Monday, June 09, 2014

Kenji Mizoguchi at the Harvard Film Archive: Ugetsu, Song of Home, Sansho the Bailiff, The Water Magician

I haven't used my Harvard Film Archive membership nearly as much as I probably should have since getting it for the Hitchcock series last summer; even when my intention is to sort of binge on a series, I often find it difficult to go all-in even when an interesting series catches my eye; there's so much to do from Friday to Monday, just film-wise, and sometimes even an area you'd like to learn more about can be too heavy for five films in a weekend.

A little bit of all of that has been happening with me and the Mizoguchi series. It drew my eye for a number of reasons - there were silents; there were titles I'd heard of but never seen (Sansho the Bailiff, primarily); and while I say that seeing the classics and art-house material a culture produces can isolate you from what a culture really enjoys, seeing just the genre material can cause you to miss out too. But it's been a tough nut to crack at times; the last few weekends have been busy, and there are a lot of prostitutes getting a rough break. And sometimes, it's just bad decisions; I wound up catching a pretty terrible movie tonight when I could have seen a classic with Toshiro Mifune if I'd had the HFA schedule in mind.

This weekend's going to be a real shame in that regard - I'd really like to see The 47 Ronin, but doubt I can make it work. But, I do encourage folks to come out to the rest of this series; Mizoguchi broke through to international audiences at about the same time as Ozu and Kurosawa, but because he started earlier and died relatively young, his reputation wasn't sustained and built the same way. He's got an intriguing life story, though, and some of the other things learned during this series, like how Takako Irie seems to have been Japan's Mary Pickford, or how Nikkatsu Studios had an incarnation producing educational films well before the "Nikkatsu Action!", "Roman-Porno", and current "Sushi Typhoon" phases, has also been well worth it.

And, hey, maybe I'll get to some more and have a second batch to write up in a couple of weeks.

Ugetsu Monogatari (Ugetsu)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 May 2014 in the Harvard Film Archive (Kenji Mizoguchi, 35mm)

We don't seem to get many cinematic fables these days; audience's often like to think they're more sophisticated than their earnest moral messages and fantastic elements will often lead to a movie being dismissed as unrealistic in a different way. That hasn't always been the case, though, especially in Japan, which perhaps offers a bit of an explanation as to why Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu monogatari (often just "Ugetsu" when shown in the west) became and remains one of his most beloved features.

The story starts at a village in Omi during the latter half of the Sixteenth Century, a time and place of civil war. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a talented craftsman while his neighbor and friend Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) drama of being a samurai. Though their wives Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) worry about the dangers of doing business during a war, Genjuro's success leads to him baking more pottery - at great risk - and bringing the group to sell it in a nearby city. Temptations abound, though; Tobei will see an opportunity to fulfill his ambitions while Genjuro and his work attract the attention of the mysterious Lady Wakasa (Michiko Kyo).

Maybe another reason that fables have fallen out of favor in many cases is that they often have morals like "listen to your wife when she says to temper your ambition", which can play as more of an affirmation of the status quo than is generally appreciated in a society that places more emphasis on individual accomplishment and upward mobility. Mizoguchi and the writers stack the deck in the right ways, at least; Tobei never seems to have the commitment a great warrior would need while there are certainly some practical reasons why now might not be the best time for Genjuro to seize opportunities. There's seldom much doubt that they are heading toward falls, but it's not in the face of reasonable expectations.

Full review at EFC

Furusato no uta (The Song of Home)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 May 2014 in the Harvard Film Archive (Kenji Mizoguchi, 35mm)

The Song of Home is the oldest surviving film by director Kenji Mizoguchi, and like a lot of great artists, I suspect Mizoguchi took what work he could get at the start of his career and did what he could to make these assignments his own. At least, I hope that's what happened, because otherwise this is a really strange thing for Japan's Ministry of Education to produce in the mid-1920s.

It opens with a number of kids arriving back at their village from Tokyo for their summer break. Junichi (Kerntaro Kawamata) and Misako Okamoto are siblings and seem like nice folks; Taro Maesaka (Michiko Tachibana) is a little more status-conscious. They are picked up at the station by Naotaro Takeda (Shigeru Kido), who has been the smartest kid at their junior high but could not afford tuition at a city school and works as a coachman to support his poor family. Things may change when he saves the life of a visiting American scholars son, though.

