Blu-ray Review: A Story from Chikamatsu | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, May 31st, 2020  

A Story from Chikamatsu

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jan 11, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

When it comes to the contemporarily agreed-upon holy trinity of classic Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi are the unchallenged masters. Though Mizoguchi was a longtime mainstay within his native Japan for the bulk of his career, it wouldn’t be till roughly the final five years of his life that he would gain his well-deserved international prominence in the early 1950s. His two 1954 films would solidify this newfound fame and respect - Sansho the Bailiff and A Story from Chikamatsu (aka The Crucified Lovers). While the former is often regarded as one of the director’s premier works, the latter is considerably one of Mizoguchi’s most nuanced and lingering cinematic experiences.

Adapted from Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1715 bunraku play Daikyōji Mukashi Goyomi, the story was originally told through traditional Japanese puppet theatre. This adaptation was a considerable challenge for Mizoguchi, and screenwriters Matsutarō Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda, who had to find a balance between the realities of the period portrayed, the caricaturistic melodrama of the play, and the director’s profound respect for the traditions of bunraku. Mizoguchi would manage to weave into the mostly standard plot, his trademark contemplative mise-en-scène, his ever-present critique of the roles of women in contemporary Japan, and his observations on the sociological effects of an oppressive society.

Ishun (Eitarō Shindō) is a tremendously wealthy and influential scroll-master in Kyoto, whose younger wife Osan (Kyōko Kagawa), had married him to help her impoverished and irresponsible family. When Osan’s family continually harrasses her for loans, Osan asks one of the scroll-master’s best apprentices, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa), for helpt. Secretly in love with his master’s wife, Mohei attempts to forge a receipt, but is caught, confronted by Ishun, and is confined. The maid Otama (Yōko Minamida) asks Ishun to forgive the crime, but is accused of adultery instead, as she consistently refuses Ishun’s advances for her to become his mistress. Soon a complicated web of backroom dealings, misunderstandings, and cover-ups force Mohei and Osan on the run from the authorities, where they find both comfort and crisis in the most unlikely of places.

Though this film is often cited as lacking the groundbreaking innovations of Sansho the Bailiff earlier that same year, what is constantly forgotten is that this film doesn’t require them. While Sansho is a masterfully constructed technical extravaganza nestling a heartbreaking story, A Story from Chikamatsu is painfully relatable throughout its 102-minute runtime, primarily due to its reliance on how its characters normally behave, react to pressure, and interact with each other – there isn’t even much of a story here, it is mostly a collection of mounting emotional moments that eventually clash together. The desperation of Osan and Mohei play about in theatrical detail in concurrence with the gleeful hypocrisy of Ishun, with the deceit of the nobles who are indebted to him providing further background for sociocultural commentary. The camera is observant and remarkably distant, its movements are deliberately (and perfectly) paced, playing with classical naturalism amidst the the conventions of bunraku. While the technical aspects call little to no attention to themselves (besides Fumio Hayasaka’s chillingly fantastic musical score), from blocking to lighting, every detail is deliberate and methodical.

After a successful native premiere, A Story from Chikamatsu would go on to be nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, and continually cement the international fervor for Mizoguchi’s surprisingly subtle female-driven dramas. Though his films that would follow the succeeding years would have more of an impact artistically and socially (especially Street of Shame, which directly led to Japan outlawing prostitution), this semi-forgotten gem still holds as much power as it did upon its initial release. This sentiment is also clearly shared with the fine folks over at Criterion, as they have released a Blu-ray of this Mizoguchi masterpiece along with a small (yet satisfying) helping of supplemental features.

This 4K digital restoration, baring a newly designed cover by Michael Boland, comes equipped with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack and a newly refined English subtitle translation. A recently videoed interview with Kagawa buttresses the fascinating and extraordinarily well-crafted video essay Mizoguchi: The Auteur Behind the Metteur-en-scène by Dudley Andrew, both illuminating and dissecting the film in far greater detail and appreciation than anyone has yet given it. The disc is also accompanied by a written essay by Haden Guest, included in the Blu-ray’s case.

While Mizoguchi is renowned for his treatment on all kinds of human suffering, this film in particular highlights the power of finding an inner peace in an unjust and cruel society, and how women must constantly fight both the male gaze and the male-dominated cultural norms they they all begrudgingly follow. Some characters eventually reach a deep contentment, even in the face of extortion, financial ruin, and complete destruction, and there is a perpetual sense of optimism about it all. Though it concludes in one of the bitterest of bittersweet endings ever put to cinema, A Story from Chikamatsu remains one of the most understated masterworks of 1950s world cinema.


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January 21st 2019

I am very fond of Japanese cinema and read Japanese books a lot. They are very cool about love and relationships. They have a different view on life values. I have already ordered this film on Blue-Ray, I am waiting for it to be delivered to me in order to watch it as soon as possible. From school, I try to impose my passion for Japanese cinema on all my friends. At university, I asked the essay online store to write a good essay for me about one of my favorite Japanese films, to bring this essay to the university and read to my friends. After that, 2 of my friends wanted to watch this movie and they really liked it.