The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1933)

“As long as I breathe, I’ll remember my debt to you” avows a young man to his unexpected benefactor becoming one of many claiming they will never forget her kindness though in his case he actually means it. Kenji Mizoguchi would later become known for tragic tales of female suffering, but his central themes were established early on and very much in evidence in 1933 silent The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Taki no Shiraito) in which a truly good woman tries to use her independent success to improve the lives of those around her but finds herself cruelly betrayed by a greedy and self-interested patriarchal society. 

Tomo Mizushima (Takako Irie) goes by the stage name Taki no Shiraito, which means something like white threads of the waterfall, particularly apt seeing as she is a “water magician” with a troupe of itinerant players. A beautiful woman who can make the water dance, she has her share of followers and is financially independent if subject to the vagaries of the show business existence. Her life changes one day when she is travelling in a horse-drawn coach that is embarrassingly overtaken by a fast running rickshaw man. The passengers are irate, wondering what they’re paying for, while the driver ignores their pleas not to spare the horses. Tomo decides to use her feminine appeal and then her financial power to convince him to speed up, but he ignores her too until he eventually decides to gallop forward recklessly while the passengers shake inside until the coach’s axle finally snaps and leaves them stranded. A gallant young man, the driver grabs Tomo and throws her on his horse to get her to the next town. She faints on the journey and only comes round after the coachman has left but discovers herself in possession of a complicated law book she assumes is his.  

Tomo cannot stop thinking about the dashing young man, only identified as “Kin” (Tokihiko Okada). She is surprised to reencounter him asleep on a bridge though he seems not to remember her. After finding out that he is an unluckily orphaned former samurai who was fired from the coach for breaking the axle and endangering the passengers, she resolves to use her financial power to help him achieve his dreams of studying law in Tokyo. Tomo does this because she is in love and asks for nothing in return except a future promise of romantic union to which the young man does not exactly agree but does take her money and vows to live up to the faith she has shown in him. 

Alone once again Tomo tries to contend with the world around her while dreaming of Kinya, sending him her savings for his upkeep while the troupe continues to suffer especially during the traditional dry spells of the heavy winter. The troupe’s leader makes the decision to get involved with dangerous loanshark Iwabushi (Ichiro Sugai), a huge hulking man with a mean look and lecherous temperament. While Tomo dreams of Kinya, two romances mirror each other in the failed relationship of the cruel knife thrower Minami (Koju Murata) and his terrorised wife Gin (Kumeko Urabe), and the innocent young love of the beautiful Nadeshiko (Suzuko Taki) and the barker Shinzo (Bontaro Miake). Gin also borrows money from Tomo which she was reluctant to surrender because she saved it for Kinya, claiming she needs it to visit her sick mother in Tokyo and vowing once again never to forget Tomo’s kindness but later skipping out with a stagehand to escape Minami’s control. Nadeshiko and Shinzo, however, are forced to flee on learning that Minami plans to sell her to Iwabushi to settle his private debts. The couple regret leaving Tomo who has always supported them in the lurch, but she helps them escape, ushering them out the back towards a waiting boat and handing them still more money asking only that they be happy and stay together always. 

That’s not perhaps a power that’s in their keep, but the youngsters keep it as best they can and eventually attempt to protect her in the way she has protected them. The world, however, is cruel. With work thin on the ground Tomo finds herself unable to go on funding Kinya as she’d promised, and is only shamed by his well-meaning letter explaining that he’ll try to find a way of supporting himself until his studies are finished so she needn’t worry. She cuts a deal with Iwabushi and sells her body on Kinya’s behalf, but he is in league with Minami who sets his goons on her to retrieve the money seconds after she’s obtained it. 

Her hopes are at least repaid on discovering that her love is true to his word, has never forgotten her, and is well on the way to achieving his dreams as person of note. “Chance and fate, that’s all there is” Kinya had lamented on their second meeting, but he couldn’t know how right he’d be. Tomo’s dreams are fulfilled only their negation. Kinya must do his duty even if it does her harm, yet he too feels responsible and wants to share her burden though that, ironically, would only destroy everything for which she has sacrificed so much. “The river flows on as it always has and always will” the Benshi adds in solemn contemplation of this romantic tragedy, somehow inevitable in its cruelty. Tomo finds herself at the mercy of her times in which money is all, goodness is a weakness, and love too fragile to survive. The woman who made the water dance floats away on a river of tears, a victim of a cruel and unforgiving society.


Poppy (虞美人草, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1935)

Most closely associated with tales of female suffering in a patriarchal society, Kenji Mizoguchi’s signature themes are already apparent in the films which survive from the pre-war era. Even so, 1935’s Poppy (虞美人草, Gubijinso), adapted from a novel by Natsume Soseki, largely sidesteps the parallel powerlessness of its twin heroines in placing the central dilemma firmly on the shoulders of its conflicted hero, a young man who owes everything to a benevolent patron whose daughter he is expected to marry but is captivated by a young and capricious heiress and consequently torn between duty and passion.

In late Meiji, an old man, Inoue (Yukichi Iwata), washes graffiti off his front wall apparently scrawled by a man desperate to marry his daughter Sayoko (Chiyoko Okura) whose beauty he claims puts other to shame (Inoue looks on approvingly at the last part, and decides to leave it). Inoue intends his daughter to marry Ono (Ichiro Tsukida), a young man he took in as a starving orphan and raised to adulthood. Ono is currently in Tokyo preparing to complete his doctoral thesis and the pair are very much looking forward to moving there to live with him. While Ono has not forgotten them, he has embarked on a life of his own as a Tokyo student, falling in love with the flighty Fujio (Kuniko Miyake) while working as a part-time English tutor. She too is keen to marry him, despite the fact she is technically still engaged to someone else, Hajime (Daijiro Natsukawa), in a match which was orchestrated by her father many years ago. Fujio’s mother is acutely concerned with her marriage for a number of reasons, the first being that Kingo (Kazuyoshi Takeda), her step-son and the family’s heir, refuses to marry and rejects his inheritance but if Fujio remains single then the fortune reverts to him. Secondly, she dislikes the idea of Hajime as a son-in-law because he has repeatedly failed to secure a position in the diplomatic corps and is currently unemployed.

