Eureka Entertainment have re-released some of the revered late-period works of Kenji Mizoguchi in duel-format, BD/DVD double-disc editions featuring two films each, all made by the master filmmaker after he began working for Daiei Studios during a period which has since become known as the second Golden Age of Japanese cinema, in the wake of the international acclaim accorded Kurosawa’s “Rashomon in 1953. This material amounts to some of the most beautiful, elegantly crafted works of cinema ever made anywhere, let alone in Japan, where the competition was particularly stiff at the time, with the likes of Kurosawa, Ozu and Ichikawa all producing some of their greatest masterpieces within years of each other. The release under review features two of Mizoguchi’s finest works from this period, of which, 1954’s “Sanshô Dayû” (“Sansho the Baliff”) is probably the most acclaimed, while the film downplayed as the disc’s ‘second feature’, 1953’s “Gion Bayashi” (“Gion Festival Music”), turns out to be an almost equally fascinating departure from the director’s more usual feudal period settings, being a modern day account of the changing face of the world of the Geisha set during the American Occupation in the immediate post-war period. It’s quite a shock, come the film’s opening slow pan across the rooftops of Kyoto, with ancient mountains lining the valley in the distance, to suddenly notice the modern vehicles traversing the roadways!
Although the twelve films he made for Daiei near the end of his life are sometimes acclaimed as the crowning glories of his career, Mizoguchi often expressed dissatisfaction at the compromises he sometimes felt forced to make in the perpetual struggle to earn the right to express his artistic vision unmolested by commercial concerns. During a career in which the director was unusual for having worked for a great number of big studios before coming to rest at Daiei, where his producer friend Nagata Masaichi was now one of the company’s top executives, Mizoguchi had often found himself forced to sacrifice his preference for formal experimentation in order to stay in work, especially during the war years when he was required to churn out propaganda films. But even in the 1950s the director still had to bow every now and then to commercial pressures from the studio executives, and Mizoguchi’s attitude to “Gion Bayashi” seems to have been somewhat poisoned -- according to comments made for an interview he gave for Kinema Junpo around this period -- by certain changes to the storyline that were forced upon him by the casting of Daiei's new rising star of the moment, Ayako Wakao.
Based on Matsutarō Kawaguchi’s source novel (the writer also co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Yoshikata Yoda), “Gion Bayashi” was intended as an updated version of one of Mizoguchi’s greatest films of the 1930s, “Sisters of Gion” (1936): an archetypal essay in the geisha house sub-genre, which critic Tony Rayns brackets -- rather sourly -- as being of a type that modern audiences would probably be tempted to place alongside such modern-day fare as “Memoirs of a Geisha”, where-in the trials and tribulations of a young apprentice ‘maiko’ are documented as she struggles to make her way up the ladder of progress from callow newbie in need of strict formal training in the skills of her profession, to the seasoned pro who becomes much-tutored in the realities and the expectations of geisha clients who sometimes require a little more than just refined manners and social graces with their tea and entertainment.
In Mizoguchi’s original version, the main character was to have been a tough, sometimes unlikable character, usurping the place of her patron and taking full advantage of an era in which the old customs and former traditions were being increasingly challenged by post-war economic realities, now developing under the westernising influence of the US backed occupation. But the film company was unwilling to let its new star appear in such an unsympathetic light, viewing such a story as being bad for the image it aimed to create for her as the ‘New Face’ of the studio. Instead, after their unwanted interference, Wakao’s portrayal of young sixteen-year-old Eiko, becomes instead yet another icon of Mizoguchi’s by now familiar theme of the oppression of women in a society constructed around apparently inescapable customs designated by strict patriarchy. Mizoguchi’s films often venerate women in the most poetic terms for their efforts to forge a path through such thickets of social and economic traps, set up by men to ensnare them in the rituals of conditioning and tradition. Yet there is also frequently a sense of inevitability in his heroines’ eventual decline, as the cards are stacked against any real escape and even the most well-meaning male figures in Mizoguchi films are often ultimately the cause of female suffering and neglect.
