Street of Shame (1956)

25 10 2008

While I am a bit hesitant to call this Mizoguchi’s best film, it is definitely the single best example of his stylistic and thematic strengths, as well as weaknesses. In a way, it is the single most “Mizoguchian” film of the director’s entire career, which is fitting, I suppose, since it was also his last film. Not only does he depict a struggling woman, but instead, multiple struggling women, all of whom lives are based in their careers as prostitutes. Like Naruse’s Flowing, which came out the same year, Mizoguchi branches out into the specific trials and troubles of his protagonist. Of course, he does this all in that way that only he can. Plenty of subtle melodramatic touches, a overbearing sense of tragedy that is well supported by some beautiful visual compositions.

I’ll start there, with the visuals, as it is the most prominent strength of the film. To me, there is something almost inherently beautiful about any 1950s black and white Japanese film, but in this specific case, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have Kazuo Miyagawa photographing everything. Every sequence starts is introduced with a very Ozu-esque pillow shot, but instead of a series of poetic images, we get one lingering static shot that evokes everyone from Tati to Tsai. Naruse did this a bit in Flowing, too, but not with as much success as Mizoguchi did here. This is not to underscore Naruse’s film at all, as I think his is the better of the two, but Mizoguchi’s visuals have a much more poetic, or expressionistic feel to them.

As usual, this poetic cinematography plays into the heightened drama of Mizoguchi’s narrative. He actually handles the melodrama quite well here, perhaps because this is one of the few films of his that I can honestly say has a sense of humor. It’s not overwhelming funny, like some of Ozu and Naruse’s films are, but it does take its tragic events in stride with a tone that is nowhere near as relentlessly bleak as say, The Life of Oharu. Actually, the scene where Machiko Kyô tries to seduce her father is simultaneously heartbreaking and absurdly hilarious in a way that no other sequence Mizoguchi has crafted is. Naruse and Ozu has a sad/funny complex that is similar, but here, Mizoguchi seems to be playing up to his own type of humor (that he unfortunately was light on) and his own type of sadness. I don’t think any other director could pull off such a sequence within the same context and not come off as willfully sleazy.

In general, Machiko Kyô’s character seems to lend the light touch that would have been so helpful for some of Mizoguchi’s most downbeat work. They did work together in Ugetsu but her character was limited to an extremely vapid folk tale figure. Their only other collaboration is in Yôkihi, which I haven’t seen, but plan to do so shortly. While her character here is almost a bit too charismatic, and borders on being one dimensional, she definitely brings something to the table lacking in other Mizoguchi films. Had he used her instead of Kinuyo Tanaka in The Life of Oharu, the result probably would have been terrible, but as a supporting character, she’s fantastic. Her performance isn’t even my favorite of the group here, but she is a key component to balancing the mood and relocating the film back to reality after it goes off in Mizoguchi’s fantasy world of tragic sacrificing women.

The fact that the film takes place in modern times, rather than Japan’s feudal period, also helps too. There is still injustice in Street of Shame but it is far more subtle and far more realistic than the injustice present in Sansho. In that film, the theme of injustice seems to be the element that pushes the film along while here, it is just another aspect that controls the daily grind of these women’s lives. The painful struggles are still here and they’re as tragic as ever, but the grimness feels grounded in a more mature emotional base. This is a tragic film just like most of Mizoguchi’s work is, but the sadness is within these characters rather than on surface plot developments. In other words, one of Mizoguchi’s very best films.



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