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.

Mizoguchi's next extant film, the short melodrama Tokyo March (1929), is far more interested in more intimate social conflicts than The Song of Home. At its center is the geisha Orie, who becomes the object of two young, wealthy men's interests. A romance between Orie and one of these men, Yoshiki, seems imminent, but hearts are broken when Yoshiki's father reveals to her that she is his illegitimate child, and Yoshiki is therefore her half-brother. It's a plot that obviously would have been unacceptably salacious in the west, but it's resolved all-too-tidily when Yoshiki happily resolves to marry Yoshiki's friend instead, and Yoshiki decides to travel to America to find his future. Yet, as Yoshiki leaves, Mizoguchi has one more shot of Orie looking mournfully downward. Complicating details like this, as well as the film's superimpositions, montage-like cutting, and fluidly composed camera angles and movements, suggest Mizoguchi was far more in command of both his craft and his subject matter in 1929 than he was in 1925.

Tokyo March survives only in a substantially reduced form, but the benshi narration in the version I saw — which, despite having a score and the narration, has a too-fast framerate, speeding up people's movements — has a somewhat distancing effect that allows the narrative to move very fleetly; there is, it seems, less need to linger on visual beats when they can be expressed verbally by a live narrator. The downside of this is that even though it’s entirely comprehensible, the focus swings from Mizoguchi’s strong visual storytelling to the efforts of the benshi, but it’s still a happier state for the film to exist in than so many other fragmented silents whose lack of supporting text makes viewing a theoretical exercise.

This brings us, appropriately, to two much more irretrievably fragmented Mizoguchi works. The first is Asahi wa kagayaku (The Morning Sun Shines), which in its original release was a hard-hitting journalism drama that incorporated documentary details of the printing process. Now, it only survives in a version that has cut out all fictional elements to form a short documentary, and I suspect the remaining footage was not directed by Mizoguchi, though I couldn’t find any direct statements to support the notion. The other remnant is even less cohesive: a brief, four-minute dance sequence from Tôjin Okichi. Evidently, the complete feature film was Mizoguchi’s first to use his now-famous one-scene, one-take approach. This surviving section, however, renders the dance in five shots, and its photography seems a great deal below Mizoguchi’s standards. Nonetheless, there is less of a tendency towards a montage aesthetic here than in, say, Tokyo March, and five shots for a three-minute sequence at least suggests a broader economy to the director’s coverage choices.


Tokyo March (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1929, 28m) (English subtitles, no Benshi narration, but played at a proper framerate)

The Morning Sun Shines (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1929, 25m)

Dance scene from Tôjin Okichi (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1930, 4m)


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