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Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women
Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, Women of the Night, Street of Shame
Eclipse Series 13

Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women
Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, Women of the Night, Street of Shame
Eclipse Series 13
1936 - 1956 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / Street Date October 21, 2008 / 59.95
Starring Isuzu Yamada, Yoko Imemura, Kinuyo Tanaka, Sanae Takasugi, Machiko Kyo, Ayako Wakao
Written by Yoshikata Yoda (3), Masashige Nakamura
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

It's possible to dispute the claim that Kenji Mizoguchi is a feminist filmmaker in the modern sense, but it's also obvious that the plight of women in Japanese society is central to many of his films. For its thirteenth series entry, Eclipse has collected four key pictures by this great director, two from the prewar 1930s and two from the postwar period. Labeled Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women, the stories are profound documents of social protest.

Mizoguchi based his career-long concern for women on personal experience. When his father s business failed, one of Mizoguchi's sisters was sold into the geisha life depicted in these films. Each socially conscious drama is about essentially good women compelled to become prostitutes. With relentless logic, Mizoguchi shows his female protagonists defenseless against a society that stacks the rules against them. Trying to remain a respectable woman, independent of a man's "protection", seems a lost cause.

1936's Osaka Elegy (Naniwa ereji) begins the pattern with the story of Ayako Murai (Isuzu Yamada), a switchboard operator who falls victim to the demands of men. Her father demands money and steals the tuition that Ayako sends to her younger brother at school. Too proud to rush her virtuous boyfriend into marriage, Ayako gives in to the advances of her boss, Mr. Asai, a selfish man with a crumbling home life. She foolishly attempts to extort money from another lecherous executive to enable her to marry her boyfriend. Then the police get involved, ruining everything.

In this first collaboration with screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, Mizoguchi lays out a trap-like sequence of events. The reward for Ayako's sacrifice is betrayal on all sides -- when Asai's unhappy wife Sumiko (Yoko Imemura) catches them together at a theater, employees rush to defend his honor but leave Ayako's reputation in tatters. Prejudice against sexually independent women proves stronger than family ties, when Ayako is condemned by the brother and sister she's been supporting for years.

Unlike western films from the same era, Mizoguchi dispenses with careful transitions, jumping the storyline forward by cutting directly from one important dramatic even to the next. But more strikingly, his movies are uncompromised by commercial needs. No comedy relief is offered, and the only break from the storyline is a brief passage at a Kabuki theater, where the puppet characters seem engaged in a similar drama.

The police assume that Ayako is the root of the problem, and destroy her hopes for respectability. The final shot shows the bitter Ayako staring down the camera as she walks into an unknown future. It has an emotional kick comparable only to the similarly bleak conclusion of Mervyn LeRoy's I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

Made the same year, Sisters of the Gion (Gion no shimai) brings back the same two actresses in an even darker vision of women trapped in servitude. Sisters Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) and Omocha (Isuzu Yamada) are the owners of a tea-house; we are told that they are geisha, and accept only one lover / sponsor at a time. The compassionate Umekichi takes in Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya), a failed businessman whose family has broken up. Younger sister Omocha hates men and considers Umekichi a sentimental fool. Behind Umekichi's back, Omocha ejects Furusawa, fleeces a young admirer and lines up a pair of wealthy sponsors. When Omocha's schemes unravel, the results are devastating.

Mizoguchi and Yoda draw a strong contrast between the sisters. The traditional Umekichi wants only to be with the man she loves, while Omocha wears western dresses and determines to prevail through lies and deception. But the real power lies with the men. Furusawa can ditch his wife and suffer no loss of face. When merchant Kudo clashes with his own clerk over Omocha's affections, male pride comes first. The devious Omocha plays with fire and suffers a terrible vengeance, but neither is Umekichi's goodhearted attitude a guarantee of happiness. At the conclusion both sisters are alone and miserable.

Less poetic than Osaka Elegy, the plot-driven Sisters of the Gion draws sharper characters, all of whom carry surprises. Furusawa warmly accepts Umekichi's unqualified hospitality but isn't compelled to reciprocate in kind. Omocha can charm Kudo's clerk into embezzling for her, but doesn't realize what he's capable of when crossed. The film ends with Omocha wishing that the geisha profession didn't exist. That was apparently a popular sentiment in 1936 Japan, among reformers convinced that, along with legal prostitution, the tradition should be abolished.