The problem rests with Ono, whose conflicting desires are characterised not so much in terms of love versus obligation but as ambition versus constancy. Instead of explaining in person to Mr. Inoue that he is grateful to him and has no intention of rejecting their family but thinks of Sayoko as a sister and therefore would like to politely decline the idea of marriage, he sends a friend, Asai (Toichiro Negishi), to explain that he’s too busy to think about weddings and wants to defer the conversation until after his thesis is completed. Of course, Mr. Inoue sees through this thin excuse right away and is offended on his daughter’s behalf. The friend warns him that Ono is “worthless”. “He’s interested in what’s fashionable. He’s stupid” Asai goes on, implying that he is not exactly choosing to marry the woman he loves rather than honour a vague suggestion from the past, but is opportunistically seizing the chance to marry up into the high society of late Meiji Japan (a feat near impossible for a man who was once a starving orphan).

Love is not so much a part of the equation as one would expect and neither are the feelings of either woman held in very high regard. Nevertheless, Kingo eventually tries to warn Hajime away from his sister, explaining that “women who seek pleasure are dangerous”. “When I fall in love, I won’t just sit quietly waiting for my lover. I’ll make passionate love to him” Fujio flirtatiously tells Ono, dangling a precious watch from her father which serves as an indication of betrothal and membership of the family. Fujio and her mother are actively using the only means at their disposal to control their own futures by making a match they believe more beneficial which will ensure they keep themselves within the family succession, suggesting that Fujio, like Ono, is acting less out of “love” than self-interest, something which is later reinforced by her offering of the watch to Hajime who casts it to the waves in insistence that he was never interested in what it represents. 

While Asai recounts his meeting with Inoue, he tells Ono that he’s making the right decision and that his best option from all angles is to marry Fujio, but Hajime overhears him and chimes in with contrary advice that he should think carefully and be true to himself. In essence, all Hajime is telling him is to own his decision and make sure he is willing to live with it or else be consumed by self loathing and misery. By this point, we perhaps expect that modernity will win, that all will accept that it is unreasonable to expect anyone to sublimate their own desires to honour an old obligation and most particularly that the women be expected to submit themselves to dynastic marriages arranged by their fathers, but the resolution is quite the reverse. The modernist Fujio is twice rejected, while Sayoko and her father leave the modern capital for the ancient Kyoto. Ono is forced into a reconsideration of his spiritual debt to the Inoues who he would be betraying in marrying Fujio for social gain which is to say that feudalistic, patriarchal values are subtly reinforced while Western individualism is disparaged with only Hajime standing up for emotional integrity which neither philosophy particularly respects. In the end, nobody is happy but everyone is resigned to their particular misery as their burden to carry in knowledge that they have acted properly which is perhaps as close to a condemnation of a still oppressive society as you could get in 1935. 


The Straits of Love and Hate (愛怨峡, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1937)

straits of love and hate poster“Tokyo is a dangerous city that traps innocent people like you” the heroine of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1937 melodrama The Straits of Love and Hate (愛怨峡, Aien kyo) is told, but it’s not so much the darkness of the city streets as the world’s cruelty which threatens to consume her soul. Loosely inspired by Tolstoy’s Resurrection, then particularly popular in Japan and a frequent source for adaptation in the silent era, Straits of Love and Hate is a familiar tale of an innocent maid seduced and betrayed by the weak willed son of her social superiors, but rather than see her beaten by a broken heart Mizoguchi allows to her to find new strength in the determination to move forward in a direction of her choosing.

Kitchen maid Ofumi (Fumiko Yamaji) is in love with Kenkichi (Masao Shimizu ), the son of local hotel owners. Now that he’s finished his studies, his parents were expecting him to take over the inn so they’re not exactly pleased when he tells them he plans to go to Tokyo to become a teacher, nor would they be very happy about the idea of him marrying a lowly maid. After arguing with his father, Kenkichi more or less gives up on the idea of leaving, deciding to postpone until his parents come round or perhaps going on his own and sending for Ofumi when he’s financially stable. Twin pressures, however, force him to accept that it’s now or never. Ofumi is a few months pregnant and will soon be showing so his hand is in a sense forced. Meanwhile, Ofumi is keen to leave as soon as possible because her uncle, Murakami (Seiichi Kato), has turned up extremely drunk and is talking to her employers about taking her away to join his troupe of travelling players which she is desperate to avoid because she remembers her mother telling her he was no good and would sell her to a brothel as soon as look at her.

Kenkichi relents and the pair elope to Tokyo, but once there his general fecklessness resurfaces. The couple have begun to outstay their welcome at the apartment of a friend whose wife is becoming thoroughly fed up with Kenkichi who lounges about all day not looking for work, while an increasingly pregnant Ofumi is out job-hunting alone in the unforgiving city. A naive bumpkin, she’s nearly scammed by a street pimp who claims to be saving her from someone in fact just like him, but is rescued by Yoshi (Seizaburo Kawazu) – a wandering accordion player regarded by all as a petty thug. Kindhearted by nature, Yoshi takes pity on her and sets Ofumi up with a job in a cafe but is soon arrested for stabbing the pimp who was bothering her. Meanwhile, the irritated wife of Kenkichi’s friend has wired his dad who promptly arrives to retrieve his son. Spineless, Kenkichi walks out on his pregnant girlfriend leaving her only with a note that says “sorry, good luck with the rest of your life”, and an insultingly small amount of compensation money.

It’s easy enough to think that Kenkichi wasn’t really invested in his romance, got cold feet, or simply rejected adult responsibility, but the truth is more that he’s just as trapped by patriarchal social codes as Ofumi is and no more free even with his comparatively comfortable class background. He lacks the will to defy his father, and is simply too lazy to consider living an ordinary life in the city with a regular job where no one calls him “young master”. Ofumi, by contrast, fights for love. She breaks the class barrier, naively believes that Kenkichi’s parents will accept her because they cannot reject their grandchild, and forgives Kenkichi’s fecklessness because she truly believes in him. One word from his father, and he crumbles. Left alone Ofumi is forced to send her son out to foster parents and has no other choice than to become a bar hostess.

