“Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women,” the title of Eclipse's new box set, neatly pinpoints the recurring theme that gives the Japanese master's three-decade oeuvre its remarkable consistency. Whether in modern melodramas or historical epics, the Mizoguchian heroine is trapped in a patriarchal order where exploitation has been institutionalized and sacrifice often offers the only release. “Fallen” but not out, however: Mizoguchi's women strive to hang on to their souls even as they are forced to sell their bodies, and to him this struggle is far more awe-inspiring than all of Kurosawa's samurai swordfights. While majestic, late-career period pieces like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff posit a sense of spiritual transcendence to alleviate the characters' plight, the earlier social exposés offer little relief from a society erected on female oppression and its ensuing double standards and loveless relationships. Far from romanticizing the figure of the suffering woman, these are radical works that cry for nothing less than revolution.
Take the final shots of Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, companion pieces from 1936 whose conclusions purposefully break away from the director's gracefully distancing camerawork to fashion confrontational j'accuse close-ups aimed at complacent audiences. In both films, Isuzu Yamada plays a young woman whose burgeoning political conscience hits the ceiling of a culture that defines her in terms of dutiful obedience to father and husband. As a telephone operator in Osaka Elegy, she deals at home with an embezzling father (Seiichi Takegawa) hiding from his company and at work with the advances of her rich, married boss (Benkei Shiganoya). If Mizoguchi is ruthless in his scrutiny of the magnate's manipulations, he's even harsher on the girl's family, who profess disgust at her behavior while accepting the money she sends them. (The decline of Japanese tradition in cravenly capitalistic Osaka is superbly summed up in a scene contrasting the outdated romanticism of a bunraku performance with the money-based affair of the couple watching it.) There's tragedy in Yamada's struggle, but defiant pride too: Taken out of prison only to be bathed in familial scorn, she breaks free from the dwarfing compositions and strides fiercely toward the lenses, away from a screen that can no longer hold her.
Gion is like the jaded “after” to Osaka's naïve “before.” Yamada plays Omocha (Japanese for “plaything”) the younger and more modern of the title's pair of geisha siblings. While the more traditional Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) submissively accepts her role in hopes of finding love, Omocha, who has adapted herself to a system of mutual abuse, is a shrewd gold digger who has waged war on the opposite sex. As in De Palma's Sisters, the sororal title carries suggestions not just of family but of budding feminism, with Omocha's rebellion taking the form of a hardened anger that seems to stare patriarchy in the face and declare, “I can beat you at your game.” Rather than simply commending the character's loathing, however, Mizoguchi places it in relation to the other lines of sexual exploitation, which include her own vicious treatment of a smitten kimono-shop clerk; when injustice is all-pervasive, Mizoguchi seems to say, even rebellious impulses emerge as degraded. Osaka climaxes with defiant motion, Gion closes with raging, impotent stasis; like the stern and tender police officer who “hates the crime, not the individual,” Mizoguchi doesn't so much criticize the characters as the social conventions that force them to their actions.
Women of the Night returns to Osaka for a survey of the human rubble of post-WWII Japan. Released like Rossellini's Germany Year Zero in 1948, it throbs with a comparable feeling of outraged compassion for people wandering the ashes of a devastated nation. The geishahood of the earlier films here has its genteel façade ripped off to reveal the rougher facets of prostitution, as reflected through a trio of women: War widow Fusako (the great Kinuyo Tanaka), her estranged sister Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi) and young sister-in-law Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda). With a job as a dancer at an Americanized cabaret called The Hollywood, Natsuko is the one best adapted to the new times, yet it is family woman Fusako who voices female frustration as she wanders the streets, cursing the betrayal of the men of her life and taking revenge by selling her diseased self. Even more bruising are scenes of the women turning on themselves, as when Kumiko's rape is followed by roughing-up at the hands of a gang of prostitutes. For Mizoguchi, one of life's worst tragedies is the way people who should be helping each other are forced into rivalry in order to survive in the world that oppresses them (think of the merchant's jealous wife viciously slashing Oharu's coiffure in The Life of Oharu).
Women ends with a powerful if bizarre burst of Christian imagery, complete with an emphatic tracking shot into the remains of a Virgin Mary stained-glass window. It's tempting to see the scene's sense of hope as imposed onto the director rather than deeply felt, for eight years later Mizoguchi was back in the red-light district in his 1956 swan song, Street of Shame, and things looked as grim as ever for the courtesans. The film hangs on to the themes of the early works, but its contemplative rhythms are closer to the director's late-period masterpieces. Despite the “shame” implied by the misleadingly titillating English title, Mizoguchi refuses to pass judgment on any of his five protagonists, working girls at Tokyo's Dreamland brothel. Without ever diminishing the character's brutal quandaries, the aged auteur paints a more varied portrait of prostitution than his younger, reformist self would have been capable of. Whoring is to one character preferable to the unpaid servitude of marriage, while to another it is a mask worn as an escape from the restrictions of respectable family life. (As a tough, gum-chewing streetwalker, Machiko Kyô has a breathtaking moment in which, visited by her disdainful father, her protective shield of westernized cynicism is dropped only to be recomposed moments later.) No mellow shrugging for Mizoguchi though: The closing shot of a trembling novice geisha introduced to the streets is as devastating an image as any in the director's oeuvre, and a fitting final cry of protest.
Street of Shame boasts the most well-preserved transfer of the four films, while Women of the Night is absolutely inundated with cracks and lines; Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion both fall somewhere in between. The mono Japanese sound wavers, but is serviceable.
Excellent liner notes, but that's it.
A package of lacerating outrage from one of the greatest of all filmmakers.