Tuesday, March 28, 2017

DVR Diary: A STORY FROM CHIKAMATSU (aka The Crucified Lovers, 1954)

I get the impression that Kenji Mizoguchi's adaptation of a classic 18th century puppet play is not considered one of his home-run pictures like its contemporaries Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. It doesn't merit its own Criterion Collection DVD release, for instance, and its appearance on TCM last weekend was my first chance to see it. Perhaps the subject matter is too much like a 19th century European novel -- or something by Theodore Dreiser, if your tastes run American -- its actual pedigree notwithstanding, for world cinema fans seeking something more echt Japanese. Yet it's exactly that quality, its clash of intense romanticism, bourgeois repression and brutal traditional values, that impressed me the most. Of course, I can't say whether Mizoguchi and his screenwriters added those layers to Chikamatsu Monzaemon's original, but given Chikamatsu's reputation as Japan's greatest dramatist I suspect all that stuff was there all along. Basically everything revolves around a successful entrepreneur, Ishun (Eitaro Shindo) who as the official Scroll Master has an exclusive franchise to publish calendars. He's so wealthy that the nobility borrow money from him, and despite their manners they clearly resent their dependence on this arriviste. The opportunity to destroy him comes when his neglected wife Osan (Kyoko Kagawa) falls in love with one of his top salesmen, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa). Initially, embezzlement brings them together, as Mohei dabbles in forgery to help Osan's brother pay off a loan. This first transgression escalates into adultery after some farcical contrivances, but the affair is no laughing matter, since the Tokugawa Shogunate punishes adultery with death. It's also potentially a huge embarrassment for Ishun. It could even ruin his career if the authorities determine that he knew of his wife's infidelity without reporting it. Come to think of it, the fact that I found Ishun's predicament more fascinating than the lovers' romance may expose a problem with a film presumably sold (especially under the more exploitative English language title) as a tale of blazing passion. The romantic leads are fine, but passionate doomed lovers are almost a dime a dozen in cinema. What intrigued me to the end was they way everything shaped up against poor selfish, mean-spirited Ishun. At first he thinks he'll avoid embarrassment or ruin by cancelling some nobles' debts in return for their covering up the scandal. That plan falls apart when Mohei and Osun turn themselves in to the authorities, preferring death by crucifixion to life on the run or under Ishun's thumb. Once they've done that, the nobles pounce on Ishun, terminating his franchise, confiscating his wealth and exiling him. On one hand you can say the bum had it coming, but at the same time this is clearly an unfair, unjust system at work for the exclusive benefit of the upper class, and that makes Ishun's comeuppance nothing to celebrate. By comparison, and unlike a condemned couple we see paraded through the streets earlier in the picture, Mohei and Osun seem almost beatific at the end, their parade to the crosses almost like a triumph. Mizoguchi, I think, is canny and objective enough to let us question that even as bystanders comment on the lovers' apparent bliss. It may not have the spectacular camerawork or spooky grandeur of Mizoguchi's more canonical movies, but I found plenty to chew on in Chikamatsu Monogatari, and I'd recommend it to those with similar cinematic tastes.

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