Mizoguchi is acclaimed for all of his work, but mostly praised for the succession of masterpieces he directed at the end of his career. "Chikamatsu monogatari" is my favourite. Note the original title means "A Tale From Chikamatsu", after the classic Japanese author Chikamatsu Monzaemon who wrote the early 18th century play the movie is based on.
It is a rare film where each image is finely crafted as a piece of art, yet without ostentation. "We must clean our eyes between each shot", Mizoguchi said: he perfectly applies this precept here. Each shot is meaningful, none feels superfluous.
LOVE IN A HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
The movie narrates a love story, yet with important social and psychological themes, as shows the regular alternation between the lovers' scenes and others. It depicts a harsh society where nobles rule ruthlessly, money reigns, people are dominated by conventions and adultery is punished by crucifixion. Traditions overrule everything including family bonds:
- Mohei's father rejects his son instead of helping him and denounces him (even if he frees him afterwards).
- O-Tama's uncle blames his niece for a petty lie.
- O-San's family blames her and finally gives her up.
- Women are the main victims: O-San's family decided to marry her to a much older, despicable man; he cheats on her but she has to go; O-Tama is abused but also has to go.
It is a world of corruption and hypocrisy:
- Ishun condemns the adulterous lovers at the beginning but cheats on his wife.
- Isan pretends he is concerned by Ishun's misfortune but conspires for his downfall.
- Sukeimon betrays his master.
- There are political intrigues involving debts and law.
This society seems doomed to carry on, as show recurring events and symbols:
- The output of the printing house is calendars issued every year.
- The chestnut merchant comes every year.
- There is a crucifixion at the beginning and another one at the end.
- When Ishun is eventually discharged, Isan who will take over looks just as vile (though more intelligent, perhaps).
In this context, the love story is all the more compelling since O-San and Mohei fight against everything: law, reputation, conventions, family. The scenes between the lovers become increasingly intense. Eventually when they are condemned, they look happy because they can remain together even if they die.
Images express how their relationship liberates them. At the beginning they are suffocating in the printing house: it is filled with people, objects, beams, screens, shadows and even spider webs when Mohei is held captive. O-San has financial issues. Mohei is sick. When they run away, they are first obliged to take shelter in dark places and hide between huge barrels that seem to crush them. However, when and after they voice their love, they are in nature: despite the difficult situation, it feels as if we can breathe. A unique shot shows there is no going back: as Mohei runs down a hill followed by O-San, the camera pivots down on the two characters lost in the endless slope. It signifies in a simple, powerful way the intensity of their love but also how it will lead them to irreversible consequences.
Unfortunately this liberation is short-lived: after Mohei's father refuses to help them, they are confined in a small dark hut. Then they are held inside again. The movie ends on a stunning camera movement, zooming high out of the lovers among the crowd. It is the only such movement in the film, making it even more gripping (somewhat reversed from the above-mentioned shot on the hill, although in the latter the camera pivots down without zooming): it magnificently summarises the love story surrounded by a hostile society.
Mizoguchi's images are more than masterly: they are metaphysical. He shows a high respect for oppressed characters: they are framed close and the camera discreetly follows them, slightly going up as they come closer or going down as they kneel, which happens frequently. He also demonstrates decency: the shot becomes distant when the scene grows too personal, for instance when the lovers spend their first night together in the hut or in the example below.
ONE FINE ILLUSTRATION
These superb aesthetics show even in apparently simple scenes. Just one example: when O-San meets O-Tama in her room at the beginning of the movie.
- Shot 1: general view of the room. O-San enters, moves forward and kneels while O-Tama moves to the back. The camera adjusts to O-San as described above (respect for persons).
- Shot 2: closer image precisely when O-Tama moves forward. This subtle coordination of movement (image and character) makes the shot transition look completely natural. We get closer as the conversation becomes more intimate.
- Shot 3: even closer image, now from the opposite side of the room, precisely when O-Tama turns around. Again, the transition is fluid (matching movements) and the close image shows the increasing intimacy. The opposite shot illustrates the shock of O-Tama's revelation: Ishun is abusing her. Music rises at the end.
- Shot 4: same as shot 1 but we now see the two women from the back since they have turned around. The camera has resumed its initial, distant position out of consideration for the despaired characters. Both women are faceless: reduced to silence, denied a proper existence, anonymous victims. The music insures the transition with shot 3 and highlights their sorrow.
Hence in just four seemingly simple shots (of which two are similar), Mizoguchi reveals the characters' emotions and condition in a perfectly fluid manner. The scene lasts a bit more than two minutes but embodies a whole story. One jewel amidst many others.
A last note about the score. The aggressive music during the opening credits announces a movie without compromise: be ready for an aesthetical and emotional experience. During the film, the score delicately beautifies scenes (e.g. the discreet bells when Mohei is captive at the beginning). Eventually, the music becomes more aggressive (e.g. at O-San's family's house), and the movie ends on notes similar to the beginning: the inevitable tragedy has unravelled.