Musashino fujin / The Lady of Musashino (1951)

3 06 2014

What makes a protagonist for a Kenji Mizoguchi film? For starters, one needs to be a woman, preferably a struggling one. This doesn’t sound too complicated, we need someone who can express years of pain and disappointment in simple facial tics? Yes, Kinuyo Tanaka is perfect for the part. This might sound like me being glib or reductive, but it is part of the filmmaker’s DNA. None of this is a problem to me, as his fellow countrymen, Ozu and Naruse, made films of a similar ilk during the 1950s, but the one reservation I still have about Mizoguchi and will continue to have about him is why he must turn his women into martyrs. Sure, yes, a patriarchal society is to blame, but the insistence on sacrifices leads me to believe that there’s actually something quite troubling working underneath his art.


Michiko Akiyama is stuck in a loveless marriage to her husband and professor, Tadao. The two exist at two opposing ends, Michiko loyal and committed to the moral code of the past. Tadao, on the other hand, is unapologetic about his the west’s influence on him. In his classes, he teaches a “theory” that suggests that adultery is inevitable and logical, all to the delight of a giggling group of women who are obviously impressed by his charm and good looks. Tsutomu enters the picture, a young man eager to escape the city and the “amoral women” he associates himself with there. Upon arriving in Musashino, he finds the pure woman he’s looking for in Michiko. Yet, the thing that makes her attractive is part of what keeps the two from being together.


The setup here, which comes from a Shohei Ooka is actually quite concise and economical. The story gives us a woman and a man in a unsatisfactory marriage, yet we only see pressures and responsibilities held up against one of them. That would be Michiko, of course. Her father tells her early on that she’s responsible for keeping the community of Musashino and the family name alive. Tadao receives no similar scrutiny, and in fact, we’re not entirely sure he cares the slightest bit about the actual relationship. While he doesn’t care for Michiko, the burden will be placed on her if they’re not able to reproduce. Of course, because they can’t stand each other, this is not even close to a possibility.


The always wonderful Masayuki Mori plays Tadao here, and he manages to breathe some life into a character who is intentionally underwritten. The problem here is that his “badness” is so one dimensional that the dynamic never also for something more realistic. Also in 1951, he was Mikio Naruse’s Repast, where he was also a negligent husband. Naruse’s film, coming from the pen of the great Fumiko Hayashi, gives a balance to the relationship that still manages to illustrate the power dynamic. I’m not arguing for something more “subtle” just because it’s better storytelling, but also because this aforementioned power dynamic often manifests in situations where it not be as so clear and obvious as it is in The Lady of Musashino.


All of this is a bit more forgivable when one considers that Mizoguchi often wore his politics on his sleeves, yet I think my other problem with the film is that he’s really not as clear as he should be. One sequence gives us Michiko and Tsutomu walking along a beautiful river, which Tsutomu tells us was the location of a sex worker’s suicide. This folk tale is told in passing and seemingly isn’t meant to add much beyond the suggestion of something mythical. Ultimately, I’m finding myself placing a lot of Mizoguchi’s own work on that same plane. There’s a few exceptions (Flame of My Love and Street of Shame come to mind, but there are others) but mostly his sacrificial women are obscured by the mythos of their storyteller. Mizoguchi achieved visual poetry often, but instead of expanding on the pathos of his characters, in films like Mushashino, he seems to minimize their plight and reduce his women to tragic individuals whose stories we’re to tell over a camp fire.