“It’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is with a poor one,” my dad told me a few days ago, offering the line too many New York women (supposedly, and quite likely) tell their daughters. As I seem to have been doing a lot recently, I thought of Renoir: not only the old Shakespearean and screwball comedy concept that love knows no social boundaries (and levels everyone by making fools of them all), but the late Shakespearean concept that love—which is lust, for sex and possibly money, but mercifully unrecognized as such by lovers—knows no boundaries at all: it’s much too fickle, impulsive, and desperate to be limited to a single recipient. The idea that lovers are victims of circumstance. I don’t really care what I think about it, because I know; I am curious whether Mizoguchi Kenji would agree.
A master of deep-focus, of theatrical spaces, of long takes, of drowning scenes and of scenes of drifting at sea, of ellipses, of off-screen space, of shifting subjects (both in plot and image), and of, overall, lyrical-objective camerawork—all talents he shares with Renoir—Mizoguchi is almost certainly the master of victims of circumstance stories. (These may seem to be conflicting virtues: the characters are completely free in their movements, entering and leaving anywhere, even as they’re trapped in social strata, but the point is that the limitations are often artificially constructed). In the modern-day stories, the characters are often stuck, with only their delusions to keep them alive; in the historical stories, the characters tend to attempt rebellion—to live out their delusions—or simply to flee. Set in feudal Japan, Chikamatsu Monogatari (or Crucified Lovers) is one of the latter: Mizoguchi’s lovers-on-the-run turn.
As clearly the work of a master as it is clearly not a masterpiece, it’s uneven. The first forty minutes evolves into classic Commedia dell’Arte (but with the threat of crucifixion in the background)—mistaken identities, misplaced lovers, class swapping, wrong impressions, shifting devotions. Emotional states are, per Mizoguchi, based on economical ones: almost everyone needs money, for itself, or for its power to win affection. And those in power need to deny the hospitality only they have in order to assert their power. Women have something of the same power in denying sex, but only as long as it is an eventual (compromising) option; take the key scene in which the master’s wife, Osan (Kagawa Kyôko) asks to borrow money from the servant Mohei (Hasegawa Kazuo):
Throughout Mizoguchi, life is theater; there’s just not much chance, as there is for Renoir, of improvisation (or of chance playing any role at all). People act, play roles, and rather than trusting their facial expressions, Mizoguchi’s long shots enable his characters to express themselves gesturally, in how they move, fiddle, and touch each other; there’s a much better sense not only of their unarticulated exchanges, left to the imagination, but of their full bodily presences as actors moving on a stage. Above, Osan acts distracted. As Mohei wavers on whether he should lend her the money, she picks up the sticks and taps them offhandedly against the side of the basin, looks at the basin, and gives the clear impression that she’s more interested in the basin than in Mohei’s wavering. When he agrees to lend her the money, she puts them down, faces him, and recognizes him as a (momentary) savior. He’s merited her consideration.
Later, in most of the movie, Osan and Mohei will turn out to be terribly in love and to have always been terribly in love in a preposterous scene played beautifully, once again, thanks to Mizoguchi’s patience in watching the way the lovers touch each other, lightly, toyingly at first, before squeezing harder, and backing off. But the earlier scene—amidst a slew of scenes of fluctuating affections—in which Osan fidgets with the sticks to manipulate Mohei into proving his worth (nobly and financially), nearly questions whether they’re born to be in love, or whether they’re simply in love because they’re in a bad place with nobody else around. As does a scene ten minutes after they declare their love, when, in this film about fleeing lovers, Mohei somewhat inexplicably attempts to flee his own lover.
With one of his great crane shots, Mizoguchi pulls his camera up to show a woman trying to run after the man she’s in love with while trying to slow down to keep from falling. In a film of endless hesitations and vacillations—the film will end with the husband back home torn between honor and love, or, maybe, between conscience and lust—and of occasional, futile impulses, this is probably the definitive shot: two people finding anyway they can to express their inescapable desperation on an ever-downward course.*** Chikamatsu Monogatari is available on Region 2 DVD through The Masters of Cinema.