Only one year prior to this film, Kenji Mizoguchi made Gion Bayashi – a wonderful slice-of-life type drama that reflects the director at his most subdued. That film is much more along the lines of Ozu and Naruse. In 1954, along with this film, Mizoguchi also made Sansho the Bailiff, a poetic but slightly too sentimental film that is often regarded as his greatest achievement. The contrast in style isn’t too overwhelming but both of those films represent two sides of Mizoguchi’s film making. Yet, Chikamatsu Monogatari doesn’t really fall into either category. It is melodramatic and theatrical, but it’s emotional impact is unaffected and unparalleled.
Osan is married to the wealthy Ishun, but their relationship is strictly superficial. Confusion in the city leads to many accusing her of having an affair with Mohei. They flee the city, at first to avoid punishment. However, as they continue to dodge Ishun’s men, their relationship grows. They fall hopelessly in love and the final result is, as the title implies, tragic.
Mizoguchi has quite an infamous off-screen reputation. He was stabbed by a prostitute, threw tantrums, beat his actors, and even worse, trashed Naruse. For better or worse, I had never see this type of anger manifested in any of his films. In a sort of similar fashion, Vincent Gallo is not completely likable off the screen but in a film like The Brown Bunny we see him, or at least we see what we think of him. In other words, he (along with the film) is self-indulgent, which tends to be used as a negative term in film criticism. Chikamatsu Monogatari is extremely self-indulgent, but for me, that’s part of it’s appeal. I’d hate to say the film is endearing simply because Mizoguchi decides to be so transparent in his feelings but that’s why it “got” to me.
Of course, a lot of the film’s unrelentless romanticism is most likely a result of the story’s source, a bunraku play written by Monzaemon Chikamatsu in the 17th century. At times, the dramatic coincidences and the theatrical acting become unbearable, especially when put up against Gion Bayashi but this film ends up feeling a lot more genuine. As great as Gion is, it’s pretty much just a Naruse/Ozu film with some of Mizoguchi’s usual stylistic touches. This, on the other hand, feels like a true Mizoguchi film – harm treatment of the main characters in a story that gets more and more tragic by the minute.
The sheer melodrama of the typical Mizoguchi story arc is not something that appeals to me greatly but Mizoguchi himself feels well aware of the cinematic limitations that such a narrative brings. He indulges in enough human agony that the film, while over-the-top, never lapses into self-parody. Even though such a story obviously couldn’t occur today, the character’s emotions are undoubtedly real. If one can’t adjust to such relentless heartbreak, they can at least appreciate the film’s beautiful cinematography. I’ve always liked Mizoguchi quite a bit, but my respect for him (at least as filmmaker) greatly increased after watching this. It seems that most Mizoguchi fans don’t see this the way I do; a flawed, misunderstood masterpiece that displays all of his faults but more importantly, all of his strengths.