The Water Magician (1933)

16 08 2008

So as it turns out, Kenji Mizoguchi had already perfected his tragic cinematic vision quite early in his career. Here we already see motifs and themes that would dominate some of his best and worst work. Of course, the general tone is melodrama, as it is in almost all of Mizoguchi’s films, but the key component in assessing all of Mizoguchi’s films lie in how he handles such melodrama and here he does so beautifully. The bruised and beaten state of the film’s source print perfectly compliments its unorthodox sensibility. At times, one gets the feeling that this film is actually intended to be some sort of “highlight reel” for what was initially a production with a much wider in scope.

Taki no Shiraito is a strong-willed and independent young women who makes a living as a water magician, that is, she puts on a water “juggling” act with a traveling carnival troupe. One day, she encounters a young rickshaw-driver named Kinya, who turns out to be her masculine equivalent. When she gets Kinya fired from his job, she feels obligated to provide alternative options for his future. She lends him money to pay off for school finances in Tokyo and Kinya begins working hard, determined to make the most of such an opportunity.

From there, the narrative shifts its focus from the young lovers to Taki and the rest of the traveling carnival troupe, depicting the several roadblocks they hit during a long winter. It is through these events that leads the film to its final punch-in-the-gut with an ironic and sad twist. In other hands, such shrill content would seem melodramatic, but in Mizoguchi’s care, the absurd situation contributes to the feeling of complete heartbreak shared between the two protagonists.

What separates this from Mizoguchi’s later tragedies, like Chikamatsu Monogatari, is how quickly so much time is covered. With the addition of the benshi narration taken into account, the film does play out a bit like some sort of highlight reel for a longer, more conventionally paced movie. Perhaps this imply a negative reaction on my part, but I have to admit that the abandonment of usual dramatic film pacing was more than welcomed and certainly enjoyable to watch unfold. It’s not one of Mizoguchi’s greatest cinematic achievements, like say Life of Oharu, but it was one of his few films that succeeds under the category of melodrama.