Kenji MizoguchiJapaneseKuniko MiyakeDaijiro Natsukawa
Medium: film
Year: 1935
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writer: Daisuke Ito, Soseki Natsume, Haruo Takayanagi
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Yukichi Iwata, Kasuke Koizumi, Kuniko Miyake, Daijiro Natsukawa, Toichiro Negishi, Ayako Nijo, Kazuyoshi Takeda, Mitsugu Terajima, Ichiro Tsukida, Yoko Umemura, Chiyoko Okura
Format: 72 minutes
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 21 May 2013
I didn't like it. Read on for Finn's cultural insensitivity.
It's a 1935 film by Kenji Mizoguchi. Not only did I expect it to be a silent film, but it spent several minutes pretending to be a silent film until two characters started talking to each other. It's also one of Mizoguchi's earlier works, from that period in the 1920s and 1930s where he made more than fifty films, most of them now lost. We're lucky that it exists, but we could have been luckier because the print quality is poor and the soundtrack quality even worse.
The story involves marriage. Yukichi Iwata has a daughter, Chiyoko Okura, whom he wants to marry off to his adopted son, Ichiro Tsukida. Does that sound weird to you? Well, never mind. However other people have different plans, including a bitch queen mother who's meddling with her daughter's marriage prospects because of money. There are also romantic entanglements among the young people.
The good news is that the cast do good work and I enjoyed watching them. Taken on a scene by scene basis, there's a lot to like here. Iwata is adorable, like a cuddly Japanese Chaplin but with a better moustache. Tsukida is sympathetic in a role that could have made him look stiff, distant and/or fickle. The bitch queen is unquestionably a bitch queen. Kuniko Miyake is elegant and beautiful as the other girlfriend and the cast member here you're most likely to recognise, since her last film appearance was in 1991 and she often worked with Ozu. She gets decent material here too, with some bite to her characterisation and a couple of points that'll make you step back and go "whoah".
Reasons I didn't like the film:
(a) It communicates its plot badly. In fairness, I was watching a film in bad condition where I couldn't hear the dialogue very well and didn't understand what I did hear very well. However that wasn't the problem. I had subtitles. In addition, it's a film from Japan in the 1930s, with me being neither Japanese, 100 years old nor particularly sympathetic towards all this arranged marriage nonsense in the first place. There will be subtleties I didn't get. I'd have been judging the characters' actions by my own standards instead of their own. The contemporary audience will have judged this in ways that I wouldn't... and of course their viewpoint trumps mine. Mizoguchi made his film for them, not for me.
However that said, the film's first act is all about middle-aged parents doing matchmaking for people we don't know. It's lots of talk about people we don't know. It means nothing. In isolation they're perfectly good scenes, but they'd have added up to a story had I been able to put faces to all these names. Even now, to be honest I'm a bit fuzzy on who's who. I've got the girls straight, I think, but I'd want a rewatch to be sure about who all the young men are, what they're doing in the plot and who's the meddling parent of who. Why did Miyake start giving Tsukida the cold shoulder halfway through? Buggered if I know. This is probably my fault for not watching closely enough, but what the hell.
(b) Chiyoko Okura annoyed me. She's supposed to be a sweet, noble-spirited young Japanese blossom, but the main thing that hits you about her is her voice. She talks like a six-year-old. Admittedly this is a long-standing hobby-horse of mine and Japanese people are baffled when I bang on about it, but seriously. Listen to her. If a friend of yours started talking like that, you'd either tell them not to be stupid or take them to a doctor. Admittedly Okura isn't going so far as to enter chipmunk territory, but it's still bad enough to make you want to slap her. She also occasionally simpers and spends the entire movie wearing traditional Japanese dress that makes her look like a painted doll.
I'm still trying to work out whether Mizoguchi was deliberately trying to make Okura seem childish and faintly annoying, or whether this was intended, unironically, as the epitome of demure Japanese girlhood in the 1930s. It's a difficult one. Mind you, she's likeable in her opening scene with her father (if you can get past the voice).
(c) For me, the most sympathetic character is the one who's supposed to be unsympathetic. She's capable of being a bit chilling, but at least she's got more spine than Okura. I also found her prettier. Her main problem from the audience's point of view is that her character has more money than Okura's, which isn't her fault but still doesn't look good. Whatever country you're living in, no one's going to look kindly on a man who dumps a girl for another with more money.
(d) I lost patience with the older generation too. The first thing Iwata does in the film is to scrub graffiti off a wall from a man who's pleading to be allowed to marry Okura. Iwata scrubs it off. Uh-huh. This has nothing to do with Okura being allowed any say in the matter, obviously, but it would be silly for me to expect otherwise. What makes Iwata's character an idiot is the fact that he's charging ahead on a ton of assumptions, seemingly assuming that a young man won't have changed in the slightest or formed any other relationships after moving to Tokyo and studying there on his own for five years. Um. There's a strong scene in the third act where Iwata's performance is good, but alas his problems are his own stupid fault.
At least he's not evil, unlike Queen Bitch... but Queen Bitch unfortunately isn't in the movie very much. At least with her, you know where you stand.
In other words, I was cheering for the people I wasn't supposed to cheer for. I wanted to tell Okura to grow up and talk like a human being. I wanted to tell her father to piss off, stop his incompetent meddling and just let the younger generation live their own lives. (This is unrealistic in a 1935 Japanese film, but what the hell.) He's a lovely fellow, mind you. You want to cuddle him and take him home. However he's also an idiot. More fundamentally, the film had done such a bad job of explaining who's who that I didn't feel I even understood the relationships between the characters. Which young people had been promised to each other by their parents? Who was whose potential boyfriend? That's the kind of information without which any film will be struggling. I dare say I was being stupid and the film would make much more sense on a rewatch, but it's not going to be getting one.
"Women who seek pleasure are dangerous."