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Mizoguchi's Street of Shame

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    lawless

    I just watched Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame for the second time before sending it back to Netflix so I can watch The Magnificent Seven again (I expect to still be disappointed in it) and wanted to say how wonderful it was. Although Sansho the Bailiff, which I like very much, and Ugetsu contain a lot of artistry and symbolism that resonates well with me, I have to say that this is the best of Mizoguchi’s movies I’ve seen yet, although I probably like/enjoy Sansho the Bailiff more.

    The script is great, the acting, direction, and mise en scene are superb, and it all feels very real. I kept wanting to take people, shake them, and yell in their faces that the reason the sex industry existed in its current exploitative form was due to the lack of a social safety net. When breadwinners became disabled, or a family needed money for one reason or another, selling a daughter into prostitution was the answer. If society provided for those needs in some other way, none of this would be necessary.

    The only things I didn’t like were the score — whose idea was it to use theremin, and highly dissonant theremin at that, in a contemporary movie? — some of the overly long soft fades, and the scene where Yume falls apart.

    Another thing I appreciated, and I’ve thought about mentioning it in connection with the Mizoguchi movies we’ve watched for the club, is that the depiction of the women wasn’t exploitative. What do I mean by that? In Sansho and Ugetsu — especially Ugetsu — I thought Mizoguchi was trying to have it both ways: decry the social conditions that led to these women being raped and forced into prostitution while at the same time making the rapes look sensual and erotic, something I don’t think Kurosawa engaged in when he filmed Rashomon, despite all my complaints about it. It makes me feel a little uncomfortable when watching those scenes.

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    Ugetsu

    I’d agree with you, I think Streets of Shame is an outstanding film – I much prefer Mizoguchi’s occasional contemporary films to his more famous historical films. The music is a little weird but I think its admirable that at this stage in his career he was willing to be a bit avant garde in his choices – a lot of Japanese films from the late 50’s to the early ’60’s seemed willing to go for very dissonant and unusual soundtracks (Toru Katemitsu being the acknowledged master of this).

    I think one reason why Streets of Shame is somewhat better than his historic films is the script. I get the impression that Mizoguchi was always happier with imagines and scenarios – I think the scripts are the weakest parts of his personal projects, so it may be that when he was given a really good basic script/storyline his films were less ‘personal’, but better for it.

    Its only tangentally related, but I keep thinking these days of the differences between Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi, and I am drawn to Isaiah Berlin’s light-hearted theory of the Hedgehog and the Fox. I think Mizoguchi was definitely a hedgehog of a film maker, and to a lesser extent so was Ozu. Both were quite narrowly focused, almost to the point of myopia about what they wanted to make. With Ozu this was a strength, with Mizoguchi a weakness I think (hence he sometimes did better when given a strong script). I think Kurosawa was very much a fox.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your comment about the script. I don’t remember who wrote the scripts for the other movies of his I’ve seen or whether he co-wrote them, but this script, which is credited to someone other than Mizoguchi and is based on a novel, is excellent. It’s also pretty authentic based on what I’ve read, including a memoir by a pseudonymous geisha at a hot springs resort — it might even have been Atami — where geisha was synonymous with prostitute with arts training.

    IDK, I’ve read a lot about this movie and Sisters of Gion, which I’d also like to watch. Maybe the Western audience is more familiar with his period movies, but his contemporary movies were well-received and seem to command as much attention at home as his period pieces.

    I’m not sure I agree with Berlin’s Hedgehog and the Fox analogy to begin with or with itsr application here. What is the one big thing that Mizoguchi knows? Arguably, all of Kurosawa’s movies come from One Big Idea: that humanity needs to confront and deal with its own problems to make life truly worthwhile.

    If, on the other hand, this was a measure of the wideness of focus and styles, I’d call Kurosawa is a fox. But I’d classify Ozu, who seemingly made the same movie, or variations thereof, over and over again, as the hedgehog and Mizoguchi as somewhere in between. And while Ozu is a more consistent and controlled filmmaker and possibly even more individualistic than Mizoguchi, Mizoguchi’s movies work better for me than Ozu’s.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I’m not sure I agree with Berlin’s Hedgehog and the Fox analogy to begin with or with itsr application here. What is the one big thing that Mizoguchi knows? Arguably, all of Kurosawa’s movies come from One Big Idea: that humanity needs to confront and deal with its own problems to make life truly worthwhile.

    My feeling about Mizoguchi is that his ‘one big thing’ was the lives of women in Japanese society. Not that there is anything wrong with choosing that as a ‘big theme’, but I think that without a good script to create the sort of real characters we see in his ensemble films like Street of Shame, he often reduced his character and storylines to quite predictable and didactic lectures. A problem I have with so many of his films is that I don’t think I’m watching real characters, I feel I’m watching symbolic representations of whatever was in Mizoguchi’s mind. And I don’t think, to be honest, he had a lot to say (even though he said it very beautifully). While I think that yes, it is possible to whittle down Kurosawa’s films to a simple statement about his belief in humanism and personal responsibility, I think that taken as a whole his films are far more complex and multifaceted. I also think that the essence of a Hedgehog is that they keep hammering the same nail, so to speak, while foxes grown and change, and I think that with Kurosawa his ideas changed with his life and changing Japan. The deep pessimism of Ran, for example, is a world away from his earlier films.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – I wholeheartedly agree with what you say about Kurosawa, the complexity, breadth, and depth of his films, and how he and his movies changed over time. However, from what I’ve seen of his later movies (admittedly, not much — just Dodesukaden and Ran), I’d say his earlier movies, from the late 40s to the early 60s (roughly from Drunken Angel through Yojimbo) work better for me.

    I might not agree so wholeheartedly about Mizoguchi — then again, I’ve only seen four of his films (The 47 Ronin, Sansho, Ugetsu, and Street of Shame) — but I see your point about him reducing his characters to symbols rather than real people. Especially in his period films, he does seem to deal more in archetypes than in complex characters. But the movies he makes are often moving and visually stunning.

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