I always hesitate to compare movies when I’ve seen them so recently if only because I feel like I might be fighting an impulse to connect each new cinematic experience with the one that is the freshest in my mind. I feel like it’s warranted in this case, though even as Kenji Mizoguchi and Elio Petri seem so disconnected from each other. Like The Middle Class Goes to Heaven, My Love Has Been Burning meditates on the differences between the differences in liberalism in contrast to radical leftism. Mizoguchi’s statement is even more clear than Petri’s and he works within a beautiful, heartbreaking portrait of women during the Meiji era.
Hirayama is heartbroken by the departure of her boyfriend, Hayase, to Tokyo. She proposes the idea of her joining him but he ignores the idea, assuming that Hirayama will never get her parents’ permission and she’ll never disobey them. However, Hirayama learns that her neighbor, Chiyo has been sold into slavery. She defies her parents and goes to Tokyo with the intention of reuniting with Hayase and eventually liberating Chiyo. This doesn’t go to plan, and it turns out Hayase was conspiring against the Liberal Party, who he left with the intention of joining. From there, Hirayama falls in love with the party’s leader, Omoi, but she finds that his actions don’t always match his outspoken politics.
If one were to take away the political context here, that of women’s rights during and following the end of the Meiji-era, you might get something that doesn’t seem that unique from Mizoguchi. In some ways, this could work as a warm-up to the endurance test of misfortunes that is Life of Oharu. Like that film, Mizoguchi’s muse, Kinuyo Tanaka is constantly placing her trust in men, but then realizing that she shouldn’t have trusted them in the first place. I get the impression that the tone here serves a bigger purpose beyond the tragedy of Oharu. Fittingly, my biggest beef with the claim that Mizoguchi was the first “feminist director” was (aside from his own personal life) that he presents the stories of women as tragedies, one in a lifetime martyrs that felt more in place in the opera than in reality.
To be fair, my common criticism of Mizoguchi is still applicable in this film. The sequences with Chiyo are violent on a level that approaches cartoony with images of women bound and being abused. Thankfully, these images (which are, to their credit, as difficult to watch as Mizoguchi probably intended them to be) are kept to a minimum and Chiyo’s attitude towards the men mistreating her gives us the rare Mizoguchi heroine brave enough to speak out, as opposed to one who just endures her mistreatment.
Chiyo’s much more violent oppression runs in parallel to Hirayama. Some might deduce that by placing them side by side, we are to all of Hirayama’s activism and education has made her lose sight of “true” oppression and she has nothing to compare in contrast to Chiyo. While Chiyo is indeed inflicted with more physical pain throughout the film, their struggles are united by the fact that they’re brought on by the same reason. This reading would also suggest ignoring some of the film’s most crucial scenes, particularly Hirayama escaping from her husband but it also works within Mizoguchi’s cinematic vocabulary. Early on, the Liberal Party has a meeting and it’s exclusively men and self-identified “intellectuals.” Tanaka manages to float into the frame and is ignored, all of the men but the party leader leave. Almost a visual embodiment of her refusal to back down in the face of men.
It could also be read that the film is ultimately about the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do, but I think this type of discourse is inherently related to Mizoguchi’s political message. It’s sort of ironic, at least to me, though since one could accuse him of the same thing he’s accusing the men of the Liberal Party of in this film. Then again, he’s made a work that still feels ahead of its time, ideologically. Within all of this, it’s probably worth noting that Mizoguchi is at his very best here as a visual artist. I tend to feel that before the 1950s, he was a bit more free with the camera. Sure, he’s always been mobile but there’s a calculated feeling to Ugetsu and Sansho. It works for those films, but there’s an energy that bursts from the tracking shots (the riot one, in particular) that is not only impressive, but perfectly underscores the chaotic political nature of the film. It would not be a bad idea to see this with Naruse’s White Beast made only a year later, which has similarly aggressive feminist sentiment.