A Story from Chikamatsu: From a Distance

A Story from Chikamatsu: From a Distance

On Film / Essays — Nov 13, 2018

A crucial film from the remarkable final phase of Kenji Mizoguchi’s prolific career, A Story from Chikamatsu (1954) has long been overshadowed by the director’s best-known works from the same period: The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Winners each of major prizes at the Venice Film Festival, those three have been canonized as a loose trilogy and together celebrated as the apogee of Mizoguchi’s mature filmmaking. Although less recognized today, A Story from Chikamatsu is an equally significant masterwork that gives important new dimension to the formal and genre innovations for which the trilogy is renowned—the lyrically measured cinematography and inventive approach to adaptation guiding the transformation of canonical works of literature into spiritually charged and politically trenchant jidai-geki, period films set in Japan’s feudal era, that also embrace elements of the socially conscious melodrama first explored by Mizoguchi during the 1930s.

Like the films of the trilogy, A Story from Chikamatsu renders a harshly critical portrait of Japan’s past, in this case a dark vision of Tokugawa-era Kyoto as a venal, petty, and paranoid society thoroughly corrupted by a blind obsession with wealth and social status. The film’s tragic story of doomed lovers separated by class and marriage, a dutiful artisan apprentice and his master’s younger wife, is thus driven forward by a quick series of cruel betrayals and overzealous punishments exposing the deep instability of life within a near police state whose citizens’ actions and morals are under constant surveillance and whose subjects—women in particular—are treated as commodities to be bartered and exploited. This focus on the lives of oppressed women also revives and reinvents the mode of melodrama pioneered two decades earlier by Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda in their breakthrough collaborations Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy (both 1936), paired gendai-geki—dramas set in the present day—that form a diptych portrait of women whose failed struggle for independence tragically results in destitute lives of bitter servitude.  

In the fifties, Mizoguchi and Yoda dramatically expanded the scope and vision of their political melodrama in an ambitious span of films, alternating between the evocative jidai-geki embodied by the trilogy and A Story from Chikamatsu and a group of daring, psychoanalytically inflected gendai-geki centered on strong-willed yet ultimately victimized women, such as Miss Oyu (1951), A Geisha (1953), and The Woman of the Rumor (1954). By focusing on tragic stories of class inequity and victimized women, this thematically intertwined series of films drew dark parallels between Japan’s feudal past and present day and offered a subtle meditation upon history and its legacies during a troubled period of postwar recovery when such gestures remained quite controversial. In this way, the films pondered the vexing question, asked repeatedly by artists and policy makers alike across the period following Japan’s defeat, of how to understand the zeitgeist and mind-set that had so perilously brought the nation to war, and how, moreover, to address lingering cultural and ideological continuities between the pre- and postwar periods. 

Another urgent question asked with particular eloquence by A Story from Chikamatsu and the trilogy was how to reassess and possibly recuperate Japanese cultural traditions after so many had been effectively co-opted for nationalistic causes. While Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff both discovered spiritual and redemptive power in well-known folktales, The Life of Oharu reshaped Ihara Saikaku’s celebrated picaresque novel into a feminist critique of feudal Japan’s systematic subjugation of women. With A Story from Chikamatsu, Mizoguchi turned away from literature and toward theater, adapting a popular tragedy from Japan’s arguably most renowned playwright, Monzaemon Chikamatsu, originally written for the Bunraku puppet theater and later realized as a Kabuki play. Working with Yoda and legendary cameraman Kazuo Miyagawa, Mizoguchi transformed Chikamatsu’s drama of doomed love and intractable social pressures into a rigorously cinematographic work that innovatively channels theatrical traditions in order to push to a new level the detached perspective often described as a grounding principle and moral tenet of his style. 

Mizoguchi’s iconic films have been celebrated for avoiding the close-up and thus rejecting the kind of screen glamour and direct appeal for audience identification with the actor that remained a driving force of star-driven studio-era cinema, in Japan as in Hollywood. A Story from Chikamatsu is exemplary here for the carefully modulated distance it maintains between camera and characters, a distance that frequently recalls the fixed position of a theater audience before a stage. Mizoguchi’s deliberate limitation of the viewer’s perspective is especially notable in the film’s many interior scenes during which crucial actions ignite or occur just offscreen. One striking example is when the dedicated apprentice, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa), is caught using his master’s seal to sign a blank receipt for a small personal “loan” he promised as a favor to the master’s wife, Osan (Kyoko Kagawa). The very instant Mohei presses the seal to the empty page, a voice is heard offscreen accusing him of theft and forgery. 

