Along with “Ugetsu” and “Sansho, the Bailiff,” Mizoguchi Kenji’s 1954 “Chikamatsu Monogatari” (A Story from Chikamatsu,” specifically his 1715 jôuri play “Daikyōji Mukashi Goyom”) is one of the early-1950s movies set in the past that brought Mizoguchi’s work (and Japanese film, more generally) to the attention of international cinéastes.
Most Mizoguchi films center on suffering Japanese woman (whether in the present or the past). The alternate title “The Crucified Lovers” guarantees that there is a female character paying the specified penalty for the capital crime of adultery, but the character who is pursued and suffers his comfortable life being turned upside-down for a minor lapse (not adultery) is a male, Circa 1683, Mohei (Hasegawa Matutarô, best known to me as the protagonist of “A Kabuki Actor’s Revenge”). He is going to secretly “borrow” a small sum from his miserly master, Kyoto calendar/scroll shop owner Ishun (chinless Misoguchi regular Shindo Etiarô).
Mohei does not actually embezzle the money that Ishun has refused to lend to the brother, Dôki (Tanaka Haruo) of his wife Osan (Kagawa Kyôko [Sansho the Bailiff, Tokyo Story. High and Low and other Kurosawa films right through Madadayo), but his intention is sniffed out by another employee (Ozawa Eitarô) who wants a cut for looking the other way. Mohei decides to tell the master what he didn’t even do, and the master decides to prosecute Mohei for forgery (even this is dubious in that Mohei had Ishun’s seal and was not forging it).
Osan is mortified that Mohei is being punished for trying to help her (and specifically after her rich husband has refused to supply the small sum). Matters are complicated by a mai, Otama (Minamida Yôko) leaping in to claim that Mohei was getting the money for her brother, protecting Osan. Otama is in love with Mohei and resisting the ongoing sexual harassment of Ishun. And Osan is not aware that Mohei is in love with her, which leads to his taking the risk to temporarily embezzle some of Ishun’s wealth.
Osan twice decides not to commit suicide and though exhausted from grueling flight, she and Osan get the game for which they already have been given the name. She could return to her husband without legal penalties, but refuses to separate from Mohei. This brings down her husband (and the assistant who sought a share of the embezzled funds). It seems that the only one who escapes unscathed is Osan’s wastrel brother Doki (who, incidentally, fetches the police to arrest Mohei when Mohei visits Osan at the ancestral mansion he has mortgaged). In my view, Doki exceeds Ishun in hypocrisy and exceeds any other character in ingratitude.
I think that the plan to make the visual composition of scenes throughout the movie resemble Japanese woodblocks was Mizogushi, but it was brilliantly realized by the great cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugetsu, Sanshô, Yojimbo, Floating Weeds, Tokyo Olympiad). The spare, sometimes alarmed music prefiguring Takemitsu soundtraks was written by Hayasaka Fumio [1914-55] (who also composed music for Mizoguchi’s “Uhgesu” and “Sansho the Bailiff and for Kurosawa’s “Stray Dogs, “Rashomon, Ikiru,” and “Seven Samurai”) and Mochizuki Tamezô. Well-acted and beautifully shot as it is, the pace is slow for 21st-century viewers (I suspect not only American ones) and the escape plans of Mohei and Osan, separately and together, are frustratingly self-defeating (the viewer, at least this one, roots for them to succeed in escaping the crushing hand of the adultery law).
© 2016, Stephen O. Murray