You won’t find many sympathetic male characters inhabiting the world of “Gion Bayashi” though. The film takes a bitter-sweet look at the changing mores and roles of the age-old Japanese female profession, just as the balance of power between geisha and client is starting to be destabilised by the emergence of a consumerist model of society, founded in westernised democracy. On the one hand this new world provides young Japanese women such as Eiko, for the first time, with the expectation of being allowed to shape their own path in life in a more fluid and dynamic changing post-war society, as opposed to resignation to the submissive role which historically defined their persons through traditional geisha culture, as it had been practiced and maintained for centuries previously; on the other hand, though, the traditional geisha could at least before have seized a certain amount of control over her own affairs and her interactions with clients by gaining herself a good reputation in the practice of her profession in what was, after all, an all-female matriarchal subgroup -- running the Gion pleasure districts through its networks of ‘ochaya’, or teahouses -- and thus becoming much sought after for her skills as specialised provider of refined arts and entertainment forms, and a performer of elaborately ritualised gesture and ceremony etc. With such exclusivity there also comes the ability to pick and choose when and whether one might deign to accept an offer to sleep with a particular client, for example; and such a proposition could (in theory) quite easily be turned down. But, as we see in the film, a consumerist model starts to undermine such arrangements; the old skills start to carry less weight and importance as unadorned prostitution becomes a more common and, subsequently, an expected part of the transaction between geisha and client.
“Gion Bayashi” charts these complex changes through the melodrama which engulfs Eiko (Wakao) and her patron Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure), a senior geisha and former friend of Eiko’s dead mother, who in life was also a much admired geisha around the Gion district. Eiko’s uncle has tried to obtain sexual favours from the sixteen-year-old as recompense for paying her mother’s funeral expenses, so the girl has run away and turns up on Miyoharu’s doorstep begging to be admitted to her mother’s best friend’s okiya as her apprentice -- ‘maiko’ -- geisha.
Having been unable to prevail upon Eiko’s louche failed businessman father to cover the cost of the year-long training this will entail by becoming Eiko’s guarantor, Miyoharu feels nevertheless honour bound to do everything possible to save the girl from falling into prostitution at her sleazy uncle’s behest. Accordingly, she enrols her in the necessary classes needed in order for Eiko to learn all the traditional arts of the geisha -- from the arcane social graces and the musical, dance, and flower arranging skills, to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony of the ochaya. However, the cost of all this, and the ensuing arrangements for her ceremonial debut -- a cheery ritual in which the elaborately dressed and decorated young geisha (who has now been given a special ‘geisha alias’ of Miyoei, by which she will henceforth be known to her clients) is taken on a tour of the teahouses of the pleasure districts of Kyoto and formally introduced at each one – require Miyoharu to cover their costs by appealing to her own Okā-san -- Madam Okimi -- for a loan. This financial necessity on the part of Miyoharu is the first brick in an edifice of mutual financial and social dependencies which eventually lead the much respected Miyoharu into exactly the same position of sexual subservience she’s been struggling to save Eiko from in rescuing her from her uncle’s advances.
The calculating Madam Okimi (Chieko Naniwa) is in cahoots with a powerful and influential regular customer at her teahouse establishment, Mr Kusuda (Seizaburō Kawazu) – a middle-aged businessman who has already taken rather too keen an interest in the young debutante under Miyoharu’s patronage by getting her drunk during her induction. Kusada and a business associate are regaling upon a bright young businessman by the name of Kanzaki (Kanji Koshiba), who has a penchant for geisha girls and is about to be made the director of a prosperous company, leaving him in an ideal position to be able to furnish Kusada and his friend’s company with a lucrative contract they are attempting to obtain through favours. Unfortunately for Miyoharu, Kanzaki is previously known to her as a troublesome former client who, a year previously, had been unable to pay the fee for her services and had to be unceremoniously booted out of her okiya after a clumsy attempt to assault her for turning down and mocking his romantic overtures. When it is revealed that Miyoharu’s debt to Okimi is really a displaced one owed to Kusuda – for it is from him that Madam Okimi obtained the money to pay for Eiko/Miyoei’s training and induction – and that Kusuda’s ultimate aim is to become Eiko’s exclusive patron (which will ‘entitle’ him to all the little ‘perks’ such a position inevitably suggests), the trap is sprung and is revealed slowly closing upon both women.
