Kinuyo Tanaka as Oyû Kayukawa in Oyû-sama (1951)
Based on Jun'ichirō Tanizaki's 1932 novel The Reed Cutter (Ashikari), Kenji Mizoguchi's period melodrama was not one of his proudest works, but set within his confidently formalist frame what could have been a sappy studio picture becomes a semi-accomplished tone piece, beautifully photographed and economically shot in a series of long-take static tableaus and vital tracking shots. Even though it's melodrama the film is still painted in relatively small strokes. It's a film in which people fall in love upon first sight of each other, and emotions are not disclosed or explored, they are impulsive and declared. But actress Kinuyo Tanaka (Oyû), despite being terribly miscast, is on remarkably restrained form here. As an actress she is best known for her expressive emotion and the ability to consume a frame, especially in Mizoguchi's own Yoru no onnatachi (1948), which critic and commentator Tony Rayns describes as a performance of "animal like ferocity." Although there are moments of showboating (Shizu collapsing at her sisters feet begging her not to marry a sake salesman) Mizoguchi generally keeps the tone calm and collected, successfully creating mood in confined areas. Cast members Nobuko Otowa and Yuji Hori also do a good job of treating the melodrama with gravitas, but this creates some distance between us and the characters plight...
Mizoguchi had been making 'women's pictures' (an emerging trend for a popular market) for the Shôchiku Studio during WWII, where he established himself as a talented feminist filmmaker - although compromises had to be made as Japan had its eye on propaganda pictures. He soon moved to the Daiei Studio, which had undergone a turbulent couple of years when its head was accused of war crimes, for which he was absolved in 1948. Mizoguchi had a keen eye on the project he wanted to make (the superb Life Of Oharu, 1952, review coming soon) but was forced to compromise for some time as the studio found the picture over-expensive and troublesome in terms of foreign relations and political neutrality with the US. It's obvious that Oyû-sama is a compromised work, and one without Mizoguchi's heart completely in it. Of course, that's not to say the film isn't totally without merit. The screenplay by Yoshikata Yoda may be unfaithful to the source material (told in flashback with much more depth and nuance) but it is loaded with expressive feeling, best summed up by Shizu's line to Oyû, "for you I am willing to live my whole life in the shadows." If it sounds like unrealistic or clichéd then try to remember that the film is melodrama, and is dealing with quite profoundly untouched matters of a sexual nature, set in Japan's Meiji Period (1868-1912). Some of the dialogue may ring false, but the heightened sense of emotion is handled with care by the performers and director, and serves to mask a controversial and unfamiliar subject with a style audiences would recognise and could relate to. The ending is powerfully ambiguous, with Shinnosuke (Hori), after leaving his child to Oyû, wandering into the marsh - perhaps to live as a hermit, or perhaps to commit suicide. But on the way, in a stunning shot that sees the sun (its first appearance) shine directly over him, he sings "it was never destined to be this way." Surely destiny, as a device, was built for melodrama?
It's questionable whether the film A) addresses its themes correctly, or B) effectively employs melodramatic convention in softening the blow of said themes. Personally I was never fully attached to the characters, who seemed to exist in a limbo between melodrama and realism, a fine line that Mizoguchi would address perfectly later in his career, but with not enough compassion here. I wish the themes were deeper, but perhaps any sort of cerebral digging would be to misunderstand the formal point of Mizoguchi's cinema. It's an interesting feminist text, but still pales in comparison to the strength shown in later characters such as Oharu. It could easily be read as a piece on sisterly loyalty, and the films most heartbreaking moment comes when Shizu dies in Oyû's kimono, after giving birth to the child which is rightfully her sisters. But even then it's not totally accomplished. Mizoguchi's words on the film in 1952 were that it was a "job that didn't turn out well... I suppose the problem with the film is that I was trying to be fashionable." I don't think it's as bad as he thinks it is - indeed, the film is cleverly composed, almost theatrical in places, and has moments of visual beauty that can only be matched in this period by Kurosawa. The biggest problems lie in the director simply not caring enough for his material to give it the backbone such a complex novel deserves rendition of, and the fact that his address to both subject and melodrama are uneven. The cast do their best, turning in admirable performances, but ultimately the film suffers. Sporadically engaging but always technically proficient, it has moments of greatness but patches of a filmmaker treading water in hope of his dream project, which would turn into his feminist masterpiece.