The Mizoguchi Collection Review
Please be aware that the main bulk of this review contains minor spoilers.
Artificial Eye were the first label to bring the films of Kenji Mizoguchi to UK DVD (with The Lady of Musashino and The Life of Oharu in 2004), so it seems only fitting that they’re doing the same when it comes to Blu-ray. The Mizoguchi Collection brings together four of the director’s works from the thirties and forties, and these aren’t the most expected of titles either. Pre-war cinema from Japan rarely exists in the best of shape - as the BFI’s ongoing Yasujiro Ozu project has been revealing - yet here are two films from 1936 and one from 1939 (and another from post-war 1946) delivered in wonderful HD. Yes, they each suffer from the signs of age, with as many scratches, tramlines, blotches and so forth as you would expect, but a pleasing hands-off approach from Artificial Eye renders them really quite wonderful. I suspect that most labels would have passed on the Blu-ray option given the relative obscurity of the titles in question (though one is a genuine masterpiece) and their materials’ less than optimal quality. Which only makes their availability as such all the more welcome.
The four films in question are Osaka Elegy (translated onscreen as Naniwa Elegy), Sisters of the Gion, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (the masterpiece among them) and Utamaro and His Five Women. The first two, which both date from 1936, were previously available as part of Criterion’s DVD-only set, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women (alongside Women of the Night and Street of Shame). As far as I can tell, Last Chrysanthemums has never received an English-friendly release on disc, whilst Utamaro had an Italian DVD courtesy of Raro. Furthermore, none has previously been issued in the Blu-ray format. The connection, as addressed in the title of the Criterion set, is a female one. Whilst these films may be cover different eras (the late eighteenth century, the late nineteenth, the early twentieth) each relates that time through the effect it has on its womenfolk. Whether they be headstrong, subservient, independent or self-sacrificing, conventions and tradition have a habit of keeping them down.
Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, both of which have a contemporary setting, are arguably the most affecting from this point of view. In these films the male contingent is a mostly pitiful bunch. They’re an assortment of drunks, failed businessmen, embezzlers and idiots. They’re proud, feckless, unthinking or easily manipulated. Mizoguchi, it would appear, doesn’t think much of these men and sides entirely with the women. In Osaka Elegy we have a young girl who becomes her boss’ mistress so as protect the males in her family. Her father has embezzled his company of 300 yen (though believes he should go unpunished considering he “saved” that company twenty years previous) and is currently sliding into drink. He faces imprisonment if convicted, thus prompting his daughter to cover his debt which will also allow her brother to stay in college. Sisters of the Gion concerns itself with the titular pair of geishas. One dresses in the traditional way and is more conventional in her views and actions. The other is the more modern of the two, though this can only end badly. As with our young girl in Osaka Elegy, she is only seeking a better life by the best means she know how. She recognises the weaknesses in the men that surround her and uses that to her advantage, only ideas of conventional roles stand in her way.
Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion prove so effective for two reasons. Firstly, the men never change. They are as proud and idiotic in the last scene as they were in the first, and yet it is they who win out in the end. Tradition is on their side, as is society, and so these women take the brunt of both their own actions and those around them. In Osaka Elegy it is the young woman who faces the police in connection with embezzlement (future Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura plays the detective). In Sisters of the Gion both women end up rejected by all. And yet the men have learnt nothing. Importantly Mizoguchi relays such tragedies not as sentimental tearjerkers but rather through a fierce anger. The denunciation of the basic concept of the geisha which closes Sisters of the Gion shows us that the film is coming from somewhere other than a need for easy emoting. It cares.
The other reason for these films’ success comes from Mizoguchi’s stylistic approach. The director considered Osaka Elegy his first serious work and it is here where his realist techniques first took effect. Both films highlight their contemporary settings from the off thanks to jazzy compositions over the opening titles (Sisters of the Gion’s even has a slight calypso edge), but this is nothing compared to the dynamic travelling shots and the increasing use of long takes that would define Mizoguchi’s style. It is the former which really strike the viewer, lending a sense of immediacy that a more static approach would perhaps struggle to achieve. Yet both techniques have the same effect: at key moments we are there with these characters and they’re brought to life all the more. The uninterrupted shot in Osaka Elegy, for example, in which father and daughter sit silently on a bus following her police interrogation, hurts all the more because of the unfussy realism.
