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THE SET: I'm finding there is a sort of "as is" quality to Criterion's Eclipse Series. It appears from the running times of these films that Criterion has used the same versions that came out on VHS in 1979. Critic Tadao Sato, who wrote on Mizoguchi's work in 2006, was able to view complete copies of the films. That being the case, I wonder why these films are missing a collective total of 75 minutes?
Here's the damage: 18 mins. missing from OSAKA ELEGY, 26 mins. from SISTERS OF THE GION, and 31 mins. from WOMEN OF THE NIGHT. Of the films collected here, only STREET OF SHAME is offered in its entirety. So, as I look at the films below, I have to view them as I do the Venus de Milo--parts are missing, yes, but the greatness of the art still shows.
OSAKA ELEGY (1936) Isuzu Yamada stars in this and in SISTERS OF THE GION. She had recently come out as a lesbian and was in a great deal of family turmoil. Mizoguchi harnessed that defiance in the two films; had it not seeped in, the films would have been relatively simple stories about the victimization of women. Instead, in OSAKA ELEGY, Yamada (as Ayako) is a skilled passive-aggressor in her own right. The men surrounding her are weak. She manipulates situations to her advantage, but all in the interest in restoring her family's fortunes. Inevitably, she is rejected by the loved ones she has saved from ruin, and is left to an uncertain future. In style, the film is naturalistic, yet full of eloquent tracking shots. If Truffaut was right that every tracking shot is a moral judgment, then there is real shock in the final two shots, which cut from a tracking shot alongside the homeless Ayako to a frontal shot in which she purposefully charges the camera, looking directly into the lens. It is a great cinematic moment, one which launched Mizoguchi as a serious film director. [4 stars]
SISTERS OF THE GION (1936) Locale is hugely important in these early films. Just as scenes of Osaka's bunraku puppet theatre counterbalance the melodrama of OSAKA ELEGY, the environs of Kyoto's medieval Yasaka Shrine are a meaningful setting for SISTERS. It is a feudal world hanging on in modern society, with it's pleasure-giving women the last class of slaves. Omocha (Yamada) is a geisha who has been educated in public school. She has freethinking ideas that don't conform to those of her highly traditional sister, Umekichi. Again, the mean are weak and short-sighted, and from Omocha's perspective, begging to be fleeced. Mizoguchi's reputation as a "feminist filmmaker" is solidified in Omocha's final speech, as she rails against the institution of the geisha. [4.5 stars]
WOMEN OF THE NIGHT (1948) In this post-war film, Mizoguchi shifts his concern from the formal world of the geisha, to the underworld of the panpan girl. Seamlessly blending location work in bombed-out Osaka with studio sets, the director tells three intertwined stories in a way that feels very modern. Mizoguchi's later style is evident from the beginning, where a reverse angle suddenly turns a public market into a private space for intimate conversation. It is the sort of shift that recurs in all the later masterpieces. The three stories document three sisters' different trajectories into and out of prostitution. The men are not uniformly spineless, as in the two earlier films. Two male characters urge the women to a virtuous life, yet it is hard to know whether to take that at face value. They do offer alternatives out of prostitution, and Mizoguchi never shows the panpan girls as mere victims. Clearly, Mizoguchi does not subscribe to the theory of social determinism, and the subject of free will figures into the complexity of this masterpiece. [5 stars]
STREET OF SHAME (1956) In the last film before his death, Mizoguchi uses five protagonists to examine prostitution in the broader context of the servitude of women in society at large. As the radio blares news of a parliamentary debate over anti-prostitution laws, Mizoguchi steps back to show dispassionately the day-to-day workings of a brothel. The movie seems to take human exploitation as a given, and when the five prostitutes try marriage or return to family, their lives actually get worse. After spending a career focusing on this particular societal ill, Mizoguchi seems to suggest that it may be better than the alternatives. Ironic that the anti-prostitution bill passed after the release of STREET OF SHAME, and just before Mizoguchi's death. [5 stars]
It's interesting to watch these films in the order that they were made. OSAKA ELEGY has a single protagonist; SISTERS OF THE GION has two protagonists; WOMEN OF THE NIGHT has three; and, STREET OF SHAME has five. Mizoguchi seems to have been working from a micro perspective of his subject to a macro view, and in the process his subject went from being the stuff of a personal tragedy to that of a societal cancer. Even so, these films are not political tracts. Rather, they are personal films full of vivid female characters we cannot fully pity but who deserve much admiration.