A frequent plot device centres on sibling rivalry: brothers and sisters competing for affection, praise and lovers. In Oyû-sama (Miss Oyû) that notion is turned on its head as two sisters, Oyû (Kinuyo Tanaka—cross-reference below) and Oshizu (Nobuko Otowa) set their matrimonial sights on the same man, Shinnosuke (played with convincing wimpishness and naïveté by Yuji Hori). The widowed Oyû wants her younger sister to marry the perpetually shy, “very kind” Shinnosuke, who has the immediate hots for the matchmaker. No worries. Oshizu sees the pining, but finally marries the early orphaned businessman if he will “make my sister happy and let me live as a nun.” This selfless request is made on their wedding night.
Yet the nuptials would not have taken place until the head-over-heels bachelor promises to do anything to make Oyû happy, to which she replied “Then marry my sister.”
How can such a convoluted plot turn into such a cinematic pleasure? Put director Kenji Mizoguchi in charge.
In this instance, Mizoguchi stages every scene as if it were meant for the theatre rather than the big screen (the post childbirth La Bohème sequence is as moving as it is reverential: just switch the kimono for Mimi’s shawl in mind’s eye) that lets these desperate characters arrive at their destiny with more show than tell. Shinnosuke’s scene of temptation while the forbidden (some of her family members are not completely enamoured with the smitten young man) love-of-his-life lies alone and prostrate is a silent gem of angst that subtly reinforces the distant possibility that he is, in the darkest corner of his psyche, actually searching for the mother he never knew, so the satisfaction of his lust might be worse than dreaming of it.
From that moment forward, Mizoguchi frames the trio with non-coincidental care. In defiance of the blocking tradition (never let the actors stand with their back to the audience), Oshizu and Shinnosuke spend many climactic moments facing away. When the truth is finally revealed “I made the decision [celibacy, leaving Oyû free to bed the emotionally paralyzed husband] on my own,” the best shot of the film places Oyû between the loveless couple, who, like bookends, gaze away to their respective wings. As happens in many other moments, Tanaka’s visage speaks volumes, requiring nary a word to say what’s in her heart.
The extended coda weakens the initial climax rather than delivering a calming adieu. Happily, we are rewarded with another selection from traditional instruments (the early-on koto solo is especially fine), contrasting effectively with Fumio Hayasaka’s original score (listening closely, the components of the American West harmony/structure and Eastern melody combine to produce a musically global result that is decades ahead of its time).
By journey’s end, Kazuo Mayagawa’s camera (particularly effective is the use of the forest and windows to create the feeling that we are eavesdropping on the personal calamities of the truly pathetic love triangle) fades to moonlight black and inner shadows of contemplation. JWR