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OSAKA ELEGY: COMPROMISING POSITIONS
Though he had been directing films since the silent era, collaborating with many different film studios in various genres, Kenji Mizoguchi didn’t become an international sensation until after the Second World War, benefiting, as did his compatriot Akira Kurosawa, from a new fascination with Japan’s cinematic output. Mizoguchi’s breakout came in 1952, with the triumphant response at the Venice Film Festival to The Life of Oharu. His subsequent 1950s films, including Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, would receive wide attention, including from such important critics as André Bazin and Jean-Luc Godard. It’s telling that The Life of Oharu was the catalyst for Mizoguchi’s international emergence, since the film’s plot—the epic suffering of a woman as she declines from good social standing into disgraceful prostitution—reflected one of the most common thematic threads running through the director’s career.
Mizoguchi’s focus on, and obvious compassion for, the most downtrodden of his nation’s women has led to his often being labeled a feminist filmmaker, although this brand of feminism is evident in Japan’s strong tradition of female-centered art and literature. It’s been noted that two such artistic influences on Mizoguchi were the writings on prostitution by famed novelist Kafu Nagai (1879–1959), which he greatly admired, and the “social tendency film” (realist, politically minded works), popular in the twenties, when Mizoguchi was coming into his own as a filmmaker. And though Mizoguchi was never identified nor, indeed, identified himself as a political filmmaker (“In the realm of social ideas, his films connected with the fashionable thinking of every period,” writes scholar Donald Kirihara), his work, specifically his stories of women’s struggles, nevertheless had great social impact.
As grim and hopeless as these female-centered films may sound, they often feature charismatic, resilient protagonists. This is especially true of the two that marked a major artistic breakthrough for the director, the companion pieces Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both 1936). The former, the first of Mizoguchi's films written by Yoshikata Yoda (who would go on to collaborate with the director on nearly every subsequent film), concerns a young telephone operator named Ayako (Isuzu Yamada) who enters into an affair with her company’s president to help pay off her layabout father’s debts. This sets off a chain of events that squanders her chances for marriage to the virtuous Nishimura (Kensaku Hara), forces her into prostitution to get money for her family, and, finally, leaves her a social outcast.
Osaka Elegy’s direct address—typified by Ayako’s final walk directly toward the camera, filmed in foreboding close-up—helped make it something of a sensation with Japanese audiences, and its success encouraged Mizoguchi to continue developing contemporary social-realist films, rather than the Meiji-set period dramas he had been directing. This portrayal of entrapment, brought to tragic life by Yamada’s stunning performance and Mizoguchi’s elegant use of shadows and complex tracking shots, succinctly augured the powerful works of social outrage that would come to define the filmmaker’s career.
SISTERS OF THE GION: TEA AND EMPATHY
The radical address of Osaka Elegy and its immediate follow-up, Sisters of the Gion, is even more striking when one considers that they were made during a period of political conservatism and extreme militarism. Shot with essentially the same cast and crew, and made quickly and cheaply, these two works were among a handful of prewar Japanese films that were implicitly critical of the nation’s status quo. (In 1940, Osaka Elegy would be temporarily banned by the government for “decadent tendencies.”) They were also Kenji Mizoguchi’s first truly successful sound films, and Sisters of the Gion is still regarded as one of his masterpieces, even, says Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, as “one of the best Japanese films ever made.”
This time, using a more dialectical approach than in Osaka Elegy, Mizoguchi puts modern geishadom under the microscope. Sisters of the Gion focuses on Kyoto’s famous Gion district and follows the parallel paths of two sisters who work there as geisha, supplementing their meager income as teahouse owners by selling their bodies (though their code dictates that they become involved with only one man at a time). After staring out at the audience with a steely remoteness at the end of Osaka Elegy, Isuzu Yamada returns here as the fierce, independent Omocha, whose modern attitudes put her at odds with her demure, more traditional older sister, Umekichi (Yoko Umemura). While Umekichi drapes herself in kimonos, carries parasols and is conciliatory to the whims of her client, the failed businessman Furusawa, Omocha often dresses in contemporary garments and is purposely deceitful to multiple patrons, largely as revenge against men, whom she describes at the beginning of the film as “our enemies.” She even boldly states, “Men come here and pay money to make playthings out of us . . . If you keep living this way, you’ll always feel as if you’re being strangled to death.”
Yet despite her cynical machinations, Omocha (whose name literally means “plaything”) never comes across as irrational or despicable. Rather, her behavior seems progressive and proactive compared to Umekichi’s. Nevertheless, neither of their attitudes toward their profession—not the resigned acquiescence nor the rebellion—helps them improve their condition. By the film’s despairing conclusion, the women are left with no options at all, a state cemented by Omocha’s famous climactic wail, “Why do there even have to be such things as geisha?”
An even bigger ticket seller than Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion went on to win the Kinema Junpo award for best film of 1936 (the only time Mizoguchi would earn the top prize). Part of the public’s fascination with the film arose from the fact that the institution of the geisha was already under fire by the mid-1930s, attacked, along with licensed prostitution, by reformists as an outdated relic of the past. Mizoguchi’s message resonated in those politically turbulent times, and Sisters of the Gion became one of the period’s most passionately discussed films. It wouldn’t be the last time a Mizoguchi film was at the center of public debate.
