The Japanese Masters Collection Review
The major works of the important directors of Japanese cinema in the key period of the post-war period of the late 1940s and 1950s have thus far been poorly represented on DVD in the UK, with only Akira Kurosawa’s films being given adequate treatment by the BFI. Tartan’s presentation of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, so far in three boxsets, have been patchy, slow to appear and of generally poor quality. Apart from the films included here in Artificial Eye’s Masters of Japanese Cinema collection, the major works of Kenji Mizoguchi have been ignored and, where it not for a forthcoming collection from Masters Of Cinema, Mikio Naruse would also be all but forgotten.
These omissions are all the more incomprehensible when one considers the richness and importance of Japanese post-war cinema, which would undergo a change as dramatic and socially-aware as Italian neorealism, although it is one that is much less easily grouped as a movement. While most of the above-named directors had been working in cinema for a considerable time - all of them being involved in silent cinema (Miyoguchi alone making almost 90 silent films) – it was in the post-war years that they would consolidate their particular worldview in relation to the seismic changes that were taking place in Japanese society.
In this climate Kenji Mizoguchi’s films take on a tremendously modern outlook on political and social issues, particularly in regards to the sufferance of women. In a deep vein that would run through much of the director’s later work in films like The Love of the Actress Sumako (1947), The Life Of Oharu (1952) (included in this set), and his final film Street Of Shame (1956), Mizoguchi would examine the conflict between the idealised image that Japanese society would hold of women and the reality of their mistreatment and exploitation. Occasionally, as in The Lady Of Musashino, the social themes can threaten to overwhelm the film, but Mizoguchi’s mastery and storytelling ability, to say little of lead-actress Kinuyo Tanaka’s tremendously affecting performances, more often allows these themes to arise more naturally out of the family backgrounds of his characters and their adherence to traditional values and respect for authority.
The social changes that were brought about in Japanese society after the war and under the growing influence of Western values also had a profound effect on the films of Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu’s interest however, is firmly on the impact these changes have on the family unit. The degree of social content in Ozu’s film is variable - Record Of A Tenement Gentleman and Tokyo Twilight perhaps the films where the effects of the war and the impact of encroaching Western values are most explicitly referenced – but they more often form the backdrop for the generational conflicts and differences in moral outlooks that will exist in any family regardless of the period. What is more important is the skill and nuance with which Ozu depicts everyday events in the lives of ordinary people, reacting to the world around them, the expectations placed on them and their need to follow their own path in the world. These values are clearly evident in the two beautiful late-period colour Ozu films included in this set.
The Lady Of Musashino (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1951)
Mizoguchi’s 1951 The Lady Of Musashino most directly addresses the issue of the changes in Japanese society brought about by the end of the war, anticipating the ending of traditional ways and an acceptance of Western influence. Set against this backdrop then, the film examines the individual response to the shifting attitudes towards moral behaviour, particularly from a female viewpoint. It all sounds very serious, yet the film nonetheless masterfully draws out these themes and issues through an intriguing family drama.
Click here to read here to the full review of - The Lady Of Musashino.
The Life Of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)
Inspired by the director’s experience of his own sister being sold off to work as a geisha, Mizoguchi’s social critique, particularly in the area of women’s rights, comes to fruition in his 1952 masterpiece The Life Of Oharu. Set 300 years in the past and following the fall in fortunes of a former Imperial Courtesan, Mizoguchi tells a simple and heartfelt story devoid of any preaching or melodrama, that nonetheless clearly has resonance with the condition of modern women and attitudes towards them. No less impressive here is the performance of the director’s leading actress Kinuyo Tanaka.
Click here to read here to the full review of - The Life Of Oharu.
Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)
A remake of Ozu’s 1934 silent movie, The Story of Floating Weeds, Ozu’s late period film is a glorious display of colour both in visual and in storytelling terms. The story of a group of itinerant actors, Floating Weeds is as delicately balanced and acutely observed as any of Ozu’s films, encompassing many of the director’s familiar themes about family, marriage and generational conflict. A work of deceptive simplicity, all of the brilliance of Ozu’s vision is captured in a story told with humour and intelligence.
Click here to read here to the full review of - Floating Weeds.
The End Of Summer (Yasujiro Ozu, 1961)
Filmed just two years before Ozu’s untimely death, there is an even greater significance in the melancholic subject matter that the title of Ozu’s second to last film suggests. In The End Of Summer Ozu seems to summarise themes from many of his greatest films - Late Spring, Tokyo Story - regarding the conflict between maintaining family bonds and the need for new generations to move on and find their own way in a changing post-war world. For all its abundance of colour, the tone of the film is as sombre as that of Tokyo Twilight, and Ozu’s treatment of the themes is typically incisive and poignant.
Click here to read here to the full review of - The End Of Summer.
The Japanese Masters Collection boxset collecting these four films is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The films are each presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and encoded for Region 2. The content and the quality of the discs is identical to previously released DVD editions, but they are repackaged here with new covers in slimline cases and held within a slipcase.
Although undoubtedly restored and cleaned-up for release on DVD, the prints used for the transfer of these quite old Japanese films still have a few problems. The Mizoguchi films are shot in black and white, and while they retain clarity and reasonable depth of tone, there is a certain softness and murkiness to the overall appearance, but nothing that in any way detracts greatly from the films. Ozu’s films are shot in glorious Agfacolour and look simply dazzling through Ozu’s beautiful compositions. Floating Weeds in particular shows remarkable definition of tones, but disappointingly appears to have some vertical compression of the image. The End Of Summer has some problems with faded tones and dustspots, but again there is little to take away from the splendour of the cinematography. Further details and screenshots can be found in the full reviews of the individual DVDs linked above.
Each of the films comes with the original mono soundtrack presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and they are all perfectly adequate for the limited demands of the films. The Ozu films each have problems with crackles and pops, but the Mizoguchi films are relatively clear with little background noise. There appears however to be some minor lip-syncing issues with The Lady Of Musashino. See individual reviews for further details.
Apart from The Life Of Oharu, each of the films has optional English subtitles. In all cases however, the fonts are white, clear and readable.
A filmography of the director is the only extra features on each of the discs. The lack of any other essays, documentaries or features on these important releases is almost unforgivable.
The titles included in the Japanese Masters Collection only scratch the surface of a wealth of marvellous cinema produced in Japan in the post-war decades, but as these have so far been largely unrepresented and poorly presented on DVD, their collection here by Artificial Eye is certainly welcome and must be highly recommended. The DVDs could certainly benefit from better presentation and a greater selection of extra features, but the quality of the films themselves is clearly evident.