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 earliest sound film has, sadly, seen extensive deterioration of its soundtrack, not that there seems to have been fidelity much there to start with. Oyuki, the Madonna was made for the independent Daiichi Eiga studio, and seems to have a correspondingly smaller budget than The Downfall of Osen. In any case, that movies most incredible meshes of technical and artistic flair are mostly absent here, and what remains is a simple morality tale with a discomforting moral outlook and reduced showmanship, but effective moments here and there. The story comes from Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, the same source that inspired John Ford’s socio-thematic approach to Stagecoach four years later. In Mizoguchi’s adaptation, a number of locals, many strangers from different classes, take to a hired stagecoach to escape a warzone. Soon, the bourgeois passengers turn their class prejudice against two prostitutes on board: the confrontational, fiery Okin; and the passive, compassionate Oyuki. But after the passengers are all captured  by government soldiers and suspected as spies (a bizarre, unpleasantly fragmentary ellipsis), the bourgeois stagecoach passengers beg that the prostitutes offer themselves to the ranking officer, with the hope of earning escape for the whole group. Okin is rejected, much to her humiliation, in a shot that demonstrates Mizoguchi’s skill in radically altering the depth of a composition with simple, expressive gestures.

Oyuki’s offer is better-received, though the soldier’s deep sense of honours compels him to pound back alcohol before accepting her proposition. The moment of intercourse is handled by an elliptical gesture: the soldier sits gazing at Oyuki, then as he stands up, the camera tilts downward and tracks backwards with his striding feet before resting on tattered leaves on the floor. Before returning to the couple, we see a stark exterior wide of soldiers guarding the building, which is soon filled by a small band of trumpets and drums that call away the soldiers. The moment also stands as an elliptical comment, a metaphorical stand-in for copulation.

When the escaped stagecoach passengers reach a ferry across the river, they hypocritically turn upon Oyuki and Okin and send them back from where they came. The two return to their war-torn homes, desperate for work but lacking clientele. They discover that by coincidence the government soldier has hidden in their home. Hoping for a reward and full of spite, Okin hopes to turn him in; Oyuki, however, has fallen in love with him, and begs Okin to spare him, claiming that Okin, too, has fallen for him. The confrontation, wherein Okin threatens the two with a rifle but finds herself unable to pull the trigger, offers another glance at Mizoguchi’s methods of calling attention to different nuances of his characters’ emotions and personal conflicts with small pieces of blocking and lighting conceits, and without cutting.

Acknowledging truth in Oyuki’s accusations, Okin grants mercy, and the soldier escapes, leaving the pair alone.

This romanticization of a woman’s assumed moral fealty to a man marks out a clear retort to those who would claim Mizoguchi as a proto-feminist filmmaker. Though I can’t be certain whether these elements were Mizoguchi’s idea, his collaborators', his studio’s, or the product of censorial fear (Mizoguchi had been the recent object of government surveillance for his socially progressive themes, a fact that frightened him), it’s clear that while at this point Mizoguchi had retained his sorrow at the unfair sacrifices that women make to support men, his storytelling had lost its disdain for patriarchal imbalance. But perhaps some of this impression comes from the emotional incoherence of the ending, which combines the plot contrivance and inorganic psychological behaviour that have dogged Mizoguchi’s films up to this point. Nonetheless, the concluding sequence is lovely in its simplicity and sorrow: a melancholic piece of music fills the soundtrack as the soldier departs on a boat in the distance, leaving the universally rejected pair isolated in the desolation of a bygone civilization.


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