Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939, Kenji Mizoguchi)

I got this confused with Naruse’s later film entitled Late Chrysanthemums, so I watched his When a Woman Ascends the Stairs to get an idea of Naruse’s style and point of view before watching his Chrysanthemum movie. Unfortunately, I learned that I enjoy Naruse’s movies more than Mizoguchi’s. Still, it’s the earliest Mizoguchi movie I’ve seen by over a decade, and I figured perhaps he hadn’t fully developed his theme of depressed women, fucked over by life, dying sad and alone. The premise had promise, but sure enough, halfway through, the main couple is coughing, crying, broke in the rain. The man recovers, becomes famous, but there’s no saving the woman.

Kikunosuke (Kiku) is the rich, spoiled son of a master actor, who keeps fucking up on stage. Not knowing a bloody thing about Japanese theater, I can’t tell the difference between a good and bad performance (any more than I could figure why The Puppetmaster was considered a master) so I took the movie’s word for it. He falls for Otoku the maid because she’s the first person to tell him outright that his performances are bad.

Kiku leaves town for a year, then comes back for Otoku and she faithfully follows him to a travelling troupe where he gradually improves. Poverty kinda turns him into an asshole, but he’s still devoted to his woman – to a point. When his family takes him back to the respectful theater in Tokyo, they’re easily able to separate the two, and he only returns in time to see her die.

The high-def picture was pretty beat-up looking. Kiku is often tiny in the frame, facing away from the camera, but I can still recognize his Sherlock Holmes hat. Also, at one point there was a monkey.

The Guardian on Mizoguchi:

He was nicknamed “the Demon”, and it was often said that he only made films in order to have enough money to entertain geishas. He was fascinated all his life by demimondaines [“a class of women on the fringes of respectable society supported by wealthy lovers” aka prostitutes], and some critics have suggested there was something suspect about his compassion for the often tragic fate of such women. However, in Late Chrysanthemums he remorselessly shows the selfishness of the actor and the innate snobbery of the kabuki world.

Sansho The Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi)

More miserable, miserable misery from the ol’ misery-monger Mizoguchi. I never like his movies, then I keep hearing they’re masterpieces so I watch another. This one and Ugetsu are universally acclaimed, and while I liked ‘em better than Street of Shame and Life of Oharu, I can’t say I really liked ‘em. So, laying off the Mizoguchi for a while after this.

Isn’t life torture? Sister Ky├┤ko Kagawa was big-time, starring in movies for Akira Kurosawa and Mikio Naruse. Her mom played the wife in Equinox Flower.
image

Near Fukuoka in south of Japan in the 1100’s, this government guy who we never see is unpopular with the higher-ups because he actually wants to help people, so he’s banished to the other side of the country. His wife Tamaki packs up the kids (Zushio and his little sister Anju) to follow, and together they set off on a wonderful adventure! No just kidding, after the kids are kidnapped and sold into slavery, the wife becomes a prostitute, eventually goes blind and never sees her husband or daughter again.

Tha Bailiff:
image

Mostly focuses on the son Zushio. As a boy he learns his dad’s humanistic ways, but in the slave camp he gives in to authority, becoming a tormentor of his fellow slaves under the rule of Spiky-bearded badman Sansho. Finally he repents, takes a chance to escape (stays with ex-slave Taro, now a priest, who used to be in Zushio’s position), promising he’d be back for his sister. Z goes to Kyoto to appeal to the law, finds sympathy among men who knew his father, and they make Z a governor. He goes down and challenges Sanso’s authority, ordering all slaves freed. When Z says, “My mother and sister will be delighted. Now I can make a happy life for them,” those of us who’ve seen other Mizoguchi movies know what’s coming… he discovers his sister has drowned herself rather than face torture by the guards asking where her brother had gone (as if he’d even told her). Meanwhile mom has been living blind by the sea for years, her song “Isn’t Life Torture” about her kidnapped children spreading throughout the land, so now, having been fired from his post for trying to be nice to people, he manages to track her down and they hug each other and cry.

Zushio and the mad monk:
image

Sistercide:
image

Movie jumps back and forth in time, pretty unusual. The music, hailed on the DVD commentary for being authentic, is either tuneless twanging on a single guitar string or tuneless piercing flute.

Street of Shame (1956, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Portrait of a whorehouse at a certain point in time when politicians were discussing whether to outlaw the profession (voted the ban down at the end of the movie, but it eventually passed, some say as a result of the movie). Six or seven prostitutes all with different desperate situations. One has a suicidally depressing home life with sick husband and infant they can’t afford, one is trying to support her son who disowns her when he finds out what she does at work, one is a rich bitch escaping her controlling father, one is aiming to escape through marriage but her husband mistreats her and she comes crawling back, and one is bilking her clients out of extra money so she can quit and start her own business (the only happy ending here).

The same sort of feminine miserablism that I’ve come to expect from Mizoguchi after Life Of Oharu. This one has a more impressive look to it (the main house and the street outside, the costumes, the acting, all exquisite) but still a depressing movie that I didn’t enjoy very much. I may have liked it better than Ugetsu though… have to see that one again, and check out Sansho The Bailiff sometime.

A turning-point year for Japanese cinema: Mizoguchi’s final film, the beginning of the Japanese New Wave, and (according to Reverse Shot) the beginning of “more socially critical efforts” by Yasujiro Ozu. It’s also the year of The Burmese Harp, but I haven’t seen that yet.

Saw this one with Pia from work.

The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)

IMDB says: “A fifty-year-old prostitute, no longer able to attract men, looks back on her sad life. Once a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court at Kyoto, Oharu fell in love with, and became the lover of, a man below her station. They were discovered, and Oharu and her family were exiled. For Oharu there followed a life filled with one sorrow and humiliation after another.”

That’s about right. Her dad is pretty crappy to her, and the whole “marry for love whatever the cost” message is lost pretty quickly when everyone’s social position ends up determining the rest of their shameful lives as usual. Didn’t see the big deal of this being one of the greatest movies ever made, actually got shamefully restless in my seat and hoped it would end soon. I guess Japanese period dramas were just not made for me. It’s a big deal that Toshiro Mifune is in this, but I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t recognize him and don’t know who he played (“Katsunosuke”).