Kenji Mizoguchi, although for most I would imagine not a name which immediately springs to mind, has always been regarded as one of the finer filmmakers on the world cinema stage and here Eureka are presenting the first of a set of his releases.
Sansho Dayu - Brief synopsis.
Sometime between 794 to 1185 a Japanese provincial Governor is hounded by his superiors because the local government and war lord think he treats his peasants too kindly, not offering enough for war, not keeping them all in their proletariat place. He is eventually ousted from his position and sent into exile. He asks his wife, son and daughter to flee hoping to find shelter with relatives. Dutifully they follow his advice, his son listening to his wisdom... treating all as equal, every man has the right to lead a happy life.
We are re-introduced to this threesome seven years later. They have left the family home, returning to see their husband and father in his exile. On route however their path does not run smoothly and not before too long they are kidnapped by slave traders. The mother abducted to go one path, servitude and prostitution... the children a life of misery, to grow in the slave camp of Sansho Dayu, Sansho the Bailiff.
We see the children grow until eventually ten years later they have been down trodden, brainwashed into believing this is all that will be. The young son, who attentively listened to his father's teachings, now succumbing to the brutality of the camp and his worthless life. The daughter forever clasping at failing hope, reignited by a song she is convinced only her long remembered mother could have sung. After all these years is she still there, waiting to be found?
Gion Bayashi - Brief synopsis.
Leaving her uncle's home after the death and burial of her mother, young Eiko (Wakao Ayako) asks to be instructed in the ways of Geisha. Miyoharu (Kogure Michiyo) agrees to take her under her wing. We follow Eiko and Miyoharu as they develop together, the older, wiser Geisha imparting her experience upon the younger trainee. Eiko has not had a comfortable life to this point. Scolded by her uncle for wanting to follow in her mother's footsteps, abandoned by her wayward father who offers no support for his daughter's ambitions. In the end Miyoharu has to shoulder the financial responsibility, borrowing money, for the training of young Eiko.
It transpires that the money ultimately came from Kusada (Seizaburô Kawazu) who has plans himself for the young Eiko. Wanting her to entertain one of his most influential clients Kanzaki (Kanji Koshiba). Having met Kanzaki before, Miyoharu has no time for him and actually detests the man. Miyoharu follows the accepted way of the old Geisha, selling your time, conversation and thoughts. Not becoming what most are in that day, mere prostitutes.
Through time and experience Eiko comes to realise that her fairy tale view of the Geisha world is perhaps not all that she had imagined. It's a harder, more brutal life than she had expected; demands placed on her emotions and body she never even thought would pass her way. Even exploited by the woman who took her in, in the end all she has left to her is the new family into which she has been accepted. A sense of honour and duty have to carry her through.
Mizoguchi presents to us here two tales which ultimately have a common theme, that of exploitation and social justice. In post war Japan aspects of society were changing, changes forced upon them by the occupation of the American regime. Films were not allowed to show depictions of the 'old life' of Japan, that of Emperors and a feudal society. Mizoguchi only gets away with it in Sansho Dayu because the underlying theme is one of freedom and liberty. The story with Gion Bayashi is essentially the same, the Geisha are trapped longing for their own independence to see who they themselves choose to.
The shots Mizoguchi offers in both films are glorious. During Gion Bayashi the characters are usually presented in tight enclosed spaces reinforcing that whilst they may have taken on the mantle of Geisha by their own free will, they then become trapped; confined by the whims of the Japanese patriarchal society. With Sansho Dayu quite the opposite is employed. Wide, long shots of the open Japanese countryside abound in this feature, representative of the openness and freedoms that all members of society should be afforded.
Mizoguchi is famed for his 'one shot/one take' technique insofar that he prefers longer rather than shorter shots which are then pieced together in the editing suite. Both films portray this well and this really allows any scene to open up and become more involved. Quick editing is suitable for fast paced action flicks but when faced with exploration of the characters and their needs the longer shot allows the actor to really ply his or her trade and the viewer to empathise with the constant troubles which the characters face. Certainly Mizoguchi employed this technique to better effect in some of his earlier films but what we get shown here is sufficient to allow the viewer to almost enter the film as a silent participant watching these characters lives.
Both covering oppression and personal freedom each each of these films are a joy to watch; Mizoguchi was always in his corner trying to fight for those people who perhaps had no voice. The Geisha for instance...for years revered by Japanese society they are still prisoners of that society catering for needs of others before thinking of themselves. Often abused and more often in post war Japan severely misunderstood. Feudal Japan, or a feudal society anywhere for that matter, is presented brilliantly in Sansho Dayu. Sansho is a rough ride to watch, continually bombarding your emotions with the anguish which our main characters face. And here perhaps Mizoguchi, like with Gion Bayashi says to us that it is the women in society who ultimately are the stronger, who keep focus; both films are poignant, loving, and heart-breaking. If you want one night to forego the fast paced bubblegum of the latest Hollywood release but would prefer some thoughtful introspection then take in one or both of these films. Highly recommended.
Sansho Dayu : 9
Gion Bayashi : 7
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