Great Art, Missing Parts
Liam Wilshire | Portland, OR | 12/11/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"THE SET: I'm finding there is a sort of "as is" quality to Criterion's Eclipse Series. It appears from the running times of these films that Criterion has used the same versions that came out on VHS in 1979. Critic Tadao Sato, who wrote on Mizoguchi's work in 2006, was able to view complete copies of the films. That being the case, I wonder why these films are missing a collective total of 75 minutes?
Here's the damage: 18 mins. missing from OSAKA ELEGY, 26 mins. from SISTERS OF THE GION, and 31 mins. from WOMEN OF THE NIGHT. Of the films collected here, only STREET OF SHAME is offered in its entirety. So, as I look at the films below, I have to view them as I do the Venus de Milo--parts are missing, yes, but the greatness of the art still shows.
OSAKA ELEGY (1936) Isuzu Yamada stars in this and in SISTERS OF THE GION. She had recently come out as a lesbian and was in a great deal of family turmoil. Mizoguchi harnessed that defiance in the two films; had it not seeped in, the films would have been relatively simple stories about the victimization of women. Instead, in OSAKA ELEGY, Yamada (as Ayako) is a skilled passive-aggressor in her own right. The men surrounding her are weak. She manipulates situations to her advantage, but all in the interest in restoring her family's fortunes. Inevitably, she is rejected by the loved ones she has saved from ruin, and is left to an uncertain future. In style, the film is naturalistic, yet full of eloquent tracking shots. If Truffaut was right that every tracking shot is a moral judgment, then there is real shock in the final two shots, which cut from a tracking shot alongside the homeless Ayako to a frontal shot in which she purposefully charges the camera, looking directly into the lens. It is a great cinematic moment, one which launched Mizoguchi as a serious film director. [4 stars]
SISTERS OF THE GION (1936) Locale is hugely important in these early films. Just as scenes of Osaka's bunraku puppet theatre counterbalance the melodrama of OSAKA ELEGY, the environs of Kyoto's medieval Yasaka Shrine are a meaningful setting for SISTERS. It is a feudal world hanging on in modern society, with it's pleasure-giving women the last class of slaves. Omocha (Yamada) is a geisha who has been educated in public school. She has freethinking ideas that don't conform to those of her highly traditional sister, Umekichi. Again, the mean are weak and short-sighted, and from Omocha's perspective, begging to be fleeced. Mizoguchi's reputation as a "feminist filmmaker" is solidified in Omocha's final speech, as she rails against the institution of the geisha. [4.5 stars]
WOMEN OF THE NIGHT (1948) In this post-war film, Mizoguchi shifts his concern from the formal world of the geisha, to the underworld of the panpan girl. Seamlessly blending location work in bombed-out Osaka with studio sets, the director tells three intertwined stories in a way that feels very modern. Mizoguchi's later style is evident from the beginning, where a reverse angle suddenly turns a public market into a private space for intimate conversation. It is the sort of shift that recurs in all the later masterpieces. The three stories document three sisters' different trajectories into and out of prostitution. The men are not uniformly spineless, as in the two earlier films. Two male characters urge the women to a virtuous life, yet it is hard to know whether to take that at face value. They do offer alternatives out of prostitution, and Mizoguchi never shows the panpan girls as mere victims. Clearly, Mizoguchi does not subscribe to the theory of social determinism, and the subject of free will figures into the complexity of this masterpiece. [5 stars]
STREET OF SHAME (1956) In the last film before his death, Mizoguchi uses five protagonists to examine prostitution in the broader context of the servitude of women in society at large. As the radio blares news of a parliamentary debate over anti-prostitution laws, Mizoguchi steps back to show dispassionately the day-to-day workings of a brothel. The movie seems to take human exploitation as a given, and when the five prostitutes try marriage or return to family, their lives actually get worse. After spending a career focusing on this particular societal ill, Mizoguchi seems to suggest that it may be better than the alternatives. Ironic that the anti-prostitution bill passed after the release of STREET OF SHAME, and just before Mizoguchi's death. [5 stars]
It's interesting to watch these films in the order that they were made. OSAKA ELEGY has a single protagonist; SISTERS OF THE GION has two protagonists; WOMEN OF THE NIGHT has three; and, STREET OF SHAME has five. Mizoguchi seems to have been working from a micro perspective of his subject to a macro view, and in the process his subject went from being the stuff of a personal tragedy to that of a societal cancer. Even so, these films are not political tracts. Rather, they are personal films full of vivid female characters we cannot fully pity but who deserve much admiration."
