while lending their tragic tale a hint of the parabolic in its mists and rugged gardens as Shinnosuke finds himself alone under the cold light of the moon on a distant shore, a romantic exile from a repressive society.