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Mizoguchi adapting Tolstoy, apparently. Don't be fooled for a moment though, this is far more sophisticated than what initially appears as another 'weepy'.
In The Water Magician from 1933, Mizoguchi had shown enthusiasm to experiment - and largely excel - in the radical French mode from the 20's, dissolves, layers, supers, the modern eye in motion. This mode favored silent filmmaking, since a hazy, dreamlike affect was the whole story. But sound rolled in and audiences were clearly eager for more realism, if we judge by how quickly the devices were abandoned.
So Mizoguchi seems to have spent the rest of the decade puzzling next to other things about new ways to deliver a narrative.
The exercise here is three different ways to deliver a set of characters, each one annotating the ones before.
The first of these is a quietly suffering country-girl pregnant with child and stranded in Tokyo by the selfish, cowardly father who packs up and leaves for the safety of his parents' business. This is a typical pair, especially for Mizoguchi. We expect ordinary melodrama about a callous world that destroys innocence, the type of film coming from Japan that was going to be a sensation in European festivals 15 years down the road.
Overwrought tragedy played straight is the least of Oharu's strengths in my view, thankfully it's not what we have here. Look what he does.
The second set is the same girl and a stranger who stepped in to comfort her that night. He has been in and out of prison, the child has been born and given to foster parents. But now the girl is markedly different than when we first met her. She's a hostess in a bar, seen partying and flirting semi-drunk with a client. She's not the fragile, distraught being we were led to believe. The change is so jarring it may seem contrived, which is also a point here and commented on, but the trick is on us; we only knew this girl for a few minutes of screen time and thought we knew her, in fact thought we knew her so well we had the story all worked out in our head. The boring answer is that she was indeed pure and only corrupted by the city.
This segment ends with the couple running off to join an acting troupe and staging a play back in her hometown. The play is a comedy that incidentally lampoons her situation, young mother alone with her child, cradling a sackcloth for a baby. Isn't this a clever turn-around? Everything we were prepared to open up to in earnest is made light of - and as part of a stageshow before an audience.
The last part is where, following the show, the baby's father is contrite and rushes backstage to assume responsibility. The girl confronts him coldly. They have several back-and-forths, but now both characters come off as more rounded, more mature, not the simple cutouts we had so far. Why this effect is achieved, is precisely because we have knowledge of their previous selves. Contrast is everything, building on context.
The finale is that the man cannot to the end break the controlling grip of his father, now it's his turn to be abandoned to a karma he has chosen for himself. The girl takes off again with her true love.
The parting image is of them again as actors on a stage, with the man teasingly insisting to the audience that they are 'real people' and everything that came before is proof of that, the whole plot just seen. So we have typical melodrama at the bottom, then characters changing into costumes and all of it fully bound to a comedy being staged about it.
Pretty cool, eh?
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