Story from Chikamatsu, A (1954)

Mizoguchi’s superb late career form continues with this masterful period drama about strict social norms and gender roles, with themes of adultery and romantic passion giving it thematic complexity.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review #1,574

Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
1954 | Japan | Drama/Romance | 102 mins | 1.37:1 | Japanese
PG (passed clean) for some mature themes

Cast: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyoko Kagawa, Eitaro Shindo
Plot: Osan is married to Ishun, a wealthy scroll-maker. When Osan is falsely accused of having an affair with the best worker, Mohei, the pair flee the city and declare their love for each other.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Source: Daiei

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Oppression, Social Norms, Gender
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: National Museum of Singapore – Japanese Film Festival
First Published: 28 May 2018
Spoilers: No

It is hard to imagine anyone making eleven feature films in the last six years of his or her life, but that is the unbelievable statistic bestowed upon the legendary Kenji Mizoguchi, who passed away at a relatively young age of 58 in 1956. 

Within that period of superb late career form, he made such works as The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and Street of Shame (1956), all of which are essential viewing for anyone into the director’s body of work.  

What is even more mind-boggling to learn is that he has made over 90 films in just over 30 years, making him arguably Japan’s most prolific filmmaker ever. 

With all of these in mind, what joy it is to be able to see A Story from Chikamatsu, not just for its artistic merits, but how impossibly consistent Mizoguchi was as a director, at least in his later years.

Starring Kazuo Hasegawa (prominently featured in Kinugasa’s underrated Gate of Hell (1953)) and Kyoko Kagawa (who was in Sansho the Bailiff and Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953)) as Mohei and Osan respectively, A Story from Chikamatsu sees both become entangled in an increasingly complicated web of deceit, marked by themes of adultery and romantic passion, in a time when the latter is scorned at and the former means death by crucifixion.  

“No matter what happens to us, I never want to leave your side.”

Strict social norms are continuously at play, and so are gender roles as the protagonists and other characters work in a scroll-making estate.  Mohei is a top apprentice to Ishun, his miserly boss, while Osan is Ishun’s young wife, who married for money to help her impoverished family. 

It’s hard to talk—without giving spoilers away—about how the film is more thematically complex than it meets the eye, but part of the fun is to see how the inter-character relations reveal themselves.

Shot by arguably Japan’s finest cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, The Crucified Lovers is visually striking, despite being set mostly (at least in the first half of the film) in interiors. 

In one breathtaking scene, we see two characters in a boat rowing across a lake in the middle of a misty night—a visual motif that has been ingrained in Mizoguchi’s work, particularly in Ugetsu.  

The director’s use of music is also spot-on, with sudden strumming of the shamisen to create dramatic points, and slow and deep drum beats that create suspense (Lim Giong’s (lighter) drum beats in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (2015) owes something to the work here). 

No doubt overshadowed by his other more illustrious films of the period, A Story from Chikamatsu is on its own a masterful period drama that comes highly recommended.  

Grade: A


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