Fallen women were his obsession
blue | NY | 12/04/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This box set consists four excellent films of a great master, Mizoguchi who were obsessed with the stories of suffering women. Sometimes I have to agree with people who call him a sexist because of this, his favorite theme, with which he beautified the images of fallen women in so many of his films. However, I think his sexism was more complex than the simple belief of male superiority. As many Japanese men in those days grew up with witnessing their mothers and sisters sacrificed themslves for their husbands, sons and brothers, also most of Japanese women used to be forced to get married with men whom their parents chose, they usually loved their sons more than their spouses, you can see a strong tendency of oedipus-complex in many Japanese classic films. As a matter of fact, I see the similarities in films from Italy where boys are raised by their strong mothers(or is it just a stereo type?). Two of the films of this set are from pre-war era and considered his turning point works. And especially I loooove "Sisters of Gion" which is the story of two Geisha sisters, the older one is very traditional and the younger one is the very modern thinker, who believes Geisha is the profession to manipulate men, which is a bit unusual as Mizoguchi's heroines. Though I adore this character brilliantly played by young Isuzu Yamada, of course she has to fall as this is Mizoguchi's film, and at the end of the story, she gets hurt terribbly and says "Why does a thing like Geisha have to exist in this world?" And her sentiment reflects in some characters of "Street of Shame" which is Mizoguchi's final film. The young prostitute, who sacrificed herself to raise the bail money for his father, also believes she has to manipulate men. And the middle aged one, who has a sick husband and a baby, says "What kind of civilized country is this? A woman has to sell her body to survive and still cannot feed her family. But I am not gonna die, I will live through this to see what it will lead to" when her husband attempeted a suicide. This movie is also one of my favorites of Mizoguchi's and features the amazing assembly of superb actresses, it's almost a bloody battle, the most notably Aiko Mimasu's unforgettable performance as an old prostitute who goes insane because of being dumped by her own son. Yes, it is true that Mizoguchi beautified or even idealized the misery and struggle of women, but still it cannot be helped to be impressed by these Mizoguchi women's strong instinct of survival, either they express it agressively or passively. I have a mixed feeling about this set, I think pre-war films and post-war films better be gathered separately like Ozu's sets from Criterion, or probably "Sisters of Gion" and "Street of Shame" deserved to be released as an indivisual DVD with extras like commentary. Well, I really hope they keep putting Mizoguchi's great films on DVD along with other great directors' films like Naruse's and Kinoshita's. BTW some pics used on the cover of this box set are not from these four films, even one of them is from Shiro Toyoda's "Geese", I guess the person who was in charge of the artwork does not know much about films."
Japan's master dares to discuss the undiscussable
Ivy Lin | NY NY | 12/13/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Japanese cinema had three giants, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. All three directors were famous for their fanatical perfectionism and instantly recognizable filming styles. But while Kurosawa and Ozu films are internationally renowned and routinely make greatest films of all time lists, Mizoguchi films are still rather unknown. Thankfully, Criterion is addressing this mistake, as it has released Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and now this 4-DVD collection of films: Osaka Elegy (1936), Sisters of the Gion (1936), Women of the Night (1948), and Street of Shame (1956).