By the time of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, this style had become practically invisible. Perhaps governed in part by the slight period setting (the film takes place during the last two decades of the nineteenth century) the results are less obviously dynamic but rather feel almost organically incorporated. Long takes are rife as Mizoguchi relates the story of a young actor who has the family connections but without the talent to match. The public knows this, but his father’s name has been sufficient to warrant constant sycophancy since childhood. Only the nursemaid to his parents’ newborn son is honest enough to speak the truth. Her honesty prompts a genuine affection in the young actor, but this also leads to her dismissal. The next two-hours-plus of screen time are devoted to the pair negotiating their love and the boundaries imposed on it by both family and convention. Once again, the motivation is simply that they wish to better themselves - for him as an actor whilst she self-sacrifices, for both of them as a couple - yet notions of what is proper are guaranteed to deny a happy ending.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is a little more unashamed in its sentimentality that the two 1936 pictures. Whilst the much longer running time (Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion each fall just shy of the 70 minute mark) understandably allows the drama to breathe this doesn’t prevent the film from indulging the occasional melodramatic device. Life for a travelling actor effectively learning his craft from scratch (and away from the spotlight of Tokyo) is not an easy one, and it’s arguably worse for the woman that loves him and is willing to give up all as a result. Indeed, even though it is the young man who provides Last Chrysanthemums with its central focus, it is the woman who attracts the greater tragedy. What makes the film Mizoguchi’s first masterpiece is his constant probing as to why this should be. Certainly, it is easy to believe that the motivation behind the various narrative twists and turns was primarily to provoke an instant reaction - i.e., in the manner of a straightforward tearjerker - but this is a far richer experience than that. Our central characters are complex figures, both facing the real world for the first time as they attempt to exert come independence in their lives. Previously they’ve been coddled by privilege or a sense of place, happily fulfilling the roles that society and fortune has placed upon them. (The young actor having been adopted at an early age.) Once they decide to unburden themselves from the constrictions of what is expected - as an upper class male from a famous family, as a lower class woman expected to remain fully subservient - they only discover more as life and those around them are rarely willing to offer them an easy ride. This could amount to something as seemingly minor as the actor now receiving the critical reaction he deserves or struggling to find a warm place to sleep at nights.
You can forgive the occasional lurch into melodrama under such circumstances - the narrative is more than rich enough to survive. Furthermore, we’re never once distracted from that narrative. As said, the Mizoguchi style had become practically invisible by this point. The long takes rarely draw attention to themselves but are there simply to service the drama. (The scene involving the soon-to-be-departing train is the obvious exception, yet here it’s hard not to marvel at Mizoguchi’s ingenuity and audacity.) Of course, the use of lengthy single takes, even if we’re not always aware of them, does demonstrate both the confidence of Mizoguchi and the faith he had in his actors. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is an assured piece of cinema and it’s a superbly acted one too. Unlike Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion the male roles possess a considerably greater depth as ably demonstrated by Shotaro Hanayagi in the lead, whilst Kakuko Mori as the subject of his character’s love is the equal of her counterparts in those earlier films. The pair are also very good at dispelling some of those melodramatic overtones - not once do they play a scene for the easiest of its emotions, but rather strive for something with a little more grit.
In comparison to The Mizoguchi Collection’s thirties features, Utamaro and His Five Women feels like something of a departure. Though I would hesitate before calling it a comedy, it certainly contains comic elements and even a dash of sauciness too. The film is a fictionalised portrait of the eponymous eighteenth century printmaker, though as the other characters in the title indicate, he isn’t the sole focus. This is an episodic work with each of the five women impacting in some way on Utamaro’s life, though it’s structure is more organically arranged than such a description will allow. These women are introduced at various points along the running time and come and go as the narrative sees fit. Some take over the film for a little while but others are happy to stay in the background a little. In other words, we have a denser construct than a simple chaptered approach would allow for or a structure revolving around various standalone vignettes. Moreover, each woman brings with her a certain quality and style. Thus Utamaro and His Five Women can be slightly knockabout if it decides to be or more obviously serious. Once again Mizoguchi’s concern is very much with how these various women are treated by society and the conventions of the time, though this particular work is less pointed than the others on this set. It is neither as fierce nor as sentimental, preferring instead to occupy a middle ground between the two.
The screenwriter to Utamaro and His Five Women was Yoshikata Yoda, who has also contributed to the other films in The Mizoguchi Collection and was later responsible for many of the director’s later key works (Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu among them). As a regular collaborator he knew Mizoguchi well and is said to have based the character of Utamaro, despite being a historical figure, on the director himself. This isn’t so much a film about an artist and the females in his life - the courtesan, the peasant, the artisan, the geisha and the artist’s daughter - but rather the filmmaker and the females in his works. As such it makes a for a fitting means of topping off his first Blu-ray collection and a fine accompaniment to the fallen women of those earlier works. The high definition celebrations shouldn’t begin and end here, however: Masters of Cinema have another quartet of the director’s work lined up for April.
Each of the films in The Mizoguchi Collection is treated to its own extras-free disc encoded for Region B. In the case of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums this disc is dual-layered given the film’s length, whereas the other three features are more than sufficiently cared for by the single-layered variety. As said at the head of this review the quality is such that each of the films suffers from signs of age. There are scratches, blotches, tramlines and so forth, but this is to be expected from Japanese cinema made before and immediately after the war years. Importantly, the transfers do their very best to present the films, for all their damage, as well they can. There has been no tinkering here, just a desire to show these titles as they really are: the results are some wonderful textures and genuine filmlike appearance with all the grain you would expect. Unfortunately Utamaro and His Five Women comes with moments of heavy judder that do distract (especially the patch that begins around the 21 minute mark), though this is the only real flaw. Of course, you have to approach these films knowing that the surviving materials are not in the best shape, but if you’re accepting of that fact (as any cinephile should be) then you’re in for a treat. The soundtracks - LPCM offerings of the original Japanese mono - similarly show their age and the vagaries of time they’ve had to endure, but once again any such flaws are to be expected. The English subtitles in all four cases are optional. Unfortunately no extras despite early reports that the feature-length 1975 documentary Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (by Kaneto Shino of The Naked Island and Onibaba fame) would be included, though I suspect the majority will be more than happy to have four Mizoguchis in high-def.