Subsequently, a train trip to Tokyo for a music festival, organised by Kusuda for the entire group and only very reluctantly agreed to by Miyoharu, reveals to Eiko just what her ‘patron’ expects of her, while a horrified Miyoharu also finds herself obligated -- because of her un-payable debt to Kusuda -- to facilitate the wishes of the businessman Kanzaki, who remembers her from their first encounter and is becoming increasingly sexually obsessed with her. This is a film, then, about the attempts of self-sufficient women to empower themselves by co-opting those traditions of patriarchy one might normally think of as limiting their capacity for self-determination, but then finding that the society which is newly emerging from the shadow of the second world war is, ironically, forcing them back into sexual submissiveness, due to the pervasive influence of money brought about by the ‘democratisation’ of their profession.
Mizoguchi’s original intent of documenting geisha being set against geisha, as the younger woman protagonist adapts to the new order and usurps the position and clients of her benefactor, has all but vanished thanks to the studio’s insistence on presenting their young star Ayako Wakao, who plays Eiko, with a positive image. There are still remnants of that previous intent though in Eiko’s drunken mocking of Miyoharu’s ‘old-fashioned’ values, in a scene which takes place after they return from Kusuda’s wining and dining on the night of her induction; and of course Madam Okimi’s ruthless pursuit of the financial largesse of rich clients such as Kusuda at the expense of the young geisha and even her former student (Miyoharu) emphasises how this changing climate also upsets the matriarchal status quo, while at the same time maintaining the two leads as venerated examples of genuine feminine virtue and innocence. The way in which the other young geishas in the film are encouraged to prostitute themselves to rich clients in order to procure financial security bubbles away in the background even during Eiko’s apprenticeship, as she encounters others among her class who have been told by Madam Okimi to, for example, sleep with an elderly rich client purely for the purpose of obtaining his patronage. When Eiko attempts to rebel, Okimi completely ignores the etiquette of the pleasure districts and uses her influence to have Miyoharu and Eiko’s okiya blackballed by the business community, plunging them into poverty through an inability to obtain clients.
While the heroines remain pure of heart (if not of body), the males are generally a lousy lot to a man: Eitarô Shindô gives a marvellous performance as Eiko’s feckless businessman father (a role that evokes Mizoguchi’s childhood hatred of his own father, whose business failings plunged the family into poverty and forced Mizoguchi’s sister into the adoption market), smilingly dismissive when begged for help to rescue Eiko from her uncle’s advances, ingratiating and cloying when he insists, after discovering his daughter has become successful as a geisha, that he deserves to benefit financially from her good fortune. Kusuda is also particularly loathsome in the manner in which he uses his wealth to exploit the women under his control in Madam Okimi’s teahouse. Kusuda clearly likes young girls and the way in which he indulges in childlike games with many of the young geisha in Okimi’s establishment cannot but help conjure up unsavoury speculations about the precise nature of his interests in them.
The themes of the film are perhaps best encapsulated by the way in which the relationship between Miyoharu and Kanzaki develops across its 83 minutes. Circumstance conspires to place the older and once respected geisha in the same position by the end of the film as her young charge was shown threatened with at the start of it. When Eiko first turned up at her door begging for help, Miyoharu was just in the process of removing Kanzaki from her premises: he had no money to pay her, and it was clearly she who was in control of the situation despite Kanzaki’s attempts to manhandle her (which were considered disgraceful and shaming by her servants). But by the end of the film, the power balance has completely reversed and Miyoharu must prostitute herself to Kanzaki in order to save Eiko being handed on to Kusuda. Perhaps the ultimate irony in all this, though, comes during the scene in which Kanzaki finally gets to have his way with the noble Miyoharu, and reveals that it was her dismissive attitude towards him a year previously when he couldn’t pay her, that drove him on to make a financial success of himself: ‘you made me like this!’ he claims.