Unlike Kenkichi, Yoshi is patient and kind. He truly means to protect Ofumi and her son, but also has a self-destructive violent streak as manifested in his over the top attack on the pimp and later altercation with a remorseful Kenkichi. Ironically enough, Uncle Murakami whom she so feared becomes an unlikely source of salvation, inviting Ofumi and Yoshi to join the company as a standup double act. Witnessing Ofumi reenact her romantic tragedy on stage as part of a routine forces Kenkichi to confront his moral cowardice. While the intervening years have seen Ofumi become cynical and bitter, still angry and resentful, Kenkichi has become weary and resigned. His parents have moved to the country, and he now runs the hotel, but he’s still not free. Hoping to convince Ofumi to come back, he invites his dad to meet their son but it becomes clear to her that Kenkichi will never change. He lacks the strength to reject his father’s authority, and as he’s abandoned her before he will likely do so again.

Kenkichi, perhaps meaning well, offers to take the child, pointing out that growing up among travelling players is an inauspicious start in life whereas he can bring the boy up with all the advantages of middle-class comfort. Ofumi is guilty in her immediate refusal, acknowledging that she may be denying her son a “better life” than she can give him, perhaps selfish in her reluctance to be parted from her child, but equally certain that she doesn’t want her son to grow up like Kenkichi, a spineless product of a patriarchal social order unable to stand up to his father or seize his own agency. She tells Kenkichi that she’s fallen in love with Yoshi because theirs is a partnership of equals, they understand and support each other, moving forward as one. He won’t abandon her by choice, but he isn’t perfect either and his foolish self-destructive impulses and selfless nobility threaten his new hope for the future as he embarks on a high risk strategy to prompt Ofumi to accept the “better life” that Kenkichi can offer her. Nevertheless, the point is that the choice is finally hers – no man is going to make it for her, not even her son. What she chooses is a kind of independence, stepping boldly forward into a future that’s entirely of her own making.


My Love Has Been Burning (わが恋は燃えぬ, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1949)

My love has been burning posterAmong the many parallels that could be drawn between the Meiji Restoration and the immediate post-war period, the most obvious is that each provided a clear opportunity for social change along with a moment of frozen introspection and internal debate about what the new promised future ought to look like. Following Victory of Women and The Love of the Actress Sumako, Kenji Mizoguchi completed a loose trilogy of films dealing with the theme of female emancipation with My Love Has Been Burning (わが恋は燃えぬ, Waga Koi wa Moenu), returning once again to the broken promises of Meiji as its heroine discovers that old ideas don’t change so quickly and even those who claim to be better will often disappoint.

The film opens in the early 1880s as a teenage Eiko Hirayama (Kinuyo Tanaka) attends a rally to celebrate the arrival of noted feminist Toshiko Kishida (Kuniko Miyake). Eiko, a committed social liberal from a conservative middle-class family, went to see her idol in the company of a childhood friend, Hayase (Eitaro Ozawa), who is shortly going to Tokyo to study and join the democratic revolution. He halfheartedly asks Eiko to come with him, but knows that she won’t because her parents will refuse permission and she will not disobey them. Soon after, Eiko’s loyalty to her family is weakened when the family’s maid, Chiyo (Mitsuko Mito), is sold to a brothel by her father. Devastated, Eiko asks her parents for the money to buy her back but they refuse, regarding Chiyo’s sacrifice as noble and in line with filial traditional. If Chiyo had refused (not that she had the right or power to refuse), her parents would starve. Eiko rushes back to the docks, but she is too late, Chiyo and Hayase have both departed for the capital and extremely different fates.

After her family situation declines still further and Eiko decides it is impossible for her to remain under her father’s roof, she makes her own way to the city but finds it not quite so welcoming as she’d assumed it to be. Hayase is not overjoyed to see her. He merely asks if she has finally decided to marry him and becomes petulant when she reaffirms her intention to study even if she implies that she intends to marry him at a later date. During his time apart from her, Hayase has been working for the fledgling Liberal Party agitating for wider democratic rights and the expansion of the franchise, though he is irritated still further when his mentor, Omoi (Ichiro Sugai) – the leader of the socialists, is supportive of Eiko’s ambitions and agrees to find a job for her working on the party paper.

Eiko’s early disappointment in Hayase is frequently mirrored in all of her subsequent dealings with men. Hayase put on a performance of believing in her cause of women’s liberation and more widely the equality of all peoples ending centuries of feudal oppression, but really just wanted to possess her body and is unwilling to accept her decision to reject him or to choose someone else. Later visiting her after she has been imprisoned on a somewhat trumped up charge, Hayase tells her that a woman is only a woman when loved by a man, and that a woman’s fulfilment is achieved through home, family, and motherhood. He tells her that he admires her for her education and talent, but that she has “forgotten” that she is a woman. He will help her remember by getting her out of prison if only she consent to marry him even though he has previously attempted to rape her and is now working for the rightwing government having betrayed the socialist cause.

Meanwhile, Omoi looks an awful lot better. He is, ostensibly, entirely committed to socialist aims, energetically engaged in promoting the Liberal Party, and trying to ensure true democracy takes root in the new Japan, lifting the common man above his subjugated position in the still prevalent feudal hierarchy. Nevertheless, he too eventually falls in love with Eiko and like Hayase is ultimately more interested in her body than their shared cause for liberal freedom. He appears to support her desire for women’s rights as an integral part of his desire to end feudal oppressions but his belief in female equality is later exposed as superficial. Eiko, reuniting with Chiyo in prison, takes her into the household she now shares with Omoi (though they are obviously not legally married) as her maid which is perhaps not entirely egalitarian but still a well intentioned attempt to free her from the life her father condemned her to.

Omoi disappoints, bedding Chiyo while Eiko is working hard at the campaign office. Confronted, he rolls his eyes and offers a boys will be boys justification before affirming that it was just a matter of sexual satisfaction and that his feelings for her haven’t changed, mildly reproving Eiko for allowing her emotional jealously to cloud her judgement in restricting his sexual freedom. If it were indeed a matter of free love, perhaps Eiko could have understood, but Omoi damns himself when looks askance at Chiyo and remarks that it doesn’t really matter because she is nothing but a servant and a concubine. All at once, Eiko sees – despite his fine talk, Omoi may have abandoned feudal ways of thinking when it comes to working men but still sees women in terms of things. If he thinks female “servants” are not worthy of respect or agency, then what is it that he has been fighting for in his supposed mission to end oppression in Japan?

