Five Women Around Utamaro (1946)

6 09 2008

I don’t intend to be condescending, but this is pretty much textbook Mizoguchi right here: a beautifully crafted melodrama that is occasionally profound, often high in drama, but almost always entertaining. Even with the biographical aspects present, Mizoguchi manages to bring out his characteristic melodrama. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, but after watching so many of Hiroshi Shimizu’s subtle and beautiful dramas, it is a bit hard to readjust to Mizoguchi’s usual cinematic quirks. Of course, the maximality in the narrative is toned down by some of the loveliest visuals of the 1940s. For all of Mizoguchi’s faults at handling human interaction, (at least compared to his peers) he did consistently capture some of the most beautiful images in all of cinema.

In 18th century Japan, Kitagawa Utamaro is in his artistic prime and is already seen by connoisseurs as one of the greatest printmakers of all time. Unfortunately, his artistic success is starting to collide greatly with his personal life. Utamaro is arrested by a local judge for speaking his mind on the state of art and is sentenced to fifty days in handcuffs. The sentence seems harmless, but the handcuffs prevent Utamaro from participating in his greatest personal outlet: his paintings. With his only means of expression eliminated, his work becomes something of a life-or-death situation, which seems to correspond with the state of his relationships as well.

This film is such a curiosity, not only for the fact that it was the first period piece made in Japan during the Allies’ occupation, but also because it is the only example of Mizoguchi attempting a biographical picture. In fact, this may have very well been the first Japanese biopic, or at least the first personal one. I guess 47 Ronin can also be considered a biopic as well, but that film operates on a much larger scale, is much more vague. As someone who is fairly unfamiliar with Utamaro’s real life experiences, I can’t make much of a comment on the legitimacy of the story, but towards the end things tend to sway towards Mizoguchi’s usual type of melodrama. It is not even unrealistic, but perhaps more accurately, just too emotionally extreme to work with such a calm technical sensibility.

Once again, Mizoguchi showcases his poetic possibilities with the camera and the results are some of the most elegant and calm mobile tracking shots in his entire oeuvre. Even with the film’s print in not-so-great physical shape, the movements of the camera are so steady and relaxed. It’s quite possible that something as small as the camera’s fluidity would not be significant in a film with as many gorgeous static shots as this one, but instead, the juxtaposition of the two flows together perfectly.

All of this reassures the cinematic intelligence of Mizoguchi, which is rivaled only by his emotional angst as the biggest personal element in his work. The connection between Mizoguchi and Utamaro is inevitable, but it makes sense at least when using Mizoguchi’s vision of Utamaro as the point of comparison. That’s why, even with the usual melodramatic flourishes, this is one of Mizoguchi’s most emotionally mature works, if only for the fact that it is somewhat a reflection of the creator himself.

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