Each film is given its own disc and there are four highly detailed booklets offering information and essays on the films. Each film also has an introduction by the respected critic Tony Rayns and an accompanying trailer. The introductions are informative and offer a good introduction to the significance of each film but are perhaps best viewed after the film rather than before (if you have not already seen the film in question) as they tend to reveal a lot of details about the plots.
The transfers are mixed but all impressive considering the difficulty in acquiring pristine prints of some of these films. The best in the set is probably Sanshô-dayû which has a very clean picture and a clear audio track.
Oyû-sama aka Miss Oyu (1951)
In an early sequence in Oyu-sama a character walks out into a garden, the movement framed in one uninterrupted take, the camera lingering back, the audience observing the man from afar. The distance and almost sad beauty in the scene sets the tone of the film to come.
The film centres on a love triangle between a man and two sisters but it is a triangle born not out of competing interests but out of traditions that keep the two characters actually in love from marrying. This results in a marriage of odd convenience and filled with a lot of complications and longing. Whilst the subject matter could on the surface seem like tawdry melodrama, in the the skillful hands of Mizoguchi it is transformed into to something much more fascinating. Despite the consistently beautiful camerawork and interesting relationship dynamic, Oyu-sama does suffer though from its characters often being a little too far out of reach and it never engages quite as satisfyingly as some of Mizoguchi’s other films.
Ugetsu monogatari (1953)
Along with Sanshô-dayû, The Life of Oharu (1952) and The 47 Ronin (1941/41), Ugetsu monogatari ranks as one of Mizoguchi’s better known films in the West and with good reason. Beginning as a simple tale of a potter struggling to against the back drop of war, the film sprawls outwards embracing a supernatural sub plot and a fascinating look at the impact of war on those that fight and those that stay at home. Drawing these elements together Mizoguchi crafts an exquisite film that feels both epic and intimate. Despite ranking highly as one of Mizoguchi’s most visually beautiful films, the scene where a woman silently stitches as light seeps into the room still stands out as something incredibly special.
Gion-bayashi was one film in the box set that I was not familiar with when I sat down to watch all eight films and it may well be my new favourite of the Mizoguchi films I have seen. With an incredibly charming female central performance this post war tale of Geisha is utterly enthralling and impossible not to get swept up in. Most impressively perhaps it also features an incredibly daring ending that embraces the way in which real life carries on without dramatic conclusions or grand endings.
Sanshô-dayû begins with the ostracising of Tamaki (Tanaka Kinuyo) and her two children, Zushio (Hanayagi Yoshiaki) and Anju (Kagawa Kyoko). The mother is subsequently seperated from her children and Zushio and Anju are sold into slavery, to the cruel Sansho (Shindo Eitaro). The father of the two children instills into them at the start of the film that “Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.” and this is this very quickly becomes the central theme of the film. Sanshô-dayû slowly builds to a moving final scene that carries powerful emotional weight and it is in these final moments that the intensity of the experience is revealed. Exquisitly directed, Sanshô-dayû is one of many highlights in Mizoguchi’s career.
Uwasa no onna (1954)
A ‘modern’ woman (styled very much like Audrey Hepburn in the 50s) returns to her mother’s home, which doubles as a brothel, after a failed suicide attempt. At first she seems to disturb the status quo in a negative way but slowly she becomes an important part of the group of women. One of many brothel-set films in Mizoguchi’s career this feels like a minor entry but an enjoyable one nonetheless. Whilst it is perhaps not as captivating as Gion-bayashi and feels at times a tad formulaic, the excellent central performances and Mizoguchi’s seemingly effortless direction ensure this is still worth checking out.
Chikamatsu monogatari (1954)
Following a number of misunderstandings and the pressure of a strictly traditional society a couple are forced to flee their town and go on the run, marked for execution as adulterers. Chikamatsu monogatari, much like Oyu-sama, feels almost too traditional in its subject matter and the struggle at the film’s core feels almost ludicrous when viewed with modern eyes. It is just this disconnect though that makes Chikamatsu monogatari such an interesting to film and as the story progresses the fate of the leads feels more and more inevitable but ever more moving.
Mizoguchi also never fails to find the perfect framing in every scene and even though it could have perhaps benefited from a more propulsive approach Mizoguchi’s calm distance allows the audience room to consider and reflect more on the couple’s situation.
The 1st of only two colour films made by Mizoguchi, Yôkihi perhaps demands a place in this box set more for historical purposes than anything else. It’s obvious that Mizoguchi’s heart really isn’t in this tale of a relationship behind the palace walls. The story and central performances are entirely unconvincing in Yôkihi which is incredibly disapointing considering Mizoguchi’s storytelling skill, evidenced in films such as Sanshô-dayû or Gion-bayashi. Mizoguchi was perhaps more interested in this film as a technical exercise in shooting in colour and despite the oppulent pallette on display Yôkihi is an underwhelming experience.
With an opening sequence scored with music more akin to the work of Edgar Varese or Pierre Schaeffer than the more traditional instrumentation that Mizoguchi usually employed, the excellent Akasen-chitai feels like a tantalizing glimpse at what could have been. Sadly this was Mizoguchi’s last film and although it is not a complete break from his previous obsessions both thematically and formally it does feel like the beginning of a new chapter.
Set in a brothel named ‘Dreamland’, Akasen-chitai is filled with ‘Mizoguchian women’ but there is a shift in their behaviour from his previous characters, most notably in a character named Mickey whose confidence/arrogance is magnetic. There is also a clear shift in Mizoguchi’s shooting style. Whilst the film never ventures into wild or expressive camerawork, there is a definite move to more cuts and a pacier approach. Akasen-chitai is a fascinating entry into Mizoguchi’s oeuvre but one tinged with sadness due to its position as his last film.