Love of Sumako the Actress (1947)

22 02 2008

Kenji Mizoguchi, once again, shows his ability to create compelling characters and photographing them with a supreme level of visual beauty. It sounds simple, but his balance of character relations and technical innovation is something that only a select few of directors can accomplish. If it wasn’t obvious enough, I’m becoming a bigger fan of his with each new viewing experience. As good as something like Ugetsu is (and it is good) I feel that some may get the wrong impression of the rest of Mizoguchi’s work. It’s film like this that show that he can tragic with some reservations and observations, as well as static compositions that will make Tsai Ming-Liang envious! (Corny, I know…)

Shimamura risks his career and decides to bring Western theater to Japan. The risk pays off, though, but a large part is due to the leading actress, Sumako Matsui. Eventually, they fall in love, but such a marriage is unacceptable in society. Shimamura gives up everything in his life, including his family to begin a new life with Sumako and to hopefully revolutionize the Japanese theater scene his Art Theater company.

This is one of Kinuyo Tanaka’s first collaborations with Mizoguchi and in case, both are on top of their game. Tanaka, who eventually became characterized as a motherly cinematic figure, is fairly young here. It’s quite interesting to see her as the modern, outspoken young women as opposed to the wise, battered matriarch she became in many films later on. No question, though, she’s really fantastic here playing some “live” stage performances, predating Gena Rowlands’ similar (but far less bleak) role in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night.

The cinematography, as always with Mizoguchi, is fantastic. It’s funny, I consider his earlier style to be a bit “rougher” but it’s ultimately much more contemplative. This could be a result of mishandled prints and the inherent dating that goes with film stock, but in a film like this and Sisters of the Gion, he seems to be making decisions as he goes. Some scenes will feature ridiculously long static shots, while another will be a fast tracking shot. It creates a very jarring, but in my opinion, effective aesthetic. It’s sort of “rough” minimalism, while Mizoguchi’s films from the 50s couldn’t possibly be smoother. In any case, I like both approaches. Since the condition of Sisters of the Gion is so poor, it was neat to see what that film probably looks like in a print where you can actually see people’s faces.

While not without it’s tragic moments (would it be a Mizoguchi film without them?) this still comes off as observant and true-to-life as any film exploring the subject. It doesn’t hurt for Mizoguchi to have his trademark technical virtuosity written all over the film, but the great performances are what boost this up into his top-tier of films. Not a “perfect” film per se, but definitely essential for those interested in Mizoguchi.

In a Ring of Mountains (1962)

22 02 2008

This is a much more gentle and deliberately paced film than one may expect from something featuring Raizo Ichikawa. Nakayama Shichiri, despite its fair share of sensationalist moments, belongs with more mature work like Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji. Unfortunately, director Kazuo Ikehiro faded into nothing, building his career around many inconsequential Zaitochi films. This early effort showcases his personal vision which seems to never build up to its highest possibility.

Lumber worker Masakichi meets and falls in love with Oshima, and they quickly make plans to marry. The plans fall through, though when Oshima is raped and later commits suicide. Masakichi avenges her rape and then flees town and becomes a prominent figure in the gambling scene. He befriends a man named Toku. Toku is very unlucky when it comes to gambling but he must continue to do so in order to meet the family’s standards. Masakichi is introduced to Toku’s wife, Onaka, who looks exactly like Oshima. Masakichi, still heartbroken from the loss of a lover, feels obligated to protect Onaka and Toku as they flee from law. Gradually, Onaka falls for Masakichi, which causes a drift in the three’s runaway plan.

Built upon a plethora of melodramatic turns, Ikehiro’s films never feels the slightest bit unnatural. The wonderful performance certainly help downplay a lot of overly-dramatic sequences, but I think it’s Ikehiro’s economic cinematography (done by Senkichiro Takeda) that plays the biggest role in delivering a very natural, almost Narusian vibe. Certainly, there are limitations that any ninkyo eiga film will contain, but all things considered, there’s very little to improve on.

As mentioned before, signs of a more reserved style are prominent for the film’s first half. At times, it recalls anything and everything The Sun’s Burial to Yamanaka’s Tange Sazen. Little has been written about Ikehiro, but I’d jump to the conclusion that he had a fair knowledge of Japanese cinema during that time period. Towards the end, our characters take a detour through Mizoguchi style poetics. Visually, one is reminded of Sansho the Bailiff while narratively, there is somewhat of a connection with Chikamatsu Monogatari. It seems lazy on my part to simply compare every tangible aspect of the film to the work of other directors, but the influence seems overwhelmingly apparent to me. This is not a criticism of Ikehiro in the least. He has taken what he’s learned from the best and streamlined it into his own personal aesthetic. The result is one of the very best films of it’s kind.