Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 71/69/74/85 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 59.95
Release Date: October 21, 2008
Review Date: October 18, 2008
During his illustrious career, Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi made a series of films that focused on downtrodden but resolute women. Given that the woman’s role in Japanese society at the time was subordinate to that of men, Mizoguchi’s detailing of stories with women protagonists seems daring even today, despite the fact that these melodramas are sometimes more historically important in the overall development of his directorial style during his career than they are as fascinating films in and of themselves. Still, the four films in this collection, all with determined women rising and falling in success and prestige during the course of the various movies, make an interesting quartet of films around this central theme.
Ayako Murai (Isuzu Yamada) is the oldest daughter in a family with a dissolute father (Seichi Takekawa) and a struggling older brother trying to graduate from school without the tuition money to pay his last term. She becomes the mistress of her employer (Benkei Shiganoya) who has a shrewish, unloving wife (Yoko Umemura) who had earlier defied him to take a mistress but is none too happy to find out he has done so. Trying to keep the source of her income hidden, she lies to her fiancé (Kensaku Hara) about her employment and hopes she can garner enough money to bail out her brother and the rest of her family.
The title of the box set pretty much intimates that poor Ayako won’t be completely successful in her endeavors, but writer-director Mizoguchi sets up a series of embarrassing encounters which aren’t just injurious to her pride but that also destroy her reputation among her family and the society at large. He keeps her shots at a distance for much of the film, leading to that fabulous close-up at the end showing us the women Ayako has become. The melodrama is laid on pretty thick, but it goes down more easily with Mizoguchi’s no-nonsense staging and the earnest performances.
Two sisters who work as geishas are having a hard time making ends meet. The older sister (Yoko Umemura) is devoted to a married man (Benkei Shiganoya) who’s just gone bankrupt and can no longer contribute to their comforts. The younger sister (Isuzu Yamada) has no patron at all, only a young man (Taizo Fukami) who lusts after her but can’t afford her services. Determined to change their fortunes, the younger sister contrives to drive away the now penniless patron of her sister and set them both up with wealthy clients. Despite her best efforts, events evolve to bring down both sisters.
Mizoguchi’s camera catches the pleasure district of Gion in all its rather seedy glory. He begins the film with a magnificent tracking shot through the home of the once wealthy Furusawa as all his belongings are being auctioned off, never pausing until he gets to the dejected married couple devastated by their ill fortunes. There are other subtle touches, too, that show a master craftsman at work, a climactic dispute filmed at a distance with our hearing only voices while the visuals are hidden behind a bamboo-slatted shade being the most prominent. The desperation of many of the characters in the piece is never far from view, and any happiness is fleeting, a theme that seems to resonate through all of these films.
Three women (Kinuyo Tanaka, Sanae Takasugi, Tomie Tsunoda), all striving to live honorable lives, are dumped by forces beyond their control into squalid lives to the lowest level of street prostitutes, afflicted with syphilis and abandoned by all friends and family. Each of their stories is heartrending as we see their bad luck leave them at the mercy of the savagery of the streets with no hope in sight.
Mizoguchi’s most nihilistic entry of the four films in this set is filmed in a raw style with the postwar defeatist tone which must have been rampant in the Japan of that era. The animalistic fury of the various bands of lawless women who rule the streets they walk with the protective fervor of a mother guarding her infant is captured in a series of shocking, no-holds-barred moments that have the power to stun to this day. And the final ironic shot of the stained glass image of Madonna and child after we’ve seen near-death experiences for our three protagonists is simply haunting.
Mizoguchi’s last completed film focuses on four prostitutes working in a clean and well managed brothel called Dreamland: Mickey (Machiko Kyo) is always in debt but has a nonchalant air about the work, Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) is an entrepreneur able to wheedle heaps of money from patrons with outrageous lies, Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) is an aging prostitute not bringing in the money as before but hoping she can leave the business and either rejoin her husband in the country or live with her son working at a factory in Tokyo, the rather plain Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) must continue working to support her suicidal husband and sickly child.
As Mizoguchi’s last completed film, it’s a much more sympathetic and alluring glimpse behind the scenes of a busy brothel, and all four main characters are actually interesting enough to have carried their own movie individually. Combined, there is almost an embarrassment of dramatic riches present as we tumble from one story to the next and burrow deep within the psyches of these working women who approach the job from different points of view and with different degrees of either desperation or bemusement.
The 1.33:1 aspect ratios of these films have all been faithfully delivered in these DVD transfers. The Eclipse line from Criterion doesn’t windowbox these academy ratio films, but it also doesn’t do much clean-up on them. Thus, there are lots of scratches, and dirt and debris crop up fairly frequently. There’s a lack of sharpness, too, which some may find bothersome along with occasional missing frames which jar the picture. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
The quality of the transfer is far superior to that of the previous film. While there are a few random scratches and some dirt and blacks are milky rather than jet black, there’s an increase in sharpness that allows us to see much more emotion on faces. The film has been divided into 11 chapters.
The film is in rough shape with lots of scratches and water spots in the first half. Later on the image quality improves as many of the artifacts clear away and we‘re left with a reasonably solid image. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
By far the best looking of the four included films, the movie transfer boasts only mediocre black levels, but otherwise, the focus is sharp, the grayscale tight, and the image is artifact free. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is loaded with continual hiss and crackle. Oddly, the movie begins with the pop song “Stairway to the Stars” which has a lush recording here, all the more ironic in view of what happens to the film’s main character. Elsewhere, though, the low fidelity of the track is somewhat harsh and unpleasant.
There is some hiss and crackle present, but it’s all much less noticeable and objectionable in this particular audio mix than in the previous one.
There is a more than average amount of hiss and flutter on the track and there is some crackle early on though it’s nonexistent in later portions of the movie.
There is some slight hiss and just the smallest amount of occasional flutter, but it’s a much stronger audio mix here than in any of the other films.
The Criterion Eclipse releases do not have special features. Each DVD case, however, does contain liner notes inside that give an interesting critical and historical analysis of the film and its place in the Mizoguchi lexicon.
The four films in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women show the development of one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers as he approached the theme of struggling women in four highly different ways over the course of twenty years. All of the films are well worth seeing (Street of Shame is the prize of the package) and more than a tad sobering to witness the struggle for survival of women in Japan in three very different periods of the country’s turbulent 20th century history.