The third film leaps ahead eighteen years to the desperate post-war drama Women of the Night (Yoro no onnatachi, 1948). Years after the surrender, sisters finally reunite. Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka) learns that her missing husband died from disease in the war, and takes a job with an importer. Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi) returns from Manchuria and becomes a dance hall girl. Both women try to shelter the young Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda) from harsh street realities. But Kumiko runs away from home anyway. A street thug steals her money, rapes her and leaves her with little choice but to join the ranks of cheap prostitutes. Fusako and Natsuko are both seduced by Fusako's boss, who is eventually arrested for smuggling drugs. Disillusioned, Fusako voluntarily becomes a streetwalker. Natsuko goes to search for her, is mistakenly arrested in a street raid and brutalized by a prostitute gang. Fusako takes the pregnant and miserable Natsuko to a charity clinic to have her baby.

Women of the Night reflects the postwar experience with a harsh look at a ruined city seemingly overrun with homeless women. The issue is less about societal disapproval than the sheer need to survive. The police haven't changed much but the civil authorities sincerely want to protect the public health, even if there's not much they can do for individual women. At the charity clinic, a director's words to Fusako sound like a feminist manifesto -- women must unite to improve their condition. In an emotionally wrenching, rather theatrical final scene, Fusako and Kumiko find one other during a violent prostitute gang fight in the ruins of a church. It's all very effective.

1956's Street of Shame (Akasen chitai) is Kenji Mizoguchi's last film and an unqualified masterpiece. Masashige Nakamura's script is an unflinching look at a brothel in the Yoshiwara district, at a time when the Japanese government is considering outlawing legalized prostitution. The owner is incensed that other businessmen look down on him, and harangues his employees with claims that he looks out for their interests. The owner's wife decorates the fancy brothel and keeps the books. On most paydays the prostitutes end up owing money to the house.

The women of the night are strongly differentiated. The only one making money is the popular Yasumi (Ayako Wakao from Manji), who augments her earnings with loans to the other girls. Yasumi also encourages a businessman to embezzle huge sums with false promises of marriage. "Mickey" (Machikyo Kyô of Rashomon) is a completely Westernized tease, who earns big money but spends it just as fast. The other women have much deeper problems. A once-popular widow wishes to retire, and repair her relationship with her grown son. Another woman works to support her sick husband and baby, but cannot earn enough to pay the rent. Yet another hopes that marriage to a working man will free her from the life.

Publicity over the abolition question affects business in Yoshiwara, making things harder on the women, some of whom must borrow more from Yasumi to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the boss loans extra money to the flashy Mickey because she brings in fresh customers. The girls throw a send-off party for the girl with marriage plans, but Mickey predicts she'll be back very quickly.

The Red Light district of 1956 seems to be a going concern, with statuary in the bar, beautiful bathtubs and fresh mats in the rooms. Yet the women are as desperate as ever. What they seem to need most is a Union, as the brothel owner thrives on their individual poverty. Everyone talks about money constantly, with the hard equation being that the thoughtless Mickey earns plenty while the girls working out of necessity must struggle day to day.

As one might expect, nobody comes out a winner. The woman who chooses marriage discovers that her husband only wants an extra employee he doesn't have to pay, who can be forced to cook and clean. The widow's hopes for a retirement are dashed when her son doesn't value her sacrifice. Yasumi's patsy becomes violent when she admits that she has no intention of running away with him. And Mickey must face her father, whose first concern is protecting his social standing. Her outraged reaction reveals layers of anger beneath her "Who cares?" behavior.

The conclusion returns Mizoguchi to the mysterious, chilling finish of Osaka Elegy twenty years before. The owner's wife prepares a traditional costume and makeup for a very young girl's first night hooking customers: "I don't like virgins." The girl cowers under the bright lights of the brothel façade, her terrified eyes staring from a face painted to resemble a porcelain doll. The script is a document of social protest, but Mizoguchi communicates the unjust horror of prostitution purely with images.

Eclipse's DVD set of Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women presents all four pictures in fine B&W transfers. Made when talkies were fairly new in Japan, the two early titles are in slightly rougher shape, and the opening titles of Women of the Night are very scratchy. But the rest of the film looks fine, and Street of Shame is flawless. The audio is reasonably clear as well, with some dropouts here and there where bits of track have been lost. Street of Shame uses a very strange, grating title cue composed of isolated notes from single instruments, combined with eccentric choral effects.

The Eclipse format has no extras, just chapter selections and a choice to remove the English subtitles. The excellent, brief liner notes are unattributed. Once again, Eclipse has presented a fascinating group of pictures unlikely to be released as single discs, fulfilling their stated mission to provide "lost, forgotten or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions." The horizons of readily accessible film culture expand with every release.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Good and Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: liner notes
Packaging: Four slim cases in card sleeve
Reviewed: October 21, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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