Attempting to comfort a distraught Chiyo who has been so thoroughly brainwashed that she never quite expected anything “better” than being a concubine and has truly fallen for all Omoi’s pretty words about wanting to make her happy, Eiko reminds her that as long as men continue to think as Omoi does women will never be free. Freedom and equality are what will enable female happiness, and long as men refuse to recognise women not as domestic tools but as fellow human beings there can be no freedom in Japan. Mizoguchi reinforces the idea that while one is oppressed none of us is free, neatly celebrating the success of the disappointing Omoi while lamenting that his intentions for reform will not go far enough. Eiko cannot free the women of Japan on her own, but her solution is warm and committed – she will teach them to free themselves by starting a school, educating the next generation to be better than the last. Chiyo, notably, whom she never blames or rejects, will become her first pupil neatly subverting Hayase’s cruel words when she asks Eiko to teach her how to be a woman.

Unusually brutal, My Love Has Been Burning does not shy away from the violence, often sexual violence, which both women suffer both at the hands of men and of the state as they attempt to do nothing more than live freely as full human beings. It also makes plain that even those with supposedly high ideals can disappoint as they nevertheless motion towards real social good without fully committing to its entireties. A committed pro-democratic, intensely feminist statement, Mizoguchi’s lasting message lies in an affirmation of female solidarity as, unlike the self-serving Omoi, Eiko lifts her pupil up onto her own level and draws her shawl around them both committed to proceeding forward together into a fairer future.


The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1947)

vlcsnap-2019-03-27-01h39m45s435The Taisho era was, like that of the post-war, a time both of confusion and possibility in which the young, in particular, looked for new paths and new freedoms as the world got wider and ideas flowed in from every corner of the globe. In The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Joyu Sumako no koi), the second of a loose trilogy films about female emancipation, Kenji Mizoguchi took the real life story of a pioneering actress of Western theatre and used it to explore the progress of lack there of in terms of social freedoms not only for women but for artists and for society as a whole.

We begin in late Meiji as theatre director Shimamura (So Yamamura) fights to establish a foothold of Western-style “art theatre”, moving away from the theatricality of kabuki for something more immediate and naturalistic. He has, however, a problem in that as women were not allowed to take to the kabuki stage all of his students are male and casting a man to play a woman’s role would run counter to his desires to create a truly representative theatre. It is therefore lucky that he runs into Sumako Matsui (Kinuyo Tanaka) – a feisty, determined young woman who had divorced her first husband for infidelity and then left the second when he complained about her desire to pursue a career on the stage. In Sumako, Shimamura finds a muse and the ideal woman to portray the extremely controversial figure of Nora in his dream production of Ibsen’s incendiary A Doll’s House.

Shimamura casts Sumako because he sees in her some of Nora’s defiance and eventual desire to be free from illusionary social constraints, but it is in fact he who ends up embodying her spirit in real life. Somewhat feminised, Shimamura is in a difficult position in having married into his wife’s family, leaving him without real agency inside his own home as evidenced by his mild opposition to his daughter’s arranged marriage. While he wishes that his daughter be happy and if possible marry for love, Shimamura’s wife is very much of the old school and wants to make the best possible match in terms of financial gain and social status, viewing emotional compatibility as a low priority (the daughter herself as relatively little say). Unwisely falling in love with Sumako, it is he who eventually decides to follow Nora’s example by walking out not only on his family but also on the theatre company. He does this not quite because the scales have been lifted from his eyes – he was never under any illusion that his arranged marriage was “real” and there is of course an accepted degree of performance involved in all such unions, but because he finally sees possibility enough in his love for Sumako and the viability of emotionally honest Western art to allow him to break free of outdated feudal ideas of familial obligation.

Nevertheless, making a career as an artist is a difficult prospect in any age and Shimamura’s emotional freedom quickly becomes tied up with that of his art. Sumako’s Nora proves a hit (in the last year of Meiji), but he is ahead of his times both in terms of his liberal, left-wing philosophy and his determination to embrace modern drama in a still traditional society. The roles we see Sumako perform, including that in Tolstoy’s Resurrection which was another of those that helped to make her name, are all from proto-feminist plays which revolve around women who, like herself, had chosen to challenge the patriarchal status quo in pursuit of their own freedom and agency. Shimamura’s wife makes no secret of her outrage to her husband’s desire to stage A Doll’s House, viewing Nora’s decision as “selfish” and perhaps of a subversion of every notion she associates with idealised femininity. Though not so far apart in age, Sumako is a woman of Taisho who left not one but two unfulfilling marriages and is determined to forge her own path even if that path eventually leads her to subsume her own desires within those of her lover as the pair attempt to put their social revolution on the stage.

The revolution, however, does not quite take off. Despite good early notices, Shimamura’s Art Theatre company quickly runs into trouble. Faced with financial ruin, he does what any sensible theatre producer would do – he begins to prioritise bums on seats and acknowledges that if he’s to keep his company afloat and facilitate his dream of making Western theatre a success in Japan he’ll have to compromise his artistic aims  by putting on some populist plays. Of course, this sudden concession to commercial demands does not go down well with all and some of his hardline actors begin to leave in protest not just of his selling out but of his twinned desire to make Sumako his star.

Tellingly, the pair are eventually forced out of Japan entirely to tour the beginnings of empire from Korea to China and on to Taiwan. Their ideas are too radical and their society not quite ready for their messages even if not initially as hostile as it would later become. Shimamura works himself to the bone trying to keep his dream alive, eventually damaging his health. Sumako remains somewhat petulant about being forced into an itinerant lifestyle while her onstage personas come increasingly to influence her offstage life until it is said of her that her performance is “no longer an interpretation but an extension of reality”. In this, Sumako has, in a sense, achieved Shimamura’s dreams of a truly naturalistic theatre, but it comes at a cost, as perhaps all art does, and, Mizoguchi seems to suggest, becomes a kind of sacrifice laid down to a society still too rigid and unforgiving to appreciate its sincerity. Nevertheless, their boldness, as fruitless as it was, has started a flame which others intend to keep burning, eventually becoming a beacon for another new world looking to rebuild itself better and freer than before.


