A typical scene from Musashino fujin (1951)
Although his other 1951 picture Oyû-sama is famed for its relatively frank portrayal of sexuality and perverse desires (untouched and unspoken subjects at the time), Mizoguchi's underrated melodrama Musashino fujin actually deals with bigger, more controversial issues such as incest, adultery and suicide... albeit in a sweepingly soft blow that features characteristically ripe dialogue and theatrical performances from Masayuki Mori and Akihiko Katayama, who paint their säkē-swelling womanizers with such broadly antagonistic strokes that it's sometimes hard to understand how Michiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) is torn between two such loose cannons. Although it can also be read as a propaganda piece (which Japan was producing at this point) about loyalty and obedience, it's probably best seen as a straightforward drama, because in that sense it has some highlights - and we can sidestep the questionable moral ethics presented by the finale which I would need to know A) more about Mizoguchi's oeuvre, and B) more about Japanese cultural history to fairly assess in a context that would be fair to the film. That said the ending is almost laughable in its extremes and I find it peculiar form for a feminist filmmaker whose previous and subsequent features presented such strong female characters with solid ideals and rounded character arcs.
The film opens at the end of war with Tokyo (an expanding and sprawling utopia) being bombed, and Akiyama (Mori) and Michiko walking down a long country path, away from the (beautifully shot) smoking rubble in the distance, towards Musashino - a stunningly pastoral area surrounded by grass and trees. Akiyama is a teacher prone to infidelity and Michiko is his long suffering wife, who stands by him to honour her position in society and keep her fathers promise of keeping the family together and creating a new generation. After a few years Michiko's younger cousin Tsutomu (Katayama) returns from war, most of which he spent in a POW camp, and starts to stir trouble with Akiyama, who has fallen in love with his neighbor Tomiko (Yukiko Todoroki), wife of Ono (Sô Yamamura). Tsutomu and Michiko fall in love, but betray their desire to keep face in their small gossipy community. Even when Akiyama runs away with Tomiko, Michiko suffers in solace, before she eventually learns of a way to procure happiness for Tsutomu and deny her husband unlawful access to her fathers land...
The story is contrived and needs a controlling hand to keep the emotions on an even kilter, and although he seems more impassioned by this material than Oyû-sama, Mizoguchi still isn't on his most commanding form in regards to the direction. Many of his long-takes are actually cut short with unsatisfying edits that seem too safe in terms of composition, and the film lacks a definite rhythm. That said it does boast great momentum; the pace of this 84 minute film is faster than most pictures of the period I can recall. There are very few tracking shots and the tableaus that do exist are rather bland in comparison with, say, The Life Of Oharu (1952). But there are still plenty of aspects to admire in the film, namely the way in which Mizoguchi shoots and juxtaposes the country and city lifestyles. The way he shoots nature and the forest is incredibly absorbing - dense and vast, the images have such depth and are beautifully photographed. The angles he chooses capture a light through the trees that is at clear odds with the darkness of city life, often shot in cloud or at night from high-rise buildings that are only lit by the neon-signs that are slowly re-building the city. The films most honest moment comes in its surprisingly depressing denouement (the reading of a letter; not the tacky suicide). In voiceover Michiko informs Tsutomu "Your beloved, beautiful Musashino only exists in your dreams. It is a sentimental idea." She goes on to tell him that the land he always dreamed of - of schools and opportunity - is fast becoming city life, which is observed in a perhaps overly promotional but still stunningly evocative overhead shot of Tokyo. It's a rising economic and technological landscape that holds the reality of a Tsutomu's nostalgic Musashino.
The central performance by Tanaka is extremely assured here, with subtler shades and a more natural self-reflection than displayed in Oyû-sama. Although the dialogue is still beneath her talents ("I must go on living a loneliness worse than death") and rather undersells the nobility her character could have had, she stands out in a film with many more positive aspects than it is currently attributed. For example, although I have previously noted on Mizoguchi's direction in a negative sense it is still understandingly observational and more in-tune with the artistry of the piece, which is perhaps fitting for such exaggerated material. The film has a lovely overall aesthetic and is one of his most pleasing works on a visual level. Also the score - a more nuanced and shaded work than expected - is perfectly edited into the film, only appearing at vital moments and never manipulating. It's by no means a perfect work, but it's an enjoyable one when watched on the level of pure drama. Accept the silliness, the histrionics and questionable ethics (which, I grant you, is a lot) and you'll find a much more satisfying work than Mizoguchi's current critics would have you believe.