Why are Mizoguchi films not as famous as the films of Kurosawa and Ozu? Well, I think part of the reason is that Mizoguchi's films tackle deeply unnerving and uncomfortable themes and emotions. Mizoguchi's sister was sold to a geisha house, and all his life he frequented the "pleasure quarters." Most of his films concern the suffering and sacrifice of women, and there is something almost voyeuristic in his portrayal of misery, cruelty, and despair. Mizoguchi favored long uninterrupted takes with few closeups. At times his camera seems to act as a relentless observer of the dark side of life. The strong social messages in his films also occasionally borders on preachy. His films were renowned for their visual elegance and beauty, but they can be hard to watch.
The 4-DVD set, billed together as "Fallen Women," all concern women who have been forced to sell themselves in order to survive. Of the four films, the best one by far was also Mizoguchi's last film. "Street of Shame" is about the trials and tribulations of a group of prostitutes at a brothel in post-war Tokyo. The film was made at a time when Japan was debating whether to illegalize prostitution, and the prospect of shop closing looms over the film. The brothel's owner, a bland man simply called "Master," rails against the anti-prostitution law. But he is a distant presence in the film. The focus is on the women, who dress in kimonos and and clogs, but there is nothing the least bit elegant about their profession. They throw themselves at potential clients, coldly count their cash and debts, and chainsmoke, as if to escape from their misery. Yet each prostitute has her own distinct personality and story. In the 85 minutes there are moments of painful poignancy. The dumpy, middle-aged Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) works to support her infant son and ill husband. One of the most touching scenes is Hanae leaving work and quietly eating at a noodle shop with her husband and son. Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) longs to see her grown son but at he same time is crippled with fear and shame. Their reunion does not go as planned. The young, pretty Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) is heartless and miserly, charging her fellow prostitutes interest for debts. She counts her cash compulsively, as she hopes to buy her way out of her occupation. Maybe the most memorable character is Mickey (Machiko Kyo), a brass, Americanized prostitute who wears tacky jewelry and hair extensions. When she gets an unexpected visit from her father, the scene is shocking. She drops her carefree act and years of anger and resentment spew from her face as she propositions her father. This film's candid portrayal of prostitution was influential in eventually outlawing prostitution in Japan.
"Osaka Elegy" is the first film of the series and resembles his later films like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff in that the female character is entirely sympathetic. She's a young woman who resorts to having an affair with her boss to save her family's finances. Of the four films I recommend this film as the "starter" film in that it's less sensationalistic, and more quietly heartbreaking.
"Sisters of the Gion" is probably the best-known film in the set. It concerns two sister geishas, one who adheres to the traditional geisha values of discretion, tact, and companionship, and another who views her profession as a cold series of business transactions. Although this film is famous for its "inside look" at one of the most mysterious of professions, I find it somewhat cold and lacking the emotional impact of Mizoguchi's best films.
"Women of the Night" is different from Mizoguchi films in that it eschews his typical visual elegance in favor of a kind of gritty neorealism. It's postwar Japan, and as in many Mizoguchi films women (in this case, sisters) find themselves in a rapid downward spiral. "Women" stars the luminous Kiyuko Tanaka, who was for many years Mizoguchi's muse, as a struggling widow with a sick son. The other sister, Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), is a "modern woman". Both of them get entangled in a relationship with a drug smuggler and descend into prostitution. There is a fairly graphic (for that time) depiction of rape and a gang beating, and frank talk of sex and pregnancy and drug use. It's a relentlessly grim, hard film to watch, but the performances are exceptional.
Although they are packaged together, I'd suggest watching these films a good distance apart instead of watching them all at once. This 4-DVD set shows Mizoguchi's greatness as a director but also, oddly, his inaccessibility. Kurosawa and Ozu's films are filled with profound and memorable moments, but we don't forget for a moment that they are also meant to be entertainment. They have moments of humor and fantasy. Not so with Mizoguchi. He seems determined to make the viewer suffer along with his characters."