Another good example of Mizoguchi’s tightly controlled framing occurs shortly after, when Mohei naively confesses to his favor turned crime, only to be savagely berated by his outraged employer. Rather than show the action directly, Mizoguchi locates the camera first at a remove, in the boudoir of Osan, who sits folding clothing until the sudden commotion compels her to rush outside to Mohei’s defense. Subtly presaging the fateful bond that will unite Mohei and Osan, Mizoguchi makes dynamic use of offscreen space to reveal how characters are both contained and destabilized by larger forces they cannot fully comprehend. There is, indeed, an almost film-noir logic of simultaneously cruel and absurd fatalism at work in A Story from Chikamatsu that gives calamitous weight to even the smallest misstep, like Mohei’s clumsy attempt to borrow that small sum of money from his wealthy master. An accumulation of white lies and mistaken identities thus sets into motion Mohei and Osan’s sudden transformation into criminal lovers.

The larger forces limiting and controlling mobility in A Story from Chikamatsu are legible in the film’s expressive mise-en-scène, which often embeds characters in busy and highly detailed settings, such as the bustling publishing house where the film opens and where its principal characters are introduced. In this way, for example, Mohei first appears as a background figure only partly visible on the floor of his crowded attic room, almost hidden behind a column and under a heavy duvet, where he lies stricken with a cold. The next shot moves closer to Mohei but with the camera now placed directly behind his reclining figure and pointed at his back, as he speaks to the boy assistant who has come to ask for instructions. This pointed delay in revealing the face of beloved stage and screen actor Hasegawa, shown a few moments later only when he reluctantly rouses himself from bed, underscores Mizoguchi’s insistence on defining a controlled distance between actor and audience and reminding the audience that its perspective is always partial and deliberately controlled. 


The striking use of music in A Story from Chikamatsu gives further vivid expression to this critical and distanced perspective. Rather than having a conventional studio-era score closely accompanying the entire film, Mizoguchi uses variations of traditional Japanese music, and only sparingly, during moments of heightened narrative and emotional intensity. Almost avant-garde atonal music, marked by the sound of whips and clanging metal, thus lends added power to a frightening image shown toward the beginning of the film: two unnamed crucified lovers, punished for the crime of adultery, hanging dead on their crosses and predicting the fate awaiting Mohei and Osan. Modeled on the traditional music used to punctuate Kabuki and Bunraku performances, the percussive and emphatic flurries of drum, shamisen, and flute released at key moments throughout A Story from Chikamatsu recall the film’s theatrical origins. Clearly nondiegetic, imposed from beyond the frame, the forceful music at times produces an almost Brechtian kind of alienation effect, making the audience sharply aware of the constructed nature of the tragic spectacle presented. By embracing the formal rigor and radical potential of traditional Japanese theater, A Story from Chikamatsu here anticipates the spirited dialogue between cinema and theater that would give rise in the sixties to a cycle of avant-garde, theatrically inspired works by firebrand directors, among them Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (1963), Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968), and Masahiro Shinoda’s own Chikamatsu adaptation, Double Suicide (1969). 

It was the French—Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, and later Serge Daney—who first fully appreciated Mizoguchi as an innovative stylist, drawing attention to his signature use of the long take to choreograph extended scenes into unbroken sweeps of time and space, a device he had used in earlier works such as The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939) and The 47 Ronin (1941) but refined with a dynamic lyricism in the postwar films made with Miyagawa. For Daney, Mizoguchi’s long takes allowed films such as Ugetsu to depict human suffering without exploiting or diminishing its power and pathos—precisely by maintaining that marked distance between the viewer and the drama unfolding on-screen, a distance engendering a subtle awareness of the scene’s essential artifice while also heightening attention to its poignantly fleeting spatio­temporal realism. As the source, then, of both profound empathy and detachment, Mizoguchi’s long takes are simultaneously traditional and radical, not unlike the highly codified but formally bracing Bunraku and Kabuki theater that inspired A Story from Chikamatsu. 

