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  • PG
  • Drama
  • 1954
  • 102 mins

Chikamatsu Monogatari

Chikamatsu Monogatari

Synopsis

Kenji Mizoguchi's Palme d'Or-nominated film tells of illicit passion in a rigid and unforgiving age

About

When Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, it was as though the West opened its eyes to Eastern cinema for the very first time.

Before 1950, Kenji Mizoguchi directed some 80 films, many now tragically lost, and few even glimpsed by Western viewers - but the final 12 films that he made between 1950 and his death in 1956 would earn the old hand new international stardom - not to mention three consecutive Silver Lions at Venice thanks to The Life Of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho Dayu (1954).

Also made in 1954, Chikamatsu Monogatari (retitled 'The Crucified Lovers' in the US) would compete for the Palme d'Or at Cannes - and while the film's nomination was deserved, so too was its failure to win the prize, as this is Mizoguchi merely in good rather than best form. Named after the 17th century author Monzaemon Chikamatsu whose bunraku puppet-play 'The Almanac Of Love' the film adapts, Chikamatsu Monogatari is a tragic period film that lets love run riot through the rigid hierarchies and established conventions of the feudal past, exposing all the injustices in the households that such illicit desire brings down.

Ishun (Shindo) is the Great Printer of Kyoto, whose monopoly on the printing of Imperial calendars ensures his continuing wealth - but he is also a miser, a womaniser and a terrible hypocrite, while it is his honorable and industrious servant Mohei (Hasegawa) who keeps the business running smoothly.

In an era when adultery was punished with crucifixion, Mohei is caught in a compromising, if innocent, position with Ishun's younger wife Osan (Kagawa), and the accused pair has little choice but to run away - only to discover during their desperate flight that they are in love after all. Meanwhile Ishun, worried about the damage to his business and his own reputation, tries to have the affair covered up, little realising that Mohei and Osan are determined to remain at each other's side at any cost.

Had Chikamatsu Monogatari not been directed by Mizoguchi, it is of course unlikely that it would ever have been seen outside of Japan - but at the same time, had it been directed by somebody else, it would never have been crucified by association with the best of the rest in the Mizoguchi canon.

On the surface, the film has much in common with Sansho Dayu: a period setting, a successful member of the merchant class whose greed and cruelty reflect his era, a focus on the iniquitous treatment of workers and women, Kyoko Kagawa in a lead role, an ending in exile and death. Yet with Chikamatsu Monogatari, Mizoguchi seems to be coasting, relying on the melodramatic convolutions of his plot to conceal a more general lack of the poetic vision that had marked his better works.

Not that Chikamatsu Monogatari does not have its good points. The 46-year-old contract actor Hasegawa, who was imposed on Mizoguchi by Daiei Studios and had a fraught on-set relationship with the director, is somewhat absurdly cast as the much younger Mohei - but, that said, his portrayal of a dutiful but conflicted man inured to keeping his true feelings to himself is so sharply subtle that its full nuances are best appreciated on a second viewing.

Hayasaka's spare score includes, as the final credits roll, a percussive imitation of a nail being hammered into wood, thus providing a haunting auditory representation of something which the ever decorous Mizoguchi could never have actually shown on screen.

While for the most part the mise en scène seems merely functional, there are flashes of inspiration, not least amongst which is the wide-shot image of a boat moored alongside a cabin on the misty shores of Lake Biwa - an image of desolate beauty which we ourselves recognise as a love scene, but which we later discover has been interpreted by locals as a suicide sequence. In a sense, both readings are right, for the desperate passion shared by Mohei and Osan can only come to a bad end. After all, with their every move, feeling and thought so greatly restricted from the start, these lovers have always been crucified.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Eitarô Shindô , Chieko Naniwa, Kyôko Kagawa, Haruo Tanaka, Sakae Ozawa, Kazuo Hasegawa, Yoko Minamida, Echiro Sugai, Tatsuya Ishiguro
  • Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Screen Writer: Yoshikata Yoda
  • Writer (Play): Monzaemon Chikamatsu
  • Writer (Story): Matsutarô Kawaguchi
  • Producer: Masaichi Nagata
  • Photographer: Kazuo Miyagawa
  • Composer: Fumio Hayasaka, Tamezô Mochizuki

In a nutshell

Hardly Mizoguchi's finest film, but this period passion play has moments of brilliance amidst all the complicated melodrama.

by Anton Bitel

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