Mizoguchi uses deep focus photography and often places his cameras low down among the narrow lanes and passageways of the Gion pleasure district to create perspective shots that leave the impression of an impenetrable warren of constricting buildings and which feel like looming prison walls, closing in around the dainty white-faced geisha who live and work among them. Music is used remarkably sparingly and when Ichirô Saitô’s score does intrude it is largely diegetic in origin. One might pick fault with the overly simplistic characterisations forced on Mizoguchi by the studio, but the director’s unerring subtly and the cinematic grace with which he goes about bringing the tale to the screen -- with long takes and exquisitely composed shots -- largely recompenses the viewer for such compromises,and highlights affecting performances from all the cast, particularly Michiyo Kogure.
The film that gets top-billing, if you like, on this release is Mizoguchi’s next work, “Sanshō Dayū”, released in 1954. Having fulfilled his obligation to the studio, which favoured films like “Gion Bayashi” with a contemporary setting in order to attract young people to the cinema, the director was once again returning to his favoured historical period drama subject matter, which, ironically enough, was the kind of film more likely to earn him acclaim on the international stage, despite there being a resistance in modern Japan to stories that harked back to the old feudal period it was now trying to replace with an American-imported form of modern democracy. “Sanshō Dayū” is based on a version of an ancient Japanese folkloric fable, written in 1911 by novelist Mori Ogai, although Tony Rayns recounts amusingly on the accompanying video talk for this film, that Mizoguchi was horrified to discover that the original draft of the script (which followed the story pretty closely) had children as its main protagonists throughout, since Mizoguchi apparently absolutely hated children! The director turned once again to his long-time collaborator Yoshikata Yoda to redraft the script so that the children get to grow up in the second half of the film!
Although Mizoguchi does not draw on the formalism of his famed ‘one scene, one cut’ aesthetic here, the film does nonetheless provoke the qualities of a poetic elegiac tragedy, similar to that of “Ugetsu”. There are long single shot takes that establish absolutely breathtaking tableaux; scenic outdoor landscapes and studio-created exteriors are often blended seamlessly through the employment of the combination of talents encompassed in the work of Mizoguchi’s regular cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, the film’s editor Mitsuzô Miyata and production designers Shozaburo Nakajima & Kisaku Ito. The general outlook suggested by the work, which derives from the old Buddhist fable on which the tale is based, is one of stoic acceptance of the suffering of life and the randomness inherent in the vagaries of fate. In this lost feudal world, unfairness is as pandemic as starvation: bad things routinely happen to good people and as a matter of course the cruel and unfeeling prosper and flourish at the expense of the gentle and the just. And yet the urge to dream of a better life dies hard; and sometimes tiny, brief moments of togetherness can be obtained if a spark of endurance can be nurtured in a twilight gloom of otherwise perpetual attrition of the spirit. This idea is pretty much what Mizoguchi succeeds in implying throughout this stunning film -- one of the very best from his late career, made just two years before the director’s death.
The story takes place in the harsh world of 10th Century feudal Japan during the Heian period, when the Imperial Capital was based in Kyoto and the country divided between Government owned regions of land and the private estates that existed outside their jurisdiction -- ruled by feudal lords who employed their own stewards (or bailiffs) in their manors to oversee the poor, low caste peasant populations that do all the work there. Mizoguchi establishes a wistful dreamlike air of regret through the simple expediency of telling the first act of the tale in the form of a series of vignettes that represent the memories of the wife of the aristocratic former governor of the Kyoto region as she thinks back to earlier times during a long journey with her family, taken by foot through stunning landscape, in order to re-join her husband a number of years after his enforced exile in the far-off land of Tsukushi.
