"Human life is like going on a long journey carrying a heavy load. You will not be disappointed if you think that hardship is the common lot." (Ieyasu, the 1st Tokugawa Shogun, 17th Century).
Kenji Mizoguchi is part of the holy trinity of the great Japanese filmmakers. Yasujiro Ozu is universally revered as the The Father: Tokyo Story (1953) is regarded as the daddy of Japanese film and regularly features in critics’ all-time Top 10s (see the Sight & Sound critics poll for example, which places it at number 5). Akira Kurosawa is The Son, the populist, the one who spread the word of post-war Japanese cinema to the masses, and influenced the most western directors (perhaps this is why Kurosawa features twice in the directors’ Top 10). Mizoguchi therefore is the Holy Ghost, the one that is harder to place, whose work too often passes by unnoticed but he is, arguably, the most important. Indeed The Son, the only one whose word we take as gospel, is quoted on the front of this DVD saying, "Mizoguchi… the Japanese director I admire the most". Amen.
The Lady of Musashino (1951) was made 28 years after his first film (which was 8 years before Ozu’s first film in fact, but let’s lay these comparisons to rest). Unlike most of our contemporary ‘great’ directors, Mizoguchi films seemed to get increasingly better towards the end of his life. He died in 1956, having made 85 films. It was, in part, his reaction to the Second World War and the subsequent upheaval of Japanese society that brought many of his themes and issues into sharp focus.
The story begins near the end of the war, as Michiko (the lady of the title) and her husband move back to her parents’ home in rural Musashino after their Tokyo apartment has been bombed. Her elderly parents, fatigued by the war, soon die and leave the house to Michiko and some land to her cousin Ono who lives next door. Michiko’s marriage is an unhappy one and her husband Akiyama is besotted with Ono’s flirtatious wife Tomiko. Then Michiko’s handsome young cousin Tsutomo returns from the war. Tsutomo initially immerses himself in the sex and debauchery of Tokyo student life but becomes drawn to the purity and beauty of Musashiono, and of Michiko: she, however, represses her feelings out of duty, morality and upholding her family name, things which Akiyama and Tomiko care nothing for. When Akiyama and Tomiko finally elope, Michiko is left to try and salvage what is left of her family honour.
It is a film that could be described as typical Mizoguchi. He was termed, often derisively, as a ‘feminist director’. He often focused on the plight of women in Japanese society, still constricted by feudal roles and extreme double standards. Some of his films, such as Ugetsu Monogatari, chose the jedai-geki style of period drama to depict these unfortunate women (of the two wives in this film, one is murdered and the other forced into prostitution due to their husbands’ neglect). The Lady, in contrast, is more direct with its contemporary setting. The evocation of a society attempting to come to terms with its own identity after defeat in war, and with the influx of western influences, is what this film documents. And I use the term ‘documents’ purposefully, for though it has a strong fictional narrative, Mizoguchi’s use of thematic undercurrents and stylistic framing add up to an insightful artistic documentary of Japan at that time.
The film is effectively structured around parallels and mirroring effects. The opening shot looks over a beautiful rural meadow with the burning Tokyo being bombed on the horizon. We immediately get the sense of the war being somewhat detached from Musashino, something that occurs in the distance and that could not impregnate the timelessness of the place. Later, as Michiko and Tsutomo take shelter from a thunderstorm while on a walk, the noise of the thunder echoes the bombing from the opening scene. Michiko knows that her marriage may crumble, and that being found alone with Tsutomo would be shameful, even grounds for divorce: her world in Musashino, always so stable and unchanging, becomes threatened by something beyond her control, be it Allied bombs or torrential rain.
But it is the parallel between western values and conventional Japanese ones that is most important. Michiko is dressed throughout in her traditional kimono, as were her parents; the loud and flirtatious Tomiko wears western dresses and hats.
Akiyama not only wears a western suit but also lectures in western philosophy at Tokyo University, specifically the writings of Stendhal. We see him entertaining female students in the classroom as he tells them that he deduces, from Stendhal, that ‘adultery is an expression of free will’. The girls giggle, his teaching is very bold, very modern, very un-Japanese; Tsutomo, who we didn’t know is also there, storms out.
For in Tsutomo we have a character caught between a rock and a hard place, or between America and Japan in other words. Having just returned from a harrowing war as a defeated soldier, he tries to find his role within a society that he no longer recognises. He storms out of that classroom not only because Akiyama is married to his cousin, but because his teachings are so against the values of old Japan. However he does, on Akiyama’s suggestion, move into a city student flat. The scenes in the jazz café ‘La Vie est Belle’ show young Japanese throwing themselves into what they perceive to be western values. The girls are carefree and promiscuous; they enjoy the free-flowing sexuality of American jazz music and indeed are willing to sleep with the handsome Tsutomo after the briefest introduction. The fast paced, noisy environment of the café with bodies draped over each other could not be further removed from the Musashino scenes.
The claustrophobia of Tsutomo’s flat with its clutter of modern objects, clothes and the noise of the city bursting through the window, could not be in more direct contrast to Michiko’s house, so quiet and tidy, so full of light and air. Mizoguchi frames his shots inside her house and out in the country with painstaking artistic detail, so carefully that he rivals the work of great painters. We are often presented with a foreground, a central focus, and a background image that tell a perfect visual narrative in a single shot.
As Tsutomo tires of the city and of city girls, he is drawn back to the tradition and serenity of Musahino and Michiko. Yet it is Michiko who recognises the realities of the changing world around her. She may be traditional and honourable but she is not naïve. It is she who tells Tsutomo that ‘his’ Musashino does not exist. It is merely a rose-tinted figment of his imagination that, in reality, has become enveloped by the ever-encroaching city limits. The purity and identity that he yearns for cannot be found in the old Japan, but he must make sense of the new one. One gets the feeling that Michiko knows she must accept this also, but cannot change due to the promise she made on her father’s grave.
There is only one way for her to free herself, and that is the honourable way. Akiyama believes he can find freedom in Stendhal, and in adultery. Tomiko believes freedom comes from sex, not marriage. Tsutomo tells Michiko, when trying to persuade her they can be together, that "Love is freedom. Freedom is power". It is a very American, or at least a very western democratic argument. Michiko retorts, "Morality is the only power, you have to understand that". And the viewer does too, for Michiko is clearly the character that gets all of our sympathy, and all of our admiration. At the end, in contrast to the opening meadow, we are shown a view of the city as it spreads over Musashino. It is not loaded with regret or negativity, but merely looks out onto the future and contemplates what it may hold, for better or for worse.