Akasen Chitai/Yokihi Review
The latest Eureka two disc set of Kenji Mizoguchi films includes two of the last three films that the director made, and includes one of the only two films that the director shot in colour. Akasen Chitai and Yokihi show the director's continuing interest in the role of women in the changing world around them. Akasen Chitai represents somewhat of a change of style for Mizoguchi and, ironically, was his final film, whilst Yokihi was a rare journey into non-Japanese history which upholds the sumptuous settings of his other works whilst providing an opportunity for the film-maker to experiment visually courtesy of the Eastmancolor process.
Akasen Chitai is a familiar story. Set in a brothel and dealing with the circumstances that brought the workers within to the trade of prostitution, and showing their unhappy lot as disgraced working women. The film takes each of them in turn and reveals the reasons that brought them to sell their bodies, and it illustrates each individual's character as they respond to a fate which seems inescapable. The women have run from family disgrace, personal tragedy, unemployment and poverty, and they have found a job that pays better than the nascent factories of post war Tokyo. Some dream that they will marry out of their profession, or retire with their children, but all have become pitiful because of the unlikely chance of escaping their fate. They work and cajole men for payment to avoid homelessness, suicide, and starvation, and the only one who escapes the profession does it by learning blackmail, usury and extortion.
Historically the film is set in the same period that it was made, with politicians in Japan voting to end licensed prostitution shortly after its release. The spectre of the poverty and ignominy that these women run from will soon be unavoidable when their jobs are criminalised. Their brothel keeper tells them that they are really "social workers" making up for the failures of the government and bemoans the turncoat Diet members who have turned their backs on him after years of visiting his girls. He reminds the women that the end of their trade will make them criminals, leave them with debts and end up by bringing the wolves to their respective doors. The women's clients are hypocritical family men or fools to be corrupted and fleeced, and even the ashamed whores' parents are revealed as philanderers whose lectures on morality hide their own foul sins.
Mizoguchi's film shows that the women dream of something better and share a camaraderie, but that their dreams will eventually come crashing down either through disapproval, criminalisation, or age and bad luck. He is warm to the women and understanding of them, and, consequently, he is highly critical of a world where they must struggle with insanity, violence and poverty at every turn. Mizoguchi sees them at the end of their rope, overshadowed by their downfall, and desperate in their misery. The film ends with a new recruit getting past her nerves to beckon her first client in to the brothel, hoping that she'll make enough money to help out her poor mother and the cycle of shame goes on. As one of a number of films that the director made about prostitutes this is his most unflinching and brutal portrayal that transcends the niceties of his earlier works. He captures a changing time and the modern world encroaching, not necessarily for the better, on the lives of these poor women.
Kyo Machiko plays the very modern Mickey as a puckish rebel in Akasen Chitai, and she turns up as the title character in Yokihi in Mizoguchi's attempt to tell a story of politics and romance in eighth century China. The performance is somewhat more restrained and appropriate to the manners of the period, and the story is one that celebrates her virtue and fidelity in the corrupt court of the emperor where everyone around her is grasping and canniving. Her character's rise from poor cousin to Emperor's consort, and the efforts of those around her to hang on her coat-tails is the meat and drink of the tale, and after this rise comes the fall caused by popular up-rising against her family for their ostentatious ways.
As a tale of the rise and fall of an innocent, the film is an involving entertainment much as any number of historical epics from Hollywood's golden era. Additionally, the use of Eastmancolor and very bright costume and set design gives the impression of glossy melodrama to be soaked up luxuriously. Honestly though this is a slender, rather vain movie with a studio bound story and a very loose sense of Chinese authenticity as the whole cast are Japanese and the acting is very much in that national style of formal restraint and dramatic excess. Yokihi is quality historical soap which excuses character flaws and lacks depth of writing, it's fun and lovely to look at but if you breathe on it too hard it might very well tear.
Machiko is winning as the only honest member of the Yang clan, and Masayuki Mori gets the role of loving emperor - a man who brings his wife's downfall, allows the unfair taxing on his people and follows stupid rules which are deadly for others. He doesn't see rebellions coming and loses power because of this, he prefers to play music rather than run his country. The usual steady Mizoguchi cast of supporting actors provide the nefarious Yangs and conspirators, Fumio Hayasaki brings a score that is playful and regal and Mizoguchi also uses the wonderful Yasuzo Masumura(Blind Beast) as his AD.
Yokihi is a very sympathetic movie which again praises the values of women as seen by the director, namely their sacrifices and their fidelity. It lacks the seriousness in approach that makes the melodrama work in films like Sansho Dayu, and it goes for a populist and colourful approach which will charm your eyes but not compliment your intelligence
The extras on these discs include Tony Rayns introductions for both films and a commentary for Akasen Chitai. In his introduction for Yokihi, we finally get to see Rayns in colour after all his previous monochrome introductions on the MOC set, and he explains how the film started life as a Hong Kong project from the then Shaw and Sons. Rayns goes on to explain that the finished film was never released in Hong Kong and in fact the project was re-made by Li Han Hsiang as one of the first Shaw Brothers' films. Rayns' commentary for Akasen Chitai rarely stops for breath as he explains Mizoguchi's relationships with prostitutes and the political background to the film. Rayns explains why the Mizoguchi of the long takes had changed his technique and his desire for status which drove him in his competition to be more successful than Kurosawa. The teaser included on the Yokihi disc includes reference to Tales of the Taira Clan whilst trumpeting Daiei's reputation for colour films and not showing a single shot from either film! The two discs comes with a booklet which was not available for review, for details check the news item in the related content panel at the side of this review.
Yet more wonderful work from a great film-maker. Yokihi is a bit trashy if enjoyable, and Akasen Chitai is possibly the master's final masterpiece.