Eclipse's new Fallen Women DVD set chronicles a lesser-known, but certainly not lesser, Mizoguchi.
By Rowena Aquino
The upcoming Eclipse box set of four Mizoguchi films focuses on the subject and object of his filmic desire: women, their lives, their subjectivities, their ups and downs. Geishas, prostitutes, the struggle of women to rise above poverty and/or the web of incompetent or imposing male figures (fathers, employers, brothers, would-be sweethearts, take your pick) that surround them abound. Arguably, Mizoguchi's entire work could have been put in this box set. But we have to content ourselves with four titles, two pre-war and two postwar. For some Japanese film history scholars, the 1930s mark the first "golden age" of Japanese cinema, while the 1950s mark the second. The box set proves that Mizoguchi represents the best of both worlds: his diptych Osaka Elegy (1936) and Sisters of the Gion (1936), as well as the later Women of the Night (1948) and Street of Shame (1956).
These stories of "fallen women" may not be the best known among Mizoguchi's films, partly because they have been the least seen or because prior VHS/DVD releases had been of such poor quality. Granted, for Eclipse digital transfers Criterion uses pre-existing transfers from the licensor, and usually does not have much input in terms of restoration. I'm sure that the source material for all four titles was of dubious quality to begin with, especially Women of the Night. The first ten minutes of the film is quite grainy, as if mirroring the tenuous and murky quality of life in immediate postwar Japan. For all four films, there is nevertheless a degree of improvement in contrast and clarity of image overall compared with previous releases.
Postwar rubble (left); Tanaka Kinuyo, foreground (right)
But don't let the less-than-stellar digital transfers fool you into passing off this series of Mizoguchi films. These films may not be as well known as, say, Ugetsu monogatari (1953), but believe me when I say that the two pre-war titles are close to outstanding. The postwar films, for their part, present equally compelling portraits of lower-class -- or classless, if you like -- women trying to eke out an existence against various socio-economic constraints. The heart-rending ending of Sisters of the Gion, when Omocha (Yamada Isuzu) asks "Why do there even have to be such things as geisha?" encapsulates the kind of trapped despair that clings to all the characters in the films.
No doubt Mizoguchi is most known for his period films. With this in mind, the collection is significant because it represents the films he made that take place in the present. Both Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy were critical triumphs for Mizoguchi at the time of their release, and really established him as capable of taking on present-day concerns with a distinct affective realism. The former concerns two sisters who are geisha, but who are separated by different values when it comes to relationships with men. The younger geisha's intrigues lead to a violent ending that strongly puts into perspective the imposed limitations on and conceptions of a woman's body and socio-economic position. The latter operates similarly: Ayoko eventually finds herself in a cornered position between her employer, father, and other male figures, even as she tries to maintain her job as a switchboard operator. Yamada Isuzu plays the young lead in both films, and is a key to the films' force in examining women in a particular moment of Japan's continuing rapid industrialisation.
These two pre-war films also represent a pivotal moment in Mizoguchi's own continuing development as a filmmaker. It's said that from 1936 on, he stopped using close-ups. The nearest to a close-up you'll get may be the above image of Omocha at the end of Sisters of the Gion. As Mizoguchi himself said at one point, "I hate close-ups." Part and parcel of this distaste is Mizoguchi's trademark: the "one-scene, one-shot" method. His preference for the long take moving camera to shoot scenes certainly deserves mention, but scholars and other film critics have already done so -- much better than I can here. It goes without saying that the sequence is the basic unit of his films. But within the sequence are a host of details that make Mizoguchi's long takes as dynamic as they are; take a look below at the composition that's part of a sequence in Street of Shame. It recalls and speaks to Antonioni's well-known shot composition where characters don't look at one another, even as they speak to each other.
Prostitutes surround their boss in Street of Shame (1956)(left); L'avventura (1960) (right)
Oshima Nagisa's comment that Mizoguchi "thinks through his camera" is revealing. It's a different kind of thinking, as it does away with close-ups and shot/reverse-shots in favour of depth-of-field, long takes, and lots of crane and tracking shots. A different kind of space emerges. Detached, yet moving in a subtle, almost snake-like manner, Mizoguchi persistently follows his frequently ill-fated characters. The camera's constant movement, in fact, is an ironic counterpoint to the constricted worlds of his characters.
Such is the case of sisters Fusako (Tanaka Kinuyo) and Kumiko (Urabe Kumeko) who fall into prostitution in Women of the Night. Like the two pre-war films, Women of the Night captures a particular historical moment. In this case, it's postwar Japan, and the proliferation of panpan -- namely, Japanese prostitutes who catered almost exclusively to the Allied Occupation forces. Tanaka as a tough-as-nails prostitute is a revelation and is surely a far cry from the mother roles she's known for.
Women of the Night and Street of Shame (Mizoguchi's last film) actually form a diptych of their own to complement the pre-war titles, as the latter presents yet another historical moment. While Women of the Night captures the period in which the Home Ministry declared (in 1946) that women had the right to become prostitutes, Street of Shame presents the lives of a group of prostitutes, and in the background, the potential effects of an antiprostitution law in the making. As the image above implies, Street of Shame is a true ensemble piece. The same can safely be said of this collection.
Criterion's Eclipse set Kenji Mizoguchi: Fallen Women comes out on October 20.