“The fruit of experience is beauty,” says Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) to her artistically gifted love slave, Genjurô (Masayuki Mori), having just purchased a raft of his blue-glazed pottery and now determined to have the extraordinarily surprised peasant by her side for time immortal. But that quote could be applied even more convincingly to director Kenji Mizoguchi as he brings Ueda Akinari’s stories (“Asaji Ga Yado” and “Jasei No In” from Tales of Moonlight and Rain) to truly fantastic life using his mastery of darkness, light and deliberately paced storytelling.
No digital effects were available in 1953 to employ in this dream-rich tale of two rural families in search of happiness during a brutal civil war, yet the out-of-this-world sequences easily convince with carefully crafted music (Fumio Hayasaka, Tamekichi Mochizuki and Ichirô Saitô combined to pen the original score) that sends us via celeste, harp and low strings into the far reaches of ecstasy or copious amounts of dry-ice fog during the metaphor-rich boat ride to escape the grim reality of daily life, gliding into the land of bounty (if the pirates can be avoided). It’s somewhat ironic (and such a good use of present-day technology) that this storied production has found new life in DVD format, ensuring that future generations will have the opportunity of seeing and understanding (with clean, crisp subtitles to assist on the voyage) how all manner of special effects are not required to create magical cinema.
The women feature prominently. Genjurô’s stoic wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) pines for the simple, happy life, but can’t help cracking a smile when her spouse’s pottery (produced as a sideline to his day job as farmer) sells out in the big city. Soon she’s wearing her first-ever kimono and not worrying how to make ends meet. Spurred on by success and the prospect of more wealth, the kiln is soon filled to capacity. Brother-in-law Tobei (Sakae Ozawa) temporarily abandons his ambition of becoming a warrior and—for a one-third share of the profits—works harder than ever to fill his purse with silver. At first, his better-half, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), cheers her Walter Mitty partner along but then the war catches up to their small village and everything changes for the worse.
With the back-story firmly established, Mizoguchi switches into high, but always thoughtful, gear, cutting, dissolving and fading his way through the trials (rape and pillage; a fortuitous beheading) and tribulations (working in an upscale brothel only to come face-to-face with your beloved) of the quintet of lead characters in their search for themselves and each other. He’s crafted a film that works at many levels: on the surface there’s enough action, lust and love to keep anyone entertained; deeper down in the intellectual weeds are moments of philosophical reflection and universal commentaries about the reckless use of power and denialism as means of survival.
The weak link, save and except for the closing frames, is the Genjurô’s and Miyagi’s young child, Genichi (Ikio Sawamura). Too often he’s not much more than a sack of rice; when called upon to wail, a “cry over” is used—his face of anguish never seen.; Couldn’t happen today with the abundance of child stars (and their pushy parents) waiting for their chance to strike it rich.
No worries. Quibble aside, here’s a film from times far past whose message is as current today as when samurai’s flexed their muscles and flashed their katanas to spark intimidation and fear. JWR