Mizoguchi’s Utamaro Biopic

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Even though one of the women (Tanaka Kinuyo) in Mizoguchi Kenji’s “Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna” (“Five Women Around Utamaro”/ “Utamoro and His Women”, 1946) takes extreme action and the woodblock artists Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806) is passionate about his work (which is celebrating the beauty of women, most of whom are prostitutes in the Yoshiwara pleasure district of the capital, Edo {later renamed Tokyo]) and, early on, an artist of the hypertraditional Kano Art School (Bandô Kôtarô) challenges Utamaro (Bandô Minosuke) to a duel, the movie (and the killer deranged by jealousy) still have pretty flat affect.

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The portrayal of living to make art surely has autobiographical resonances, and the movie also has the historical interest of being a piece of advocacy for a creative individual defying tradition that was acceptable (or more) to the US Occupation (as in Kurosawa’s rebels in “No Regret for Our Youth”).

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Sexual passion is represented as a curse, but Utamaro’s sublimation into art and will to make art his own way are lauded (not just implicitly). For me, the beginning (a long tracking shot of a procession) and the end (the piling up of Utamaro’s art after 50 days of having his hands bound in punishment for having “offended the shogunate”) are the best parts, though I’m sure that others must dote on the young women fishing (one of whom catches Utamaro’s eye).

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©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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