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.

Love Under the Crucifix (お吟さま, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1962)

Love Under the Crucifix cap 1A legendary screen actress, Kinuyo Tanaka completed only six films in her career as a director. The last film that she would ever make, Love Under the Crucifix (お吟さま, Ogin-sama), is the only one to be set in the historical past taking place against the backdrop of turbulent late 16th century politics just forty years or so before the nation would embark on 200 years of self imposed isolation undertaken in the name of preserving the national character while solidifying a political regime. As in her other films, however, Tanaka employs a standard melodrama narrative in order to subvert it. Her heroine defies all “for love”, but not so much in itself as for the right to it and to the legitimisation of her feelings as a human woman with all the rights and freedoms that ought to entail.

The film begins in the 15th year of Tensho (or 1587). Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Osamu Takizawa) is attempting to solidify his command over a Japan which is in a state of constant warfare. Meanwhile, foreign trade and influences, including Christianity, are flooding into the nation. There is growing suspicion among Hideyoshi’s advisors that Christian converts are nothing more than foreign spies working to undermine the social order and cannot be trusted. Therefore, Christianity is a spanner thrown in the works of Hideyoshi’s plans for peace and unification, only no one is quite sure as yet what to do about it except disapprove.

Meanwhile, our heroine, Ogin (Ineko Arima), is the step-daughter of prominent tea master Rikyu (Ganjiro Nakamura). She has long been in love with Ukon (Tatsuya Nakadai) – a young lord who has converted to Christianity and is in fact already married. Despite the impossibility of her love, Ogin holds fast to its purity and has refused all entreaties to marry. However, she is placed in a difficult position when it is made clear that a prominent suitor affiliated with the local lord desires her. Rikyu affirms that he will follow Ogin’s will, but Mozuya (Hisaya Ito) is too important a man to be refused out of hand and the consequences of turning him down may be severe. Ogin searches for a sign from Ukon, but he coldly tells her to marry, refusing any confirmation of the feelings which she believes to exist between them.

The film’s English title, Love Under the Crucifix, reminds us that this is not so much a story of religious freedom as social oppression. Divorced form its Christianising context, the crucifix was in this era the primary punishment for sexual transgression, most often for both men and women committing adultery or daring to love in places where society would not approve. Thus Ogin lives her life under it in being reminded of the potential costs of her inappropriate emotions. Even so, observing a young woman tied to the cross (Keiko Kishi) and apparently electing to go to her death rather than become the concubine of the local lord against her will, Ogin sees in it not censure but defiance and path towards personal empowerment if only in ultimate negation.

The literal crucifix becomes a noose around Ogin’s neck in the form of the necklace given to her by Ukon. Ogin remains unconvinced by Ukon’s religiosity even if she respects it but later resents the austerity it provokes in him while wondering if his friendship with her was only ever a pathway to conversion. Ukon’s troubles are multiple, not only is he oppressed by the social strictures of his time but also by an additional burden of Christianising morality which instructs him that his feelings are sinful and must be rejected.

Later, Ogin berates Ukon insisting that all of this suffering and the predicament they now find themselves in might have been avoided if only he had not kept his feelings hidden. Ukon’s religiosity obliges him to behave in ways which are cruel and selfish, and which ultimately bring him little other than additional suffering and unhappiness. This emotional tension has also played into the hands of the ruling regime who are content to use their feelings, and the prevailing tendency towards properness, against them as a plot against Rikyu and to prevent Ukon’s return as a military rival.

Despite Rikyu’s best efforts, Ogin has indeed become a pawn in the hands of men. Rikyu, as we’re reminded at the film’s conclusion, fell from favour and committed ritual suicide at the age of 70. Like Ogin, he remained true to himself even when politically unwise, advancing his philosophies of simplicity and respect for the natural world in the face of what he saw as Hideyoshi’s increasingly gaudy superficiality. Thus he councils Ogin that there is nothing wrong in her feelings and her only duty to him or to anyone else is to try to live happily even if that means she must live in hiding with the less courageous Ukon who refuses to abandon his faith but struggles to find the courage to fight for love, or more specifically for the right to love, as Ogin has done all her life.

Ogin is, in a sense, already on the cross as she continues to suffer not for faith but for faith in love and in her own right to her individual feelings and agency. Faced with being forced to surrender her body to a man she does not love because of a cruel game played by men for men, Ogin prefers death and finds in it the ultimate expression of her personal freedom and emotional authenticity.


