“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.