The extended shots celebrated in Mizoguchi’s late films also, however, speak to the promise of a renewal of the cinema itself, embraced, at key moments throughout film history, by pioneering filmmakers, from the postwar Italian neorealists to such contemporary exemplars of radical “slow cinema” as Béla Tarr and Lav Diaz. Across their diverse films, a redemptive quality can be discovered in the unbroken continuity of time and space they each explore and declare as a uniquely cinematic creation. And just as in the most crucial and visionary films of the neorealists and the slow-cinema directors, a powerful yet ambiguous spiritual and metaphysical dimension emerges across Mizoguchi’s late films, expressed most fully in these long tracking shots. Many have pointed to Mizoguchi’s conversion to Buddhism in the early fifties as the inspiration for the religious tone and imagery prominent in his late films—from Oharu’s final devotion to the Buddha to the child’s pious worship before his mother’s grave at the end of Ugetsu and to the Christ symbols that hover over A Story from Chikamatsu, whose alternate release title in the West was, in fact, The Crucified Lovers. 

Godard may well have had Mizoguchi in mind when he provocatively quipped, in 1959, that “le travelling est affaire de morale” (“the traveling shot is a moral issue”). Certainly Mizoguchi’s tracking shots are grounded in a deeply moral and ethical concern for the tragic victims whose suffering the viewer can observe and contemplate but never own. Yet Mizoguchi’s traveling shots are also very much a spiritual issue, deployed most often at moments of extreme duress and desperation and, most arrestingly, at those terrible moments echoing across Mizoguchi’s late films when loved ones are painfully separated by hard circumstance and seized by the fear that they may never see each other again. Formally stunning yet emotionally devastating, these heartbreaking scenes are guided by a complexly moving camera measuring the inexorably increasing distance between loved ones: between mother and children in The Life of Oharu and Sansho the Bailiff; between husband and wife in Ugetsu. Almost like saints, the beleaguered characters in the trilogy are each tested by a sort of extended passion, forced to surrender their dearest relationships and even their very dignity before reaching a kind of enlightenment marked by their tragic distance from those closest to their heart.

A series of wrenching separations also structures A Story from Chikamatsu, including a powerful scene deep in the mountainous countryside, where Mohei spontaneously attempts to desert his beloved Osan, now the victim of an injured ankle, thinking she will be safer without him. As Mohei hurries down the steep mountain path, Osan and the camera follow not far behind, rendering vivid her painful, stumbling steps toward her reluctantly fleeing lover, her compromised movement a poignant signal of the couple’s dwindling freedom as the authorities move inevitably closer. Even more remarkable, however, is the scene midway through the film where the desperate couple decide to commit suicide on Lake Biwa, convinced that their fate as criminal lovers has been sealed, despite their innocent and, until this point, platonic relationship. Alone at last, the couple float in a small boat on the mist-shrouded lake at night, far from the venomous intrigue and betrayal of the multichambered world they have left behind. Just after gently tying Osan’s legs together in preparation for their final surrender to the dark waters, Mohei suddenly confesses that he has, in fact, long been silently in love with her, inspiring Osan to pause resolutely before throwing herself upon Mohei and declaring her own love and new desire to live. 

Like the deceptively calm rivers that are the silent vehicles and witnesses of the cruel sundering of families in both Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, the seemingly placid lake in A Story from Chikamatsu is animated by a larger unseen force—the drifting impermanence of life, so powerfully captured throughout Mizoguchi’s trilogy and embodied in his gliding camera. In one of the film’s subtler tracking shots, the camera hovers close to the boat to capture the couple’s determined ritual, only to pull gently away just as the scene builds to its unexpected emotional climax. An act of respect for the lovers’ grave decision, the camera’s refusal of the close-up and its gentle movement away from the boat lends further mystery to this radically intimate scene, as if to acknowledge that we, the viewer, can never fully comprehend the profound enigma of desire and free will here suddenly revealed. For this gesture of absolute love arising from the couple’s hearts while on the brink of suicide is a choice made not in defiance but in acceptance of inevitable death, a choice made by understanding that freedom is an illusion, and the depths of true emotion are unfathomable.