Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women

Movies
5 out of 5 stars
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Photograph: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Both a masterful director of women and a master filmmaker, period, Kenji Mizoguchi never shied away from forcing his favorite actresses—Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyo, Kinuyo Tanaka—to suffer degradation in the name of primo melodrama. Given that Mizoguchi’s sister was a former geisha who helped put him through art school, it’s not surprising that the director would maintain a fascination with the world of working girls. What makes this collection so intriguing is the way these four films find the artist venting his anger about Japan’s hypocrisy toward the fairer sex. Mizoguchi often tackled “women’s issues” through the narrative prism of tragedy; these four movies, on the other hand, spill over with a shrieking sense of rage.

It’s a cri de coeur, in fact, that closes both Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion—Mizoguchi’s two 1936 features starring Isuzu Yamada—which put the films’ unlucky ladies, and us viewers, through the emotional wringer. The former climaxes with a compromised switchboard-operator–turned–concubine walking toward the camera, consumed with anguish; the latter fades out on a crippled, corrupted geisha screaming utter hatred for the profession. The environment that both underwrites the bartering of flesh and condemns said purveyors as sinners comes under attack in 1946’s Women of the Night, a blistering screed on postwar Japan’s prostitution problem (the bombed-out sets are a nice visual compliment for sociological rot), and Mizoguchi’s final film, 1956’s Street of Shame. Per Eclipse’s usual bare-bones approach, there are no extras and the prints all look as if they’ve spent decades in a damp cave. No matter; what the discs lack in technical finesse is more than made up for with thematic cohesion, as each film showcases a sympathy for the damned that never dimmed.

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