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Cheat or be cheated – Mizoguchi Part III

July 6, 2010

Mizoguchi Kenji experimented with a lot of topics in his movies and tried to ride on every wave to gain success. But in the end there was only one topic Mizoguchi could really deal with: women and especially geishas or prostitutes. Like Mizoguchi experienced in his own family, many young women were forced to sell themselves to support the family and give their brothers the opportunity to go to school or university during the late 19th and early 20th century.

So does Ayako, the heroine of “Osaka Elegy” (1936). Working in a drug store, Ayako supports her family but when her father fails to pay the rent she has to make some extra money. Her boyfriend cannot help her and suggests that Ayako asks her boss Asai instead. Asai who is interested in Ayako would indeed give her money but that would mean that Ayako becomes his mistress. While Ayako refuses Asai’s invitation to dinner at first, she has no other choice than to accept in order to pay the rent and keep her father out of jail. Asai’s wife finds out about the affair and is mad, of course, although she had told her husband to get a mistress if he is unsatisfied with their marriage at the beginning of the movie. Ayako is quite happy that the affair is over, but when she meets her younger sister in a station she learns that her older brother needs money as well to pay his study fees. So she has to become a mistress again. After Ayako decided to accept her boyfriend’s proposal, she also decides to tell him about her affairs because she doesn’t want to have any secrets. Ayako plans to get rid of her second affair with the help of her boyfriend but he is disgusted when he learns the truth about her, although he promised that he would still love her no matter what kind of secret she would have to reaveal. When Ayako and her boyfriend are arrested, he puts all the blame on her and when Ayako is finally allowed to go home, her brother and sister blame her as well, not realizing that Ayako got into all this trouble to help them. Finally, her brother kicks her out…

The fact that Ayako sold herself to support the family was no problem until she was arrested. Her family took her money without asking where it comes from. They don’t even ask about the circumstances that made Ayako a “criminal” but as a criminal she brings shame to the family and has to leave. Only Ayako’s father knows about the circumstances and could defend her, but he is too weak to do so as was Ayako’s boyfriend. So Ayako is cheated by those she cheated for and learns that honesty doesn’t pay off.

That life means to cheat or be cheated for women is something many characters in Mizoguchi’s movies have to learn. The “Sisters of the Gion” (1936) learn it in a painful way. Both sisters live and work in Gion as geishas but while the older sister, Umekichi, is submissive and sticks to traditional values, the younger, Omocha, is well educated and understands the need to cheat very well. Omocha, ironically her name means “toy”, doesn’t want to be a men’s plaything and uses men to her own advantage but in the end one man takes revenge which brings Omocha into hospital. That doesn’t mean that sticking to traditional values would make geishas better off, oh no, Umekichi is cheated in the end as well when her patron leaves her although she cared for him while he had trouble with his wife…

“Osaka Elegy” and “Sisters of the Gion” were Mizoguchi’s first great successes and are important works of social criticism. Especially impressive is the last scene of “Sisters of the Gion” in which Omocha cries out loud how wrong the geisha profession is (watch from 7:39):

I wonder about the reactions of the Japanese audience in 1936 when the geisha profession was widely accepted, but until the end of WWII the situation didn’t change. In 1953, Mizoguchi remade this movie. In “Gion Festival Music” the younger sister choses to become a geisha out of her own will. She is not forced to sell herself but wants to learn traditional arts. Still, she has to learn about the dark sides of the geisha profession, too…

While the sexual aspect was more and more excluded from the geisha profession, Mizoguchi concentrated on the profession that is all about sex. His last movie “Street of Shame” (1956) sums up the hardships of prostitutes, the reasons why women sell their bodies and the social consequenses of their profession just at the time when Japan was about to introdruce the Anti-Prostitution Law. The couple which is running the brothel in this movie is worried about the new law but keeps pretending to their women that the brothel is giving them the welfare the state denies them. In fact, the brothel can hardly be called a welfare organisation. The women have to give a large part of their money to the owners and struggle to pay back their debts, so that there is almost no possibility to leave the brothel although all of them dream of this. Only one woman manages to save enough money to leave. But she does so by cheating a man who almost kills her when he finds out that he has been cheated. Another woman leaves the brothel with the money offered by the state to prostitutes who want to give up their profession, but she returns soon after she learns that her boyfriend only wanted to marry her to have a cheap worker at his factory and a maid to keep his household…

Although Mizoguchi repetedly depicted the lives of geishas and prostitutes in a realistic way and criticizes the weakness of men which is always the reason for women’s misery in his movies, Mizoguchi wasn’t a better man himself. He was a frequent visitor of tea houses and brothels and had a lot of affairs. The most remarkably was his relationship to a dancer who got so mad at Mizoguchi’s fickle lifestyle she stabbed him in the back with a razor. But he didn’t even change his way of life when he finally married and often had fights with his wife. He only became steadier after his wife went insane in 1941, but he still didn’t help his sister out when she asked him for financial help after the war.

It is surprising that a director who produced such critical movies never changed himself for the better. Maybe he didn’t know another way to change something than to make critical movies and maybe his last movie did contribute to change. Two months after “Street of Shame” was released the Anti-Prostitution Law passed the Diet. But Mizoguchi never knew how this change took place. He died before the law came into effect.

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