Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

In this series of posts, I’ll be describing my impressions and making personal observations, at first historical and then increasingly critical, as I view every extant film by Kenji Mizoguchi. I will be learning and writing as I watch, and may periodically come back to extend or update my earlier posts.

This is an excellent example of the shinpa dramatic form that was one of Mizoguchi's primary narrative influences throughout his career. In shinpa, the poses and artifice of kabuki were somewhat lessened in favour of a more 'modernized' theatrical approach, without fully adopting western standards of realism. The class and gender issues of the time were often a central feature of the story; the kind of issue that most directly concerned Mizoguchi was the narrative of the woman who suffers inordinately for her man in order to support him in his social rise. As Tadao Sato explains in his comments on The Water Magician on the Digital Meme DVD presentation, this was a common real-life scenario at the time, as the western-style modernization of the Meiji period encouraged education and upper class professions, but these positions were only available to men. Thus, women often had to help their men within the limited range of work available to their gender, fostering a common sense of guilt among the men whom they supported.

In The Water Magician, the woman in question is a traveling performer, a water artist named Taki no Shiraito. She falls in love with and resolves to support an out-of-work young man, Kinya Murakoshi, by sending him to school in Tokyo, and periodically sending him the money she earns as part of the troupe. However, an unprofitable winter and Shiraito's impulsive generosity soon leaves her unable to support him, with mutually tragic consequences.

The awkwardly staged light comedy of their early meeting — where Shiraito's earnest flirting goes virtually unnoticed by Kinya — is a solid explanation in itself of why Mizoguchi's later work was so humourless, and the story relies upon some extraordinary coincidences and somewhat unbelievable character choices by Shiraito to position the lovers in the impossibly unfortunate finale (the final, crucial beats of which have either been cut at some point and necessarily replaced by narration, or were unwisely never included in the first lace). Nonetheless, the emotional intent of the star-crossed dynamic partly survives the film's flaws, especially when the plot gets properly moving in the second half. What's especially distinctive is Mizoguchi's direction, which shows him well on the way to full mastery. Clever match cuts, expressive compositions and blocking, and absolutely gorgeous lighting conceits abound, as does a hint towards his later "One scene, one cut" style: a stunningly elaborate tracking shot shot that preludes the climactic crime at the picture's center. It moves from a wide exterior to a tight interior room, before moving to the doorway of another room and settling there. Whatever the film's flaws, its visual panache alone makes it an enjoyable experience, and its contemporary popularity and place in Mizoguchi's filmography make it an excellent historical reference.


The Water Majician (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1933, 100m) (with benshi narration) 


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