Ginza keshô / Ginza Cosmetics (1951)

11 06 2014

1951 was an exciting year for Mikio Naruse. Months after Ginza Cosmetics, he would also complete Repast, ushering in a new chapter in his career. With these two films, he started making a different kind of film, not one ideologically divorced from his work in the 1930s, but one that took a different direction stylistically. I hesitate to use the terms observant or intimate because, although they have a positive connotation, their overuse and misuse have implications of a film that is visually flat, or crudely stitched together. Naruse’s style at the final part of his career showed the director at his confident and concise. While many called him stylistically “invisible” (including Akira Kurosawa in one sort of overused quote) I find this to be a mistake. Sure, it’s not as noticeable as his peers, but Naruse’s aesthetic was so deeply in tune with his ideas that it seems impossible for him to express them in this context without this so called “invisible” style.

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Yukiko Tsuji is an aging barmaid, but despite her age she’s still called upon to take care of her younger sister as well as her son. She tells her younger sister, with some sad acceptance in her face, of the way her heart was broken. “Most men are beasts” she adds. Later on, we see evidence to back up this claim. Around the bar, men endlessly make advances towards Yukiko who, yes, as a sex worker does have sex for money at times, but the environment in which she works is one that is constantly challenging her comfort. Her age and lack of money leaves Yukiko in a tough spot, her work is tied to her youth and physical appearance while that work itself is still not enough to pay for the expenses that are necessary for something as simple as staying alive.

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It’s not the most unique idea to suggest that Naruse’s films about ultimately about money. His protagonists, almost all of whom are women, are sandwiched by being women and being poor. That sounds like these are two separate forces, but in Naruse’s world and the one we actually live in, these two oppressed status actually work together, influence each other, and ultimately have a relationship that makes one inseparable from the other. Some might call Naruse’s work superficial because it is about money, but most of life is superficial then. It’s not “materialistic” to be concerned about money when surviving is at stake. Perhaps then, it would be more accurate to describe his films as not being about money, but self-preservation.

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Yukiko is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who is most famous for her collaborations with Kenji Mizoguchi. She’s always wonderful in a Mizoguchi film (or anybody’s film for that matter) but I honestly prefer her here. There’s a quiet resignation in her performance, though I think Yukiko is not one who has given up. Instead, she’s accepted reality, an admittedly harsh one that seems set to both scrutinize her behavior and want to benefit from it. The men in the film joke about the “standards” of the women they interact with, yet have no problem in continuing in hanging around them. They seem oblivious to their moral dishonesty, but it has the dynamic in sexwork changed much? Naruse (like Ozu) hasn’t made a film critiquing Japan’s old-fashioned morals (which is how so many western critics frame it) but instead the racist, patriarchal society that we inhabit today.

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After seeing Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin a few months ago, I remarked on twitter that it beyond all of its modern stylization, it actually came from the same place as most of Naruse’s work. To be short, I think Glazer’s “science-fiction” film is actually obviously about the horror of being a woman in a public space. It’s scifi context gives some justification for a male audience that weirdly enough, might have a better time understanding the discomfort of an alien over an actual living woman. Naruse’s work doesn’t have this context, of course, but it does give us the same experience. One that supports Yukiko’s claim that all men are beast. While trying to pay back a fine, she asks for help from a wealthy businessmen. The overwhelmingly polite man slowly becomes more and more forward and aggressive until he finally gets Yukiko alone in an abandoned garage. He’s only considered her status as a sex worker and not her status as a human being, which is why he seems genuinely upset and confused when she runs away.

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There’s an IMDB review of Ginza Cosmetics that mentions, in passing, that the men in Naruse’s films are generally weak. I wouldn’t disagree, though I would add that they are indicative of the reality. “Weak” not in the sense that they’re under-written but instead that in Naruse’s world they are indeed the peripheral, which is seldom the case in most films, arthouse or not. In Naruse’s Flowing (1956) the men seem to only arrive when they’re imposing on the geisha house that the film revolves around. There’s a similar sensation here that the men, when they are present, are imposing on the lives of women. Humanism is overused in describing film and usually applied to filmmakers who try to make all of their characters equal but by making the marginalized individuals the center, I’d argue that he’s more humanist. Not that it’s a contest.

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Musashino fujin / The Lady of Musashino (1951)

3 06 2014

What makes a protagonist for a Kenji Mizoguchi film? For starters, one needs to be a woman, preferably a struggling one. This doesn’t sound too complicated, we need someone who can express years of pain and disappointment in simple facial tics? Yes, Kinuyo Tanaka is perfect for the part. This might sound like me being glib or reductive, but it is part of the filmmaker’s DNA. None of this is a problem to me, as his fellow countrymen, Ozu and Naruse, made films of a similar ilk during the 1950s, but the one reservation I still have about Mizoguchi and will continue to have about him is why he must turn his women into martyrs. Sure, yes, a patriarchal society is to blame, but the insistence on sacrifices leads me to believe that there’s actually something quite troubling working underneath his art.

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Michiko Akiyama is stuck in a loveless marriage to her husband and professor, Tadao. The two exist at two opposing ends, Michiko loyal and committed to the moral code of the past. Tadao, on the other hand, is unapologetic about his the west’s influence on him. In his classes, he teaches a “theory” that suggests that adultery is inevitable and logical, all to the delight of a giggling group of women who are obviously impressed by his charm and good looks. Tsutomu enters the picture, a young man eager to escape the city and the “amoral women” he associates himself with there. Upon arriving in Musashino, he finds the pure woman he’s looking for in Michiko. Yet, the thing that makes her attractive is part of what keeps the two from being together.

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The setup here, which comes from a Shohei Ooka is actually quite concise and economical. The story gives us a woman and a man in a unsatisfactory marriage, yet we only see pressures and responsibilities held up against one of them. That would be Michiko, of course. Her father tells her early on that she’s responsible for keeping the community of Musashino and the family name alive. Tadao receives no similar scrutiny, and in fact, we’re not entirely sure he cares the slightest bit about the actual relationship. While he doesn’t care for Michiko, the burden will be placed on her if they’re not able to reproduce. Of course, because they can’t stand each other, this is not even close to a possibility.

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The always wonderful Masayuki Mori plays Tadao here, and he manages to breathe some life into a character who is intentionally underwritten. The problem here is that his “badness” is so one dimensional that the dynamic never also for something more realistic. Also in 1951, he was Mikio Naruse’s Repast, where he was also a negligent husband. Naruse’s film, coming from the pen of the great Fumiko Hayashi, gives a balance to the relationship that still manages to illustrate the power dynamic. I’m not arguing for something more “subtle” just because it’s better storytelling, but also because this aforementioned power dynamic often manifests in situations where it not be as so clear and obvious as it is in The Lady of Musashino.

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All of this is a bit more forgivable when one considers that Mizoguchi often wore his politics on his sleeves, yet I think my other problem with the film is that he’s really not as clear as he should be. One sequence gives us Michiko and Tsutomu walking along a beautiful river, which Tsutomu tells us was the location of a sex worker’s suicide. This folk tale is told in passing and seemingly isn’t meant to add much beyond the suggestion of something mythical. Ultimately, I’m finding myself placing a lot of Mizoguchi’s own work on that same plane. There’s a few exceptions (Flame of My Love and Street of Shame come to mind, but there are others) but mostly his sacrificial women are obscured by the mythos of their storyteller. Mizoguchi achieved visual poetry often, but instead of expanding on the pathos of his characters, in films like Mushashino, he seems to minimize their plight and reduce his women to tragic individuals whose stories we’re to tell over a camp fire.

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