After three decades making films at a break-neck pace (many of them brilliant), in the early 1950s Kenji Mizoguchi created an oft-praised trio of world-class masterpieces: The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). These historical dramas of feudal Japan explore the tight parameters around the lives of peasants, slaves, and concubines, whose dreams are doomed but presented with empathy, compassion, and haunting filmic beauty. At the end of this trio, and in the same year as Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi directed a film that has been somewhat neglected in the West. The film is A Story from Chikamatsu, another masterpiece. Like the ones before it, the film is set in the past but questions many social and cultural forces, particularly forces against women, that exist to this day. I had not seen it before its recent release from The Criterion Collection, and it may be my favorite Mizoguchi film.
The inspiration for the story is right there in the title; it’s from a play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, a Japanese dramatist who lived from 1653 to 1725. His plays were often concerned with doomed lovers and double suicides. Japanese audiences would know a bit what to expect from A Story from Chikamatsu, even if the title doesn’t specifically state it’s from his 1715 play Daiky?ji Mukashi Goyomi. When the film came to the West, where Chikamatsu isn’t well known, it was retitled the more blunt The Crucified Lovers.
Even if we know, then, that the film will likely end in some kind of tragedy for some lovers, the film’s power — and it is mighty powerful — is rests on the wonderfully staged and shot intricacies built into the characters, all of their fears and frustrations and hopes and vulnerabilities. I’ve watched the film a couple of times now because I love watching the characters navigate a terrain riddled with pitfalls with as much dignity as they can.
The film takes place in Kyoto during the Tokugawa Shogunate, close to the imperial palace. We learn from the early part of the film that most living at this time were struggling to get by while a few found the favor of the wealthy rulers. One in favor is Ishun (Eitaro Shindo), an older man who runs a scroll making business. Ishun’s wealth steadily builds due to some contracts he has with the government; he prints all of the calendars that everyone in the land is required to purchase, for example. Ishun’s wife, Osan (Kyoko Kagawa), is thirty years younger. The match was, for her, strictly financial. Her mother’s household, the Gifu-ya, hoped they’d be saved from ruin by the marriage.
Alas, Ishun is a stingy man who has no wish to lend — let alone give — any of his money even to desperate relatives. This puts Osan in a tough position: within the first few minutes of the film both her brother and her mother come to her for help she cannot give them.
Early in the film we also meet Otama (Yoko Minamida), one of the maids in Ishun’s household. She is waiting on him when he advances toward her. This is clearly not the first time he’s done this. In an attempt to get Ishun to back off, Otama asks him to please not make her unfaithful to the man she is promised to, one of Ishun’s clerks, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa). This is a lie, we find out. Mohei has no knowledge of the lie and no reason to think he and Otama would have any kind of relationship at all, other than one befitting respectful servants of Ishun’s household.
Meanwhile, outside there is a terrible parade. A man and woman caught having an affair are on exhibition, and everyone stops to watch:
When the wife of a member of the upper classes is caught in adultery, her husband is expected to turn her in. If he doesn’t, he is seen as complicit, condoning behavior the shogunate has outlawed. This day, the woman is the wife of a samurai. She and her lover are on their way to a public death.
Some of the women with courage question why the woman must be turned in, while the husband can be as unfaithful as he wishes with no fear of reprisal. They are told to accept the way things are. The risk of doing otherwise is ever present and deadly, particularly at a job where the owner’s position is linked to the satisfaction of the shogunate.
Ishun employs many people who are loyal to him only because his is the hand that feeds them. Mohei, however, is one who seems loyal out of duty as well. He consistently works through the nights and through sickness to ensure his work is as fine as it can be because that is the right thing to do. Otama — we see that when she lied to Ishun about being engaged to Mohei, it was a bit of wishful thinking — has fallen in love with Mohei and admires his dedication:
Mohei’s loyalty and skill has been rewarded with promotions, which have unfortunately given Mohei a mistaken sense that his master values and respects him as well.
When Osan comes to him for help getting a little bit of money from her husband, Mohei agrees to do what he can, going so far as to use his master’s seal on a blank piece of paper he will use to secure a money order for just enough to help Osan’s family.
When he starts to feel guilty, though, Mohei goes to confess to Ishun. Others tell him that is foolish and try to convince him to keep it hushed, but he seems to think his honesty will be rewarded with forgiveness for his transgression.
Instead, as you might imagine, Ishun is indignant and humiliates Mohei in front of everyone. When Osan tries to admit she was the one who asked Mohei to get the money, Otama steps up instead and tries to take the blame.
This doesn’t necessarily help Mohei, though given Ishun’s possessive streak and the fact he considers Otama one of his possessions. He locks Mohei up.
All of this happens early in the film. As I type it, I feel I’m giving a lot away, but, again, this is just getting the pieces in the right spaces, which the film does in the first twenty minutes. I won’t be specific any longer, but soon we’ll have Mohei and Osan — that’s right, Ishun’s wife and his lowly clerk — fleeing Ishun’s household together, each for their own reasons. Ishun, of course, concludes they must have been having an affair behind his back.
Ishun’s rash and faulty conclusion is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows him an outlet for his irrational outrage and allows him to use his resources to search for and persecute Mohei and Osan. On the other, if he doesn’t report the affair he suspects, he could be seen as condoning the affair or, at least, of preventing the authorities from punishing Mohei and Osan. His household is suddenly at significant risk, and there are many who’d like to see it fall.
The bulk of the film takes place in this space: Mohei and Osan on the run, Otama left behind, Ishun and his lackeys vying for position within the rules of the hierarchy that can turn against them at any moment. The Gifu-ya household unsure whether their daughter will save them or destroy them once and for all. The film beautifully advances each thread.
Within this space the characters come alive. There are beautiful moments of trust and vulnerability between Mohei and Osan. There are painful moments for Otama, who is left behind in Ishun’s household. Characters are left to search their heart when the laws and statutes tell them to forsake those they love.
A Story from Chikamatsu is a wonderful film that ends, of course, with a tragedy that actually feels like triumph. The film itself is a clear, rich triumph, and I highly recommend seeking it out.