Kwaidan (怪談, Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

tumblr_ly5zbgdNH61rn3yrmo1_1280Kwaidan (怪談) is something of an anomaly in the career of the humanist director Masaki Kobayashi, best known for his wartime trilogy The Human Condition. Moving away from the naturalistic concerns that had formed the basis of his earlier career, Kwaidan takes a series of ghost stories collected by the foreigner Lafcadio Hearn and gives them a surreal, painterly approach that’s somewhere between theatre and folktale.

The first tale, Black Hair, is the story of an ambitious young samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who abandons his one true love to marry a wealthy woman and advance his career. However, his second marriage is far from happy and he begins to appreciate just what it is he’s cast aside. Eventually returning home he meets his former wife again and harbours the desire to start afresh. However, when the sun comes up all is not as it seems.

Tale two, The Woman of the Snow, begins when two woodsmen are caught in a blizzard and a mysterious woman appears to suck one of them dry of blood. She spares the other, Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), because she’s moved by his youth but she instructs him never to reveal the events of that evening or she will return to finish what she started. Minokichi returns home and meets another mysterious woman who later becomes his wife and bears him three children but will he remember to keep his secret even from the love of his life?

The third tale is perhaps the most famous, Hoichi the Earless, and features the sad tale of a blind biwa player (Katsuo Nakamura) whose storytelling ability is so great that the dead themselves petition him nightly to recount their story. Eventually the head monk finds out and disapproves of Hoichi’s dealings with the supernatural so the monks paint sutras all over his body to protect him from the malevolent spirits. However, like achilles and his vulnerable heel, they forget to paint Hoichi’s ears…

The fourth tale, A Cup of Tea, is a little more whimsical and opens with a framing sequence lamenting the fact that some ancient tales were never finished for one reason or another. The tale within the tale features a samurai who keeps seeing a face appear in his tea. Obviously this is quite disturbing, but eventually he just decides to drink it anyway only for the owner of the face to suddenly appear and complain about soul having been stolen.

Like all good fables the stories each have a moral to offer but also, crucially, paint the protagonists as victims of circumstance more than rash or unwise people. The samurai feared poverty so he abandoned his love in search of riches only to discover he’d been chasing the wrong kind of dreams. Minokichi momentarily forgot himself, perhaps entrapped by the Snow Woman’s final trick, Hoichi just wanted to play his biwa but his desires were frustrated by the powers at be who further mess things up for him by botching the sutra application. The protagonist of A Cup of Tea does choose to drink the tea himself but the resultant madness is not something that could ever have been reasonably expected. These are worlds of spirits where the doorway to the supernatural is always ajar, waiting for some ordinary person to tumble through accidentally.

Though employing slightly different styles for each of the four segments, Kobayashi sets his stage with a deliberately theatrical, almost hyperreal set design. Obviously shot on a soundstage, the tales take on the feeling of stories which have been told and retold, replayed countless times across the great theatre of life. Black Hair steers closest to a traditional kabuki play, an effect aided by Toru Takemitsu’s more traditional score but The Woman of the Snow gives way to intense color play full of cold blue ice vistas mixed with impressionistic, passionate red skies. Hoichi’s tale begins with an overlay of a scroll painting recounting the famous The of the Heike of which Hoichi sings his song. Full of epic battle scenes, ghostly apparitions and a whole load of biwa music, this segment is the lengthiest but also the meatiest when it comes to subtext. The final tale by contrast is much more straightforward and brings a little chanbara exuberance to the otherwise heavy atmosphere though it does leave us with one of the most haunting images in the entire film.

Kwaidan may look like an exercise in style for Kobayashi – it was also his first colour picture and he makes full use of that aspect of the film. However, that isn’t to say he’s abandoned his recurrent concerns. The people in the stories are all ordinary, they’re flawed but they aren’t evil. The samurai comes closest to bringing his fate on himself when he makes the selfish decision to abandon his loving wife for money and status though he pays a heavy price when he finally realises his foolishness. Minokichi’s crime is a loss of faith of perhaps of having doubted the truth of his tale in itself. In the end, he simply forgot his promise rather than making a conscious decision break it like the samurai. Hoichi is something of a passive player here as his blindness renders him unable to understand his plight – he is unable to keep his promise to the fallen samurai firstly because of the physical toll it’s taking on him and secondly as he’s prevented by his superiors. The protagonist of the final tale simply gives in to temptation and then to madness perfectly symbolising human weakness. Kobayashi maybe more artful here than acerbic but his bleak view of human nature still wins out. However, what Kobayashi crafted in Kwaidan is a beautiful, dreamlike canvas of supernatural visions which continue to dazzle in their artistry long after the screen has gone dark.


Kwaidan is available on blu-ray in the US from Citerion and on DVD in the UK from Eureka Masters of Cinema.