This film was commissioned by the Ministry of Education and produced by a division of Nikkatsu Studios that specialized in educational films, and you would think that would result in a hard sell for continuing one's schooling, or perhaps some sort of description on how even those in difficult circumstances can attend school on some sort of scholarship, but that's not the case. Instead, it plays much more to the title, with subplots about how time away from one's home in the city can make a person disconnected from regular life and how it is apparently nobler to be a good farmer than accept aid to study, no matter how talented you may be.

Full review at EFC

Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 May 2014 in the Harvard Film Archive (Kenji Mizoguchi, 35mm)

It's okay if you initially think someone else in this film is the title character; a bailiff who casts a long shadow over the rest of the film is introduced in the first act and not named in the subtitles until much later (at least, that was the case on the print I saw). I wonder if he was more central to the original legend, but whether that's the case or not, the movie that bears his name is a classic epic of morality.

The bailiff we meet at the start is Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu), a fair-minded man who believes in mercy above all, which is what leads to his reassignment to a backwater, as he is less than enthusiastic about collecting taxes the peasantry can't pay. Initially, his wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their children Zushio and Anju are sent to live with her relatives, but six years later he sends for them, only for them to be captured by slavers, and the children separated from their mother. The children are sold to the cruel Sansho (Eitaro Shindo) and given new name by his kind son. Ten years later, 23-year-old "Mutsu" (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) seems to have forgotten his father's teachings of mercy, though his 18-year-old sister "Shinobu" (Kyoko Kagawa) still has it in her to be kind.

There are a fair number of side characters kicking around, from a faithful servant to fellow slaves to others not even introduced until after Zushio starts to learn what happened to his family. One or two characters even have further name changes in store, as this is the sort of grand tale that may not necessarily punctuate each act with a grand battle, but certainly has a knack for showing when something significant had happened. And while sometimes director Kenji Mizoguchi and writers Yoshikata Yoda and Fuji Yahiro may sometimes seem to be overindulging in melodrama at some points, especially by western standards - a situation that doesn't seem nearly desperate enough for suicide to a twenty-first century American may play differently in Japan, especially looking back at Feisal times - they do manage to make moments that could seem like dull procedure dramatic and emotional.

Full review at EFC

Taki no Shiraito (The Water Magician aka White Threads of the Waterfall)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2014 in the Harvard Film Archive (Kenji Mizoguchi, 16mm)

The silent era lasted a little longer in Japan than the rest of the world, which is why this star vehicle for Takako Irie lacks a soundtrack despite being released in 1933. The talkies were starting to take hold by that point despite the benshi guilds' best efforts, and I half-wonder if that serves as a sort of subtext for this movie's second half. If so... Well, I certainly hope that the silent film narrators didn't have to go through half of what the traveling performers in this movie faced!

Irie plays one of the most successful, "Taki no Shiraito", as renowned for her great beauty as for the feats she performs on stage as a "water magician". She has a reputation for being aloof where men are concerned, although it may just be that she had yet to meet Murakoshi "Kinsan" Kinaya (Tokihiko Okada), a penniless coachman with law books in his pocket. Taki decides to support her new love, and this goes well for a couple of years, but the waning popularity of the carnival brings out the drama among the other traveling performers. Particularly the knife throwers - the star of the act is in hock to loan shark Iwabuchi Gozo (Ichiro Sugai), his wife Ogin (Kumeko Urabe) is a drunk, and comely assistant Nadeshiko (Suzuko Taki) is in love with Taki's barker Shinzo (Bontaro Mikae). It's only a matter of time until this leads to a situation where the police are involved.

And how! What starts out as a sweet and initially kind of funny love story - Taki and Kinsan actually have a delightful little meet-cute - with the potential to take a class-based dramatic turn winds up going a lot further into somewhat nutty territory. One actually kind of has to admire the way that the writers and directors tell a story that works both as a short of romantic melodrama and pulp fiction, although perhaps escapist entertainment wasn't quite so segregated by age and gender in early-20th-century Japan as it is now. There are some fairly unlikely twists to the plot and some important bite that seem far harsher than reasonable from eighty years and an ocean away but if you like your tears jerked with gusto, that's not necessarily a complaint.

Full review at EFC

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