Like the women in these films, Judge Clark Douglas' review slowly spirals out of control and ends terribly.
Men were their prey! Beauty was their lure!
The latest addition to Criterion's "Eclipse Collection" (a budget-friendly, supplement-free line of films) is a box set of four films from director Kenji Mizoguchi. The collection is titled "Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women" and focuses on the troubled lives of Japanese women in the pre-war and post-war eras.
Two of the entries here were released in 1936. The first is Osaka Elegy, which tells the tale of a young switchboard operator named Ayako (Isuzu Yamada). Ayako's father is suffering financially, and Ayako desperately wants to help him. She is so desperate to do so that she will even prostitute herself to her boss in order to make a little extra money. The film examines the hypocritical attitude toward women in Japanese society and works rather effectively as a drama and a comedy. No, the film is not subtle, but I admired the contrasting tones at work here. The comic side centers on Ayako's boss, who panics when he is caught cheating by his wife. Sure, the situation is embarrassing, but the man's reputation is left intact. His male friends do not scold him, but rather pat him on the back and offer their sympathies. Meanwhile, poor Ayako's story plays out as a drama, with her life slowly slipping toward ruin in numerous ways.
The second entry from 1936 is Sisters of the Gion, which was largely made with the same cast and crew. The film focuses on two sisters who make a living in the geisha profession. The dominant sister is Omacha (Isuzu Yamada again), a strong and fiercely independent woman with a general disdain for men and much of humanity in general. She is by all means her own person, unafraid of doing or saying whatever she pleases. Omacha's quiet and disapproving sister is Umekichi (Yoko Umemura), who is a far less controversial individual. The two both approach their profession in a manner that reflects their personality. Umekichi is loyal and kind to the men she services, while Omacha is constantly attempting to betray her clients in one way or another. The film does not really take sides or suggest that one approach is more effective than the other. In fact, it suggests that both approaches are doomed, which is unsurprising considering the title of this collection. The film is perhaps a bit subtler and more effective than Osaka Elegy, and manages to pack quite an emotional punch despite a scant running time of only 69 minutes. Omocha's heartrending speech at this film's conclusion is perhaps the most powerful moment of the entire collection.
Next, we fast forward 12 years later to 1948's Women of the Night, a gritty examination of prostitution. The film is visually rougher than the others in the collection, largely because Mizoguchi was forced to use rather poor equipment. Mizoguchi viewed this liability as an asset, as it permitted him to create a film in the Italian neorealist style that he had come to admire so much. We follow several young women as a post-war life of poverty slowly forces them into prostitution. Like the other films, this one is a slow-burning descent that carefully builds to an emotionally intense and gripping social statement at the conclusion. In this case, one could argue that the conclusion is a bit over-the-top, but it's filmed in such a compelling and heartfelt manner that I fell for it. A brief essay found inside the case reveals that Mizoguchi would later dismiss the film as "barbarous." Despite this, I still find it a reasonably effective and touching piece of socially conscious filmmaking.
Finally, we have Street of Shame, which turned out to be the final film of Mizoguchi's career. The film contains a level of wisdom and self-control that is missing from the other three films included here. I am not saying that the other films are not good…in fact, I find all of them more effective on a purely emotional level. However, Street of Shame is perhaps a more persuasive argument about the horrors of prostitution, simply because it takes a calmer and less melodrama-driven approach to things. In fact, there are even moments here when Mizoguchi tentatively acknowledges the complexity of the situation, quietly hinting that some women may even be better off in such a life. An interesting fact to note: the film was influential in helping pass an anti-prostitution law in Japan. Socially-minded filmmakers of today should bear that in mind when making films they hope will make some sort of difference. In many cases, taking a fair-minded and even-handed approach while gently demonstrating your point may prove far more effective than charging into the room with both barrels blazing.
All of the films have a sad inevitability to them. Despite the fact that nothing here comes as a real surprise, the power of Mizoguchi's social statements is considerable, particularly when these films are viewed together. That sense of heartbreaking repetition is really quite moving, as we see many women slowly crumbling into utter despondence. There is a scene in Osaka Elegy in which a young woman asks her fiancé, "Would you forgive me for something, no matter what it was?" The fiancé smiles and replies, "Of course!" We all know full well that his tone will change when he hears what she has done, even if he would demand to be excused for doing the exact same thing. Though these films are obviously a product of their time, there's still a lack of equality in the attitudes we have about sexuality. When a man sleeps with a lot of women, he is a playboy. When a woman sleeps with a lot of men, she is a whore. The lack of fairness and logic behind the thought process that inspired such standards is something that obviously concerned Mizoguchi deeply. The deep level of feeling that runs through these films elevates a collection of relatively minor works from a notable director into an affecting four-part statement.
The transfers here are hit-and-miss. Osaka Elegy looks reasonably good, considering the age of the film. The expected scratches and flecks are here, but it's a fairly clear and clean print of the film. On the other hand, Sisters of the Gion looks quite terrible at times, sometimes presenting such a blurry image that you can barely see the faces of the actors. Due to the aforementioned poor equipment, Women of the Night suffers from some rather badly-damaged footage. The image is a bit sharper than Sisters of the Gion, but the printed is loaded with messy flaws. Finally, Street of Shame is the best-looking of the bunch, largely because it is the newest film, I imagine. The mono sound on all of these films contains at least some measure of hiss, but is perfectly serviceable. If you don't speak Japanese (I don't), you'll probably be relying on the subtitles more than the audio, anyway. These are quiet films, with a pretty minimal amount of music and sound effects.
Though this isn't the most remarkable entry into the Eclipse collection,
it's a worthy box set that is well worth checking out. I doubt that most viewers
will find themselves returning to these films as much as, say, the movies in the
wonderful Postwar Kurosawa set (or Mizoguchi's remarkable Ugetsu, for that matter), but they are all
deserving of being seen and remembered. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice, Sisters Of The Gion
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Scales of Justice, Women Of The Night
Perp Profile, Women Of The Night
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Scales of Justice, Street Of Shame
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Distinguishing Marks, Street Of Shame
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