Taira Masauji (Masao Shimizu) was once a fair and noble Governor, much loved by the poor peasants who worked the land during a time of famine and great hardship. However, Masauji was ousted by influential men in the military for refusing to sanction higher taxes on rice to pay for the army’s unending campaigns, and for vetoing the conscription of more peasant men for the war. The parents of Masauji’s wife feel betrayed and shamed by his sudden fall from grace, and so before he leaves for the land of his exile, Masauji tells his wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) to take their two children – infant son Zushio (Masahiko Tsugawa) and baby daughter Anju – back to her parents prefecture; but not before he has taught his son the noble, gentle philosophy by which he has sought to life his life, and which is summed up by the aphorism ‘without mercy, man is but a beast’. The humane ruler gives his tiny son a family heirloom of remembrance, handed down through the generations – a gold statuette of the goddess of mercy, Kwannon -- and he impresses on the boy the importance of keeping it about his person at all times, until they meet again.
As mentioned, Tamaki is recalling this episode from many years previously as she and her two young children and an elderly female servant slowly traverse a scenic landscape which Mizoguchi shoots as a series of evocative painterly backdrops to the mother’s mournful ruminations, captured with dazzling, majestic crane shots in which beauty and sadness walk side-by-side. The story then briefly takes a turn which, to western eyes, feels like Gothic fairy tale horror: in the woods, the quartet meet a local woman who warns that bandits and slave traders roam the area and that lodging houses have been banned from taking guests because a number of these rogues have been posing as travellers and attacking local people. Tamaki is forced to set up a camp for the night out in the woods, but her luck seems to have taken a turn for the better when an elderly Shinto priestess stumbles upon the group and offers everybody shelter and warm gruel at her nearby abode. The helpful old woman even organises the boat trip that will be needed in order for them to reach Tsukushi safely.
However, the serene, dreamlike atmospherics are about to be interrupted by brutal reality: the priestess has secretly already sold them all to these boatmen -- who are really nothing but a duo of violent and brutish slave traders. The family group is separated and forced onto different boats, their servant is dumped overboard and Tamaki transported to Sado Island where she will be forced to work as a prostitute; the two children are eventually sold on, in the province of Tango, to a feudal manor overseen by the cruel and tyrannical Sansho (Eitaro Shindo), a toad-like, completely bald but white-whiskered overlord, who runs the estate like a labour camp.
We get only brief updates from now on informing us of the sad fate of Tamaki, who is eventually cruelly rendered lame for trying to escape once too often from her life as an impoverished courtesan; instead Mizoguchi concentrates on portraying the bleak world of back-breaking labour under conditions of stark privation which are to be endured by Zuzhio and Anju under Sansho’s unforgiving yoke – a life of brutalisation, starvation and exhaustion, where the sick are taken out and left to die when they are of no further use to the estate, and even the most minor transgression is likely to be paid for at the mercy of the branding iron. There seems no hope of ever escaping or being rescued from this life of torture: when a Government official comes to inspect Sansho’s methods, he expresses only delight at how the steward has been able to bring in more tribute than any other estate. Indeed, the tyrant is rewarded with a trip to the capital and the inspector is keen to learn from him so that his methods can be tried elsewhere! Just as a supposedly trustworthy priestess is revealed to be someone wholly given over to selfishness and uncaring greed, so it also appears that there is no recompense to be expected from the authorities either.
The one chink of light is Sansho’s son and second-in-command, Taro (Akitake Kono). The sensitive young man, disgusted by his father’s cruelty, takes pity on the two children and finds out about their aristocratic birth and about their wise father’s credo – a man is not a human being if he is without mercy. These words shame the powerless Taro for his part in the injustice being perpetrated by his family, but he can only try to encourage the youngsters to endure this world for a few years more, although he aids them by giving them new names (the two have previously kept their birth names secret) that do not reveal their family’s aristocratic origins. Zushio becomes Mutsu, named after his place of birth, while sister Anju becomes Shinobu, which means endurance.