Short clip featuring Sumako’s performance as Carmen.

Victory of Women (女性の勝利, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946)

Victory of Women cap 1Female suffering in an oppressive society had always been at the forefront of Mizoguchi’s filmmaking even if he, like many of his contemporaries, found his aims frustrated by the increasingly censorious militarist regime. In some senses, the early days of occupation may not have been much better as one form of propaganda was essentially substituted for another if one that most would find more palatable. The first of his “women’s liberation trilogy”, Victory of Women (女性の勝利, Josei no Shori) was released in 1946 and expressly embraced the democratic philosophy espoused by the American authorities which necessarily included a motion towards female emancipation.

Played by Mizoguchi’s muse Kinuyo Tanaka, our heroine is Hiroko – a young woman working as a lawyer defending women against the cold and hard face of the law. Her family situation is, however, complicated. Her father having passed away, Hiroko’s sister Michiko (Michiko Kuwano who sadly passed away during shooting after collapsing on set) married the prosecutor Kono (Kappei Matsumoto) who financially supported Hiroko so that she might become the lawyer she is today. Meanwhile, Kono is also responsible for the arrest and incarceration of Hiroko’s fiancé Yamaoka (Shin Tokudaiji), a liberal intellectual. The political situation having changed, Yamaoka is to be released from prison after five years but is now in extremely poor health. Hiroko intends to return to him, resume their former relationship and marry once his health recovers. This is anathema to Kono who still objects to his liberalist views and views himself as having a hold over Hiroko’s future as the head of her family and in having supported her financially.

Financial support is a cornerstone if not the full foundation of Kono’s position of entitled superiority over Hiroko and her family. Despite the melodramatic underpinning of the case at hand, the real questions are the ones defining the direction of the post-war world in pitting the feudal values of “duty” and “womanliness” against a modernising liberality that prizes freedom and equality above hierarchy and obligation.

Kono, perhaps to his credit, does not appear object to the idea of female lawyers and has indeed facilitated Hiroko’s rise to just such as position but otherwise affirms that “a woman’s duty is easy. All that is required of her is self-sacrifice”. The idea of “self-sacrifice” is one which is brought up in the closing speeches of the trial in which Hiroko makes an impassioned plea in the case of a mother, Moto (Mitsuko Miura), who, mad with grief, held her baby too closely and may have suffocated it. Kono’s argument is that Moto’s transgression is against nature and the social order, that she has “failed” as a woman in rejecting her maternity by murdering her child. He rejects the “extenuating circumstances” of her grief and desperation by painting her “crime” as a selfish one in choosing to save her own life rather than sacrifice herself on her child’s behalf. Insisting that she has “disgraced the morals of women”, Kono requests she be punished severely as an example to the others.

In refuting Kono’s argument, Hiroko not only restates the extenuating circumstances of the intense strain on Moto’s mental health but attacks his entire way of thinking in positioning “motherhood” as the primary female “duty”. She does not deny that there have been many wonderful stories of women who valiantly sacrificed their own lives for their families, but reminds the court that these stories have often been misused as a kind of propaganda in service of female oppression, that under the feudal system which militarists prized so highly women were little more than slaves to men with no rights or agency. Further more, she points to the corruption of the hierarchical society which has left Moto in such a difficult position following her husband’s early death as a result of an accident at the factory for which the factory paid but only until the end of the war at which time he was cruelly cast away like so many of his generation who had perhaps been similarly exploited to serve a similar idea of “duty” only this time to the state. Kono blames Moto, insisting that her “crime” occurred because her character is “weak”. Hiroko does not blame Moto at all but the society which placed her in such an impossible position and has all but broken her spirit.

The argument is between a fair and just society in which the law exists for the protection of the people, and an austere and cruel one in which the law exists to oppress and tyrannise. Kono, an arch and unreconstructed militarist, believes in the primacy of the law. He is rigid and uncompromising, branding Hiroko’s summation as “sentimental” and “romantic”, dismissing an “irrational” woman’s logic from his elevated position on the podium. As others point out to him, his way of thinking is outdated and his tendency towards an entitled assumption that it will eventually prevail through being the proper order of things is extremely misguided yet he clings fiercely to feudalistic values which have ensured power remains in the hands of people like him since time immemorial, uncompromising to the last.

Rather than focus on Moto and her trial, Mizoguchi and his scriptwriters Kogo Noda and Kaneto Shindo, return to the realms of melodrama in shifting into the domestic as Hiroko’s older sister Michiko struggles between the feudal duty to her husband (however much she appears to dislike him) and her love for her sister whose modern liberal way of thinking still strikes her as immoral. Michiko, it seems, was forced to sacrifice herself for her family in marrying Kono for financial support. The sisters’ mother, now committed to Hiroko’s way of thinking, willingly married her daughter off telling her never to return believing it to be the proper way of things. Having suffered so long in service of an ideal no longer current, Michiko gradually comes to the realisation that she now has a choice – she does not have to stay with a husband who she does not love and does not love her, she is free to leave him and live as a full and independent woman if that is her individual will.

Nevertheless, the slightly awkward framing perhaps casts the choices of Hiroko and her sister as being defined by their respective men – Hiroko swept along by Yamaoka’s socialist politics and Michiko by her husband’s conservatism. Both men are in different senses problematic – Yamaoka vindictive and unsympathetic to Michiko’s attempts to make peace, no more forgiving than Kono while also patronising in his last impassioned speech which places such great responsibility in Hiroko’s “tiny hands”. Nevertheless, Hiroko’s clearsighted fight not only for her own freedom but for a fairer, more compassionate society founded on the idea of a literal social justice in which the law exists in service of its people rather than to oppress them is remarkably forward thinking, moving beyond “propaganda” for the new regime to the better world so often envisaged by the post-war humanists.


Women of the Night (夜の女たち, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1948)

Women of the Night still 1Cinema of the immediate post-war period generally leaned towards upbeat positivity, insisting that, yes, the situation is painful and difficult but it wouldn’t always be this way, at least as long as ordinary people kept their chins up and worked hard to build a better future. Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (夜の女たち, Yoru no Onnatachi) is very much not interested in this rosy vision of future success being sold by a new morale boosting propaganda machine, but in laying bare the harsh and unforgiving nature of a society that was fast preparing to leave a significant part of its population far behind. Women suffer in war, but they suffer after war too – particularly in a society as stratified as Japan’s had been in which those left without familial support found themselves entirely excluded from the mainstream world.

Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka), a noble, naive woman still hasn’t heard from her presumably demobbed husband and is living with her in-laws. Her young son has tuberculosis and she is desperately short of money. Selling one of her kimonos, Fusako is excited to to hear of an “interesting proposition” but is repulsed when she realises the saleswoman is inciting her to an act of prostitution. After all, she says, everybody is doing it.

After undergoing a series of tragedies, Fusako thinks things are beginning to go right for her when she manages to get a secretarial job through the kindness of a connection, but it turns out that Mr. Kuriyama (Mitsuo Nagata) is not all he seems and his business may not be as legitimate as Fusako believed it to be. Another small miracle occurs on a street corner as Fusako runs into her long lost sister, Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), formerly living in Korea and now repatriated to Japan, but a return to normal family life seems impossible in the still smouldering ruins of Osaka filled with black marketeering, desperation, and hopelessness.

Inspired by the Italian Neo Realist movement, Mizoguchi makes brief use of location shooting to emphasise the current state of the city, still strewn with rubble and the aftermath of destruction. Osaka, like Natsuko and Fusako, finds itself at a cross roads of modernity, paralysed by indecision in looking for a way forward. Fusako, the kinder, more innocent sister dresses in kimono, does not smoke, and is committed to working hard to build a new life for herself. Natsuko, by contrast, dresses exclusively in Western clothing, smokes, drinks, and works as a hostess at a dancehall with the implication that she is already involved in casual forms of prostitution.

Natsuko’s way of life, and later that of Fusako’s much younger sister-in-law Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), is painted as a direct consequence of an act of sexual violence. Having been raped during the evacuation from Korea, Natsuko feels herself to have been somehow defiled and rendered unfit for a “normal” life, relegated to the underground world of the sex trade as an already damaged woman. Fusako disapproves of her sister’s choices and is alarmed by the unfamiliar world of bars and dance halls but eventually ends up in the world of prostitution herself as a result of emotional violence in the form of cruel yet incidental betrayal. Fusako’s “descent” into prostitution is less survival than an act both of revenge and of intense self-harm as she vows to avenge herself on the world of men through spreading venereal disease.

Mizoguchi’s attitudes towards sex work were always complex – despite displaying sympathy for women who found themselves trapped within red light district as his own sister had been, he was also a man who spent much of his life in the company of geishas. Nevertheless Women of the Night veers between empathy and disdain for the hosts of post-war “pan pans” existing in codependent female gangs in which violence and hierarchy were as much an essential part as mutual support. The film opens with a sign which instructs women that they should not be seen out after dark lest they will be taken for prostitutes, respectable women should make a point of being home at the proper hour. Later, when Fusako is picked up by a police raid, she comes across a woman from the “purity board” who wants to hand out some pamphlets to help women “reform” from their “impure” ways and temper their presumably insatiable sexual desire. Fusako quite rightly tells the woman where to go while the others echo her in confirming no one has volunteered to live this way because they like it. Starving to death with a pure heart is one thing, but what are any of these women supposed to do in a world that refuses them regular work when they have already lost friends and family and are entirely alone with no hope of survival?

A third option exists in the form of a home for women which has been set up for the express purpose of “reforming” former prostitutes so that they can lead “normal” lives. The home provides ample meals, medical treatment and work though its attitude can be slightly patronising even in its well meaning attempt to re-educate. Again the home is working towards an ideal which is not evident in reality – there are no jobs for these women to go to, and no husbands waiting to support them. Incurring yet another tragedy, Fusako receives a well meaning lecture from a male employee at the home to the effect that it’s time for women to work together to build a better world for all womankind but Fusako has seen enough of the sisterhood realise that won’t save her either and leaves the man to his platitudes trailing a dense cloud of contempt behind her.

Yet Fusako does change her mind, finally reunited with the missing Kumiko who has also fallen into prostitution after running away from home and being tricked by a boy who pretended to be nice but only ever planned to rob and rape her. In a furious scene of maternal rage, Fusako rails against her plight, enraged by Kumiko’s degradation which ultimately forces her to see her own. Brutally beaten by the other women for the mere suggestion of leaving the gang, Fusako is held, Christ-like, while she pleads for an end to this existence, that there should be no more women like these. The storm breaks and the other women gradually come over to Fusako’s side, depressed and demoralised, left with no clear direction to turn for salvation. Mizoguchi ends on a bleak note of eternal suffering and continuing impossibility but he pauses briefly to pan up to an unbroken stained glass window featuring the Madonna and child. Fusako emerges unbroken, taking Kumiko under her maternal wing, but the future they walk out into is anything but certain and their journey far from over.   


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season. Screening again on 21st October, 17.10.

Osaka Elegy (浪華悲歌, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)

osaka elegy posterKenji Mizoguchi felt he was hitting his artistic stride with Osaka Elegy (浪華悲歌, Naniwa Elegy). Released in 1936 amid the tide of rising militarism, Mizoguchi’s tale of sacrifice and betrayal is strikingly modern in its depiction of female agency and the impossibility of escape from the confines of familial power and social oppression. Sexual harassment was not so much a problem as an accepted part of life in 1936, but as always it’s never the men who suffer. In depicting life as he saw it, Mizoguchi’s vision is bleak, leaving his forward striding heroine adrift in a changing, volatile world.

Beginning not with the protagonist, Mizoguchi first introduces the quasi-antagonist, lecherous boss Asai (Benkai Shiganoya), who feels trapped in an unhappy marriage to a bossy, shrewish woman. For Asai, the head of a family pharmaceuticals firm, work is an escape from family life and the same is also true for telephone switchboard operator Ayako (Isuzu Yamada) who lives with her feckless father whose gambling problem has left them all with serious debts. Asai, encouraged by Fujino (Eitaro Shindo), a colleague well known to be a womaniser, has developed a crush on the meek and innocent Ayako and continues to harass her at work, invading her personal space and pleading with her to have dinner with him. She declines and leaves distressed but when her father is discovered to have embezzled a large sum of money from his company which they will let go if he pays it back, Ayako is faced with a terrible dilemma.