WOMEN OF THE NIGHT: DARK CITY
In 1948, Kenji Mizoguchi went on location to Osaka’s troubled Shinsekai district for a sobering new take on prostitution. This time he was specifically interested in how the lives of women stuck on the lowest rung of the country’s social ladder were affected by the devastating conditions following World War II. To portray this, Mizoguchi used a different cinematic approach, consciously emulating the spontaneous and ragged shooting style of the Italian neorealists, who were then defining the international art-film landscape with their frank depictions of postwar suffering. Like them, Mizoguchi had to shoot on poor-quality film, due to the short supply after the war, and the result, Women of the Night, was one of the director’s rawest films, a despairing scream from his country’s depths.
Based on Joseimatsuri, a recent novel by Eijiro Hisaita that Mizoguchi admired, Women of the Night is an unsparing depiction of two sisters' descent into financial and emotional chaos. Yet unlike Sisters of the Gion, in which the siblings fight over essentially ideological concerns, this film’s sisters, Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), are torn apart by outside forces: the former loses her husband in the war and her baby to tuberculosis; the latter becomes embroiled in a compromising affair with her boss, who happens to be an opium smuggler on the side. Also, Women of the Night was not about the more traditionally embraced geisha girl but about the much less respectable profession of the prostitute. After Fusako leaves home to sell her body, and in the process transforms from a demure housewife to a tough-talking streetwalker, Natsuko goes in search of her, with her own tragic results.
Filmed in a rougher style than Mizoguchi’s earlier films, although maintaining his stunning use of extended takes, with his camera craning through bustling areas reduced to rubble, Women of the Night leaves a lasting impression of anger and hopelessness. The film is an accusatory finger pointed directly at a society that casually accepts prostitution as part of its culture. Despite its financial success, the director himself was later critical of the film’s nearly splenetic rage, calling it “barbarous” and the result “of the overpowering sense of resentment I’d accumulated during the long years of wartime oppression. You could call this the misplaced bravura of an old man.”
Certainly one can see the fruits of this rage in the astonishing conclusion, a violent free-for-all among a roving gang of prostitutes in the shattered remains of a churchyard. In trying to escape the frenzy, Fusako is whipped and nearly stoned, the Christian iconography of the scenario reinforced by a final zoom into a stained-glass window depicting the Virgin Mary. Filmed from above, the women seem reduced to clawing, crawling animals. Whether one views this as the logical end point to Mizoguchi’s portrayals of female desperation or the moment at which fascination becomes fetish, there’s no doubt that Women of the Night is one of his most passionate, compelling works, and proof that he was constantly seeking new ways of expressing himself as a moral artist.
STREET OF SHAME: THE BODY POLITIC
As it turned out, Kenji Mizoguchi’s final look at the world of Japanese prostitution, Street of Shame (1956), would also be his final film. Made while the National Diet of Japan was debating an antiprostitution law (which was finally passed shortly after the film’s release), Street of Shame was the director’s most sober inquiry into the subject. Rather than melodramatizing his characters’ downward spiral of suffering, Mizoguchi was more interested in matter-of-factly surveying the daily ins and outs of a group of women working at a brothel, here one called Dreamland, located in the famous red-light district of Yoshiwara, which had been functioning as a hub for legal sex solicitation for more than three hundred years. Originally, Mizoguchi planned to make the film in a semidocumentary manner, on location in the Yoshiwara, but the ongoing public outcry had the brothel owners fearful of attention and they refused, so it was shot on a studio set instead.
Less carnal than pragmatic, its rhythms more reflective of the early fifties masterworks that had by that point made Mizoguchi a figure of international renown (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff), Street of Shame may be better represented by its original, less sensationalistic Japanese title, Akasen chitai—Red-Light District. Mizoguchi views human exploitation and disappointment as facts of life; all five of the female protagonists, each given equal narrative weight, are caught in bitter cycles of financial servitude, whether in debt to the Dreamland proprietor or to each other (the youngest, most frugal, and most manipulative “courtesan,” Yasumi, charges her co-workers ever-escalating interest).
Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Street of Shame is that Mizoguchi gently, implicitly asks whether the women, excluded from the benefits of the incipient “postwar miracle” economy, are not simply better off where they are. The aging but still romantic Yorie dreams of marrying one of her devoted johns, but when she does, she finds marriage to be more like indentured servitude—at least a prostitute earns her own money. Likewise, the plain, bespectacled Hanae needs to keep her prostitution job to support her baby and unemployed husband, and the spontaneous, Americanized Mickey (Rashomon’s Machiko Kyo in a dazzlingly atypical performance) has escaped a difficult home life and domineering father. As a unifying device, Mizoguchi employs radio news transmissions covering the political debates about their livelihood. At first we feel assured in our stance against a system that allows and profits from the subjugation of women, but as the film continues, with each new broadcast, our reactions change and evolve.
It’s ironic that Mizoguchi’s most evenhanded treatment of the subject of prostitution turned out to be the one that would herald a change in policy. Soon after the release of Street of Shame, which was a box office smash, prostitution was outlawed in Japan (including for geisha, who continue to exist in small numbers, though strictly as entertainers)—just three months before Mizoguchi was to die of leukemia.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.