When the drama shifts ten years into the future, though, we find that the grown up ‘Mutsu’ (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and ‘Shinobu’ (Kyoko Kagawa) are still slaves of Sansho’s unjust regime and little has changed except that Mutsu now seems to have forgotten his origins and his father’s words; now, in order to survive, he has learned to do just what it takes to get in his master’s good books. This has led him to the position of becoming Sansho’s chief torturer; whenever an errant slave is dragged away to be branded, it is now Mutsu who, without hesitation, sternly carries out the deed! Meanwhile, his shamed younger sister tries to endure as best she can …
The rest of the film becomes about how people learn to survive spiritually through the physical pain and hardship in a transient life. One of the most moving and emblematic moments comes when a despairing Shinobu, unable to find any trace of the existence of her now barely-remembered mother from interviewing a newly arrived slave girl from Sado Island, one day hears her singing a mournful folk song to herself about the tortures of life, which is clearly a reconstruction in song of the story of Shinobu’s family and their separation from each other, which even mentions both herself and her brother by their now half-forgotten original names! The slave girl tells Shinobu that slaves have always sung this song on Sado Island to lift their spirits, but that no one remembers from where it came. This becomes the trace of their long-lost parents that ignites the spark of hope which eventually brings Mutsu back from his embattlement in darkness and cynicism; this new hope of reuniting himself and his sister with their mother gives him the courage to attempt an escape when charged with the routine dumping of a dying peasant woman’s body in a nearby, symbolically overgrown and neglected, Buddhist graveyard.
Even this development is laced with a bitter legacy though. To avoid giving away under torture her runaway brother’s intended destination of a nearby Imperial temple, Shinobu voluntarily gives up her life in the most low-key and poetic of images: silently wandering into a still lake and disappearing beneath the surface of the water in a manner that surely must have been noted by Wes Craven when he used a similar visual motif during “The Last House on the Left”. The rest of the film takes the winding course of all good folklore, dealing in great twists of fortune, serendipitous reunions and heartbreaking tragedy. Unaware of his sister’s fate, Mutsu does actually manage to escape and, aided by good fortune, to rise in status once again and assume his now long-dead father’s former position as state Governor of the very region in which Sansho’s estate happens to be situated. What happens next is charged with a perfectly elaborated low-key mix of poetry, tragedy and pathos. Mutsu’s rise in status brings about his nemesis Sansho’s fall, in a manner that parallels that of Mutsu’s own father; and yet there is little to celebrate -- these events have come at the cost of the lives of both Mutsu’s father and his beloved sister. The film ends with one of the most heart-breaking bittersweet images in all of cinema as the grown-up son looks for his mother among the garishly painted faces of the middle-aged courtesans inhabiting the apparently otherwise desolate Sado island, having given up his position as Governor in order to come here to find his remaining parent and hand her the statuette, given to him by his father as an infant a lifetime ago.
The duel-disc Masters of Cinema release of these two great masterpieces presents a Blu-ray version featuring both films, and DVD copies of each. “Sanshō Dayū” looks simply superb in HD. The transfer is immaculate, rich in new detail and perfectly balanced in its blacks and grey tones. It’s a real boon to have a film so rich in period detail -- from perfect reconstructions of Heian period aristocratic costume to gorgeous set design and lighting schemas -- so perfectly presented, especially since the film is one of Mizoguchi’s most ravishing to look at; every still could make an excellent painter’s composition. The same is not really true of “Gion Bayashi” which comes from a print that is quite soft and battered-looking, although it only really disappoints in comparison to the glorious reproduction of the film it happens to be partnered with. Extras consist of two video talks by Mizoguchi expert Tony Rayns (12 minutes and 29 minutes respectively) in which the critic examines the context in which the films were made and how they relate to Mizoguchi’s own biography, in particular, his own relationship with and attitude towards prostitutes and prostitution. We have the theatrical trailer for “Gion Bayashi” and a fascinating but all too brief teaser trailer for the same film, in which Mizoguchi is shown behind the scenes, interacting with his cast. The package will also contain a booklet of rare archival imagery and the full text reproduction of the 1915 story by Mori Ogai that provides the basis for “Sanshō Dayū”. It’s a toss-up between “Ugetsu Monogatari” and “Sanshō Dayū” as to which of Mizoguchi’s late period films is his greatest masterpiece, but the latter certainly wins hands down when it comes to HD presentation. This is a perfect release of a stunningly perfect film.