In essence, Osaka Elegy is a hahamono which shifts focus to the self-sacrificing daughter of motherless family rather than a betrayed mother who gives all for her children and receives little in return. Ayako flits between resentment of her useless father’s poor parenting which has left her the sole figure of responsibility for a younger sister and older brother who already seem to hate her even before her present predicament. Yet however much she loathes her father for his weaknesses, she still feels a responsibility to help him and to avoid the social stigma should he fail to repay the money he stole and is arrested. Once she makes the difficult decision to become Asai’s mistress, her fate is sealed. She loses her future, her right to be happy, and the possibility of marriage to her equally meek boyfriend Nishimura (Kensaku Hara).

Being Asai’s mistress is perhaps not as bad as it sounds. Ayako is at least provided for – Asai pays her father’s debt and sets her up in an apartment they can use to conduct their affair but her status will always be uncertain. Asai’s wife (Yoko Umemura), ironically enough, is fond of Nishimura who may be something of a gigolo but their situation is unlikely to entail further consequences for either of them. In her relationship with Asai, Ayako begins meekly, playing the part-time wife which is exactly the figure Asai desires – someone to lovingly help with his coat and throw a scarf around his neck. When the affair is discovered by Mrs. Asai, Ayako’s character undergoes a shift. No longer meek and passive, she declares she will not see Asai again. Her physical presence and manner of speaking reverts to the repressed resentment previously seen only when dealing with her father.

If the failed affair allows a certain steel to rise within her, her neat kimono swapped for the latest flapper fashions, Ayako remains ill equipped to operate within the world she has just entered. About to renounce her “delinquent” life, Ayako fixes her hopes on reuniting with Nishimura and the normal, peaceful marriage to a kind and honest man that should have been hers if it were not for her father’s lack of care. Just when it looks as if she may triumph, a second familial crisis sends her right back into the world she was trying to escape but Ayako overplays her hand and suffers gravely for it.

Having sacrificed so much for her family, Ayako is rejected once again. Her feckless father and cruel siblings do not want to be associated with her “immoral” lifestyle which has made her a media sensation and continues to cause them embarrassment. She has lost everything – career, love, family, reputation and all possibility for a successful future. Yet rather than ending on the figure of a broken, desolate woman, Mizoguchi allows his heroine her pride. Ayako, far from collapsing, straightens her hat and walks towards the camera, facing an uncertain fate with resolute determination, defiantly walking away from the patriarchal forces which have done nothing other than conspired to ruin her.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season. Screening again on 21st October, 17.10.

Also available on blu-ray as part of Artificial Eye’s Mizoguchi box set.

Opening scene (English subtitles)

Victory Song (必勝歌, Masahiro Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu, Tomotaka Tasaka, Tatsuo Osone, Koichi Takagi, Tetsuo Ichikawa, 1945)

vlcsnap-2017-08-01-00h21m20s082Completed in 1945, Victory Song (必勝歌, Hisshoka) is a strangely optimistic title for this full on propaganda effort intended to show how ordinary people were still working hard for the Emperor and refusing to read the writing on the wall. Like all propaganda films it is supposed to reinforce the views of the ruling regime, encourage conformity, and raise morale yet there are also tiny background hints of ongoing suffering which must be endured. Composed of 13 parts, Victory Song pictures the lives of ordinary people from all walks of life though all, of course, in some way connected with the military or the war effort more generally. Seven directors worked on the film – Masahiro Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Shimizu, Tomotaka Tasaka, Tatsuo Osone, Koichi Takagi, and Tetsuo Ichikawa, and it appears to have been a speedy production, made for little money though starring some of the studio’s biggest stars in smallish roles.

The first scenes make plain the propagandistic intentions by starting in 660BC with a pledge of protection for the descendants of Amaterasu – ancestral mother goddess of Japan. Flash forward to 1941 and her sons are doing their best. Stock footage gives way to soldiers in the Asian jungle, taking a brief respite from the fighting to console each other with thoughts of home which is presumably where most of these small stories of resilience come from.

The soldiers appear to come from all backgrounds, the youngest of them seeming to be just a young boy whose strongest memory of home is his mother’s face. They chat cheerfully about their hometowns, never betraying any sense of fear, boredom or fatigue but the commander suddenly announces that they’re all “going home” until the next attack – taking a brief voyage of memory back to the motherland.

Within this framing sequence, the ordinary people of Japan go about their ordinary lives with cheerful forbearance. A young man cares for his parents after his older brother has given his life for the Emperor, serving on the home front by working himself so hard there’s a danger of going overboard and rendering himself out of action. His father argues that as long as everyone in Japan works as hard as they can, they can never be defeated. Community comes to the rescue again when a train gets stuck in the snow and the entire village gets out of bed to free it.

While the adults are giving it their all, the children are preparing to become fine subjects of the Emperor, training their minds and bodies to be of the most use whilst singing patriotic songs and performing military drills. Another segment finds the children praising their parents for their bravery, playing and roughhousing like any children would, but a hint of darkness emerges when a group of boys plays at war with their toy aeroplane. One little boy, Yuichi, has applied for the young pilots school without talking it over with his parents because he didn’t want them to be sad about him going away. His father, at least, is proud of him but upset at not being consulted. Practically measuring him up for the uniform, Yuichi’s father marvels at all the “young pilots” in the village – a chilling note seeing as none of these boys can be more than ten years old.

While the men go to war the women are at home waiting. Another persistent question relates to the fate of unmarried women – a positive motion for an arranged engagement is disrupted by the receipt of a draft card, prompting the male side to suggest they call the whole thing off. The woman, however, points out that every young man is in this position and she doesn’t see the point in expecting the worst. Life must go on, women must get married, and men must go to war. All of these things must be accepted without thinking too hard about it or there will be nothing for these gallant men to come home to.

The difficulties of wartime life extend to the fear and destruction of air raids, though a news report of the fire bombing of Tokyo reminds us that it could all have been much worse if it weren’t for the valiant efforts of the pilots and ground based defence forces keeping the threat from the skies at a minimum. Other reports detail dive bombing of hospital convoys while the wounded die happily knowing they’ve done their duty. Likewise the “special attack squad” prepare to meet their fates with stoicism and determination while their relatives are treated with especial esteem.

