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August 03, 2011

Chikamatsu Monogatari

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Crucified Lovers
Kenji Mizoguchi - 1954
Eureka! Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD

I've been thinking more about filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge of Japanese films from the "Golden Age", that period that more or less begins with Kurosawa's Roshomon and faded away around the time of Red Beard. Seeing the Naruse films a little over a year ago has certainly been an impetus. My plan is to write about several films currently not available commercially as Region 1 DVDs during the month of August, discussing filmmakers who are considered classic, and those who have only recently been given greater consideration.

I'm not a big fan of Tony Rayns. I think he has taken on the role of cultural policeman, attempting to dictate which filmmakers are worthy of discussion. Nonetheless, his video introduction to Chikamatsu Monogatari is worth watching if just to learn about how Mizoguchi came to make what was essentially a studio assignment. And yes, even though Mizoguchi had a hand in shaping the screenplay, the film was essentially a job to do in between films of more personal interest. This also brings to mind some of what Andrew Sarris would discuss in his The American Film, that Hollywood directors, that the mark of an auteur was sometimes because of, as well as in spite of, the studio system.

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Where Chikamatsu Monogatari fits in with other films by Mizoguchi is that peoples' lives are affected not by what they have done, but by what others assume they have done. The artisan and his master's wife are not lovers until after they run away from the false accusations about their relationship. Previous to that, we see Mohei, the house artisan in a print shop, scrupulously obeying protocol with Osan, the wife of his master. Mizoguchi often explored the theme of class differences, especially during the feudal period. Mohei's one relatively small lie, of using the master's seal to get a loan on behalf of Osan's spendthrift brother, snowballs into a situation that traps all of the principle characters, causing loss for everyone.

A sort of visual metaphor for the lack of control the characters have over their lives is illustrated in a seen with Mohei and Osan in a small boat. Osan has decided to commit suicide by drowning. Just before she takes the fatal leap, Mohei confesses his love for her. Osan declares that she want to continue living, even if it is on the run, with Mohei. The two embrace while the boat seems to drift with the current.

Kazuo Hasegawa was cast as Mohei, in spite of Mizoguchi's objections. I'm not sure why the perpetually baby faced Hasegawa was so popular, but at age 46, he was too old for the part. The casting of Hasegawa is no different from many other films with long in the tooth actors pretending to be much younger. By contrast, Kyoko Kagawa was just 23 when she performed the role of Osan, her second part for Mizoguchi following Sansho the Bailiff, also in 1954. Fans of Obayashi's House and that film's haunting hostess might want to note an early significant appearance by Yoko Minamida, seen here as a household servant in love with Mohei.

Even if Chikamatsu Monogatari is considered one of Mizoguchi's lesser films, there are still some visual moments to be savored. In addition to the drifting boat, there is a scene done as a single long shot, where we see Mohei brought down and tied by his pursuers, while Osan is seen locked into a small palanquin, and carried off away from the camera. Also, there is the shot of Mohei and Osan holding hands while tied together, content that they will be together in death if not in life.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 3, 2011 08:47 AM