Oyu-sama, Kenji Mizoguchi's 1951 film, comes between such masterpieces as The Life of Oharu (1952) and The Love of Sumako the Actress (1947), and despite starring Mizoguchi's muse and frequent collaborator Tanaka Kinuyo, is not a canonical work of the director. As film critic Tony Rayns points out in the helpful, contextualizing introduction provided on the Masters of Cinema DVD, Mizoguchi made Oyu-sama under a number of compromising constraints, ranging from a demanded change in the film's title to casting Tanaka in a role unfit for her star persona. But these misgivings are misguided; not every film by a master director has to be a masterpiece, and Oyu-sama is a moving, beautiful film, small in stature, compact in storytelling, concise in construction, and eloquent in evocation.
On the day of meeting his potential bride to be, Shinnosuke (Hori Yuji) accidentally spies Oyu (Tanaka) first, and falls for her rather than Oyu's younger sister, Oshizu (Otowa Nobuko). A widowed mother, society does not permit Oyu to marry, and her sisterly love leads her to personally impress Shinnosuke into marrying Oshizu. He agrees, but Oshizu, far cannier than her character and place in the plot initially suggest, intuits the mutual attraction between her husband and Oyu, and on her wedding night declares that she will sacrifice her own happiness and role as a wife so as to allow Oyu and Shinnosuke to spend as much time together as possible.
To complicate this simple scenario, one of the film's strangest decisions is to display only Shinnosuke's ardent, frustrated passion for Oyu along with Oshizu's anguished, virginal sufferings in her confined role, rather than express anything of Oyu's feelings. Almost totally absent is an indication that Oyu really feels as strongly for Shinnosuke as he does for her. And the conceit of the plot—that Shinnosuke and Oshizu keep their platonic agreement a secret from Oyu—prevents even the plot from arranging situations for the unwed, illicit quasi-couple to express themselves to one another. Only one shockingly telling line of dialog—Oyu waking from a heat stroke to see Shinnosuke's head bent with worry and passion, she says that he appeared to her as a vision of Buddha saving her from hell—hints at the closeted, private sorrow of this widow's existence, beyond her self-sacrificing love for Oshizu.
So what Mizoguchi presents is a love triangle totally suffuse with frustration and corrosive, interior suffering, far from the libertine, scandalous pleasures implied by the cinematic convention of such a threesome. With each member of the trio hung up on society's notions of restraint, decorum, and propriety (even spending too much time all together begets rumors), they each sacrifice their futures for this uncertain and definitely unclear and undefined quasi-happiness of their uneasy, unconsummated band.
Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoda Yoshikata, adapting a story by Tanizaki Junichiro, keep the characterizations very simple and the plot moving very quick through a continuous series of fade-out ellipses. Long takes, distanced, deep-staging and frequent tracking movement of the camera are all of course prevalent, but kept abbreviated, in-check, and restrained to an unshowy simplicity that does not ask too much of the unembellished archetypes of the story, but rather lends its plain melodrama a lyrical melancholy, a caring consideration for the circumstances. Rarely more then three figures are ever together in the frame, and the compositions are bound by walls and fences, so that even in surmising long takes there is a sense of loneliness and a lack of options for this forlorn scenario.
All is not misery though; Mizoguchi does allow a glimpse of the promised but impossible happiness of love in a lovely opening sequence which takes Shinnosuke from the interior of a room in which he will meet his potential bride to an airy, free stroll through the woods in a single craning movement of the camera, as easy in its tonal and spatial transition as it is unexpected and almost playful. This scene, where Shinnosuke first sees Oyu, is somewhat replayed later during a walk the threesome take, that, like this opening, powerfully hints at the sensuous, almost carefree splendor of happiness that the three in this unmanageable relationship so long for.
We see a fable of love in these figures and recognize the fruitlessness of a social obligation that consumes personal happiness even as it provides the basis for expressing the honor, devotion, and true love in a refusal—however minor—for these three to subscribe to roles pre-determined by the world. Oyu-sama is a picture of outside society as an abstract ruler of fates, and individual lives as little but moments of tender-tragic humanity that can stand only so strong and so long against iron-clad rules. It may not be classic Mizoguchi, but it is a fine film by a master director, and its clean, brisk story is more than flush with its share of humanity and poetry .
Oyu-sama is available on Region 2 DVD through The Masters of Cinema 2-disc release with Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).