Interspersed with the vignettes and stock footage there are songs and dances bringing both entertainment and inspiration. The final message is one of resilience and unity, that Japan stands together to defend its ancient homeland in devotion to its Emperor, but then such a message would hardly be necessarily if the situation were brighter. Brief allusions are made to rationing, to the destruction and constant loss of life but these are all things which must be born for the glorious future. There is, however, much more stock put in remaining positive than there is in trying to deny the ongoing desperation. As propaganda films go, this one may backfire but does perhaps shine a light on the unspoken anxieties of ordinary people facing an extraordinary situation.


Final scenes including the “Victory Song” itself

The Crucified Lovers (近松物語, Chikamatsu Monogatari, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

E8BF91E69DBEE789A9E8AA9EB2Bunraku playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon had a bit of a thing about double suicides which feature in a number of his plays. Though these legends of lovers driven into the arms of death by a cruel and unforgiving society are common across the world, they seem to have taken a particularly romantic route in Japanese drama. Brought to the screen by the great (if sometimes conflicted) champion of women’s cinema Kenji Mizoguchi, The Crucified Lovers (近松物語, Chikamatsu Monogatari) takes its queue from  one such bunraku play and tells the sorry tale of Osan and Mohei who find themselves thrown together by a set of huge misunderstandings and subsequently falling headlong into a forbidden romance.

Set in 17th century Kyoto, the story begins with a reminder that adultery is currently illegal and that the penalty is crucifixion of both parties. A samurai woman and a man servant are being paraded through the streets for having committed the double transgression of an extra-martial affair which also crosses class borders. We set our tale at the top printing house in the city where the most promising employee, Mohei, is being pulled from his sickbed to complete a particularly important order. At the same time, mistress of the house Osan receives an unwelcome visit from her brother who is once again in pecuniary difficulty. He wants her to ask her wealthy husband, Ishun, to lend him some more money to meet the latest mortgage payment on their family home. However, Ishun is a stingy old man and outright refuses. Mohei overhears the brother’s visit and offers to help but his idea to temporarily embezzle some of the money backfires when he’s caught.

To make matters worse, Ishun now has it in for Mohei as Ishun has been after the servant girl Otama who has been refusing his advances and finally lied to him by claiming that she and Mohei are secretly engaged. After Otama reveals Ishun’s true nature to Osan, they hatch a plan to confront him by swapping rooms so that when Ishun makes his nightly visit to Otama he’ll find his wife waiting for him instead and have to backdown for awhile. This backfires too when Mohei decides to escape and stops by Otama’s room to say goodbye only for another servant to find Mohei and Osan together there. Mohei flees but a rumour starts about his friendship with Osan and it’s not long before she’s stormed out too. Accidentally running in to each other the pair find themselves on the run and eventually falling in love, but this isn’t the sort of place where two people can just move to another town and disappear. The police and Ishun’s men are hot on their tail determined to try and prevent the impending scandal…

Life was pretty harsh in feudal Japan. In some ways Osan might be thought lucky – married off at a young age to a well connected and prosperous husband. Indeed, at the beginning of the film she doesn’t seem too unhappy though is obviously nervous to talk to her husband about her brother’s predicament. Ishun is not a good man though he is perhaps sadly typical of his petty samurai merchant class. He swaggers around complaining about having to pay for everything and won’t even lend any of his vast wealth to his own sister let alone his wife’s family. Though outwardly miserly he’s no problem promising fancy kimonos and even a house to Otama if she’d only consent to becoming his mistress. Something of a double standard then when his wife is accused of having affair with a servant merely by having been found in a compromising position alone in a room with another man.

Mohei, by contrast, is the archetypal loyal retainer. When ever a problem comes up he reminds himself that one needs to be a “good servant” – a sentiment he utters to Otama when she asks for his help to fend off Ishun. He doesn’t approve of the idea of her simply giving in, but thinks she ought to grin and bear it. Similarly when some of the female members of staff are sympathising with the samurai lady about to be crucified for love, Mohei agrees that he feels sorry for her but also that she’s broken a law and what is happening is simply a natural consequence. He’s the last sort of person you would expect this sort of thing to happen to, and yet, it does.

The irony is that nothing existed between the pair other than the loose friendship and loyalty of a mistress and a member of staff before this whole thing started. Their union is quite literally unthinkable, not only a relationship between a married woman and another man, but love across the class divides. Even if Osan were free, a marriage with Mohei would be considered a disgrace. When the pair face the hopelessness of their situation and decide on suicide, Mohei confesses his love which immediately changes Osan’s mind about dying. She’s fallen in love with him too, and now she wants to live. For her now there can be no life without Mohei. Though Mohei entertains the noble idea of handing himself in to the police and sending Osan back to Ishun who would doubtless be glad to cover up the affair and avoid a bigger scandal, he later finds himself unable to give her up. The pair cannot, and will not, deny their love even if it costs their lives. In this unforgiving world of harsh social justice, the only freedom left to Osan and Mohei is to ride proudly to their agonising deaths hand in hand and with beatific smiles on their faces.

In the end, two grand houses fall because of a series of coincidental misunderstandings and lapses of protocol. Envious of his position, another petty samurai is perfectly happy to manipulate the situation to take down Ishun fully knowing that it will mean the deaths of two people. In ordinary circumstances this passionate, romantic love would never be permitted to exist (or at least among this social class). Its blossoming is an impossible miracle that threatens the very foundation of the extraordinarily regimented society of the two people at its centre. Parents betray their children to protect these archaic laws and preserve their family “honour” but what honour could their possibly be in the denial of love and society that places standing above basic compassion?

Though not perhaps Mizoguchi’s most impressive effort, The Crucified Lovers is an impassioned attack on needlessly repressive social systems and the self centred shenanigans which perpetuate them. Unashamedly melodramatic and filled with a melancholy though passionate resilience, The Crucified Lovers is a tragic tale of true love torn asunder by a cruel and unforgiving world. It would be so easy to say this would never happen today, and yet…


The Crucified Lovers is available on blu-ray in the UK as part of Eureka’s Late Mizoguchi box set.

No trailer but here is a particularly beautiful scene from the film

And an introduction from Tony Rayns