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The stage director Shimamura, who is bringing western theatre to Japan, falls in love with the outspoken actress Sumako Matsui, and leaves his family to be with her, while trying to keep his Art Theatre solvent. Written by
THE LOVE OF SUMAKO THE ACTRESS (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1947) ***
Being one of the very few Mizoguchi films set in relatively modern times that I’ve come across, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one; incidentally, the domestic asides here are certainly the closest I’ve seen the director’s style approaching that of his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu (whose work I can’t seem to get into – having watched only a handful of titles despite owning at least a score of them recorded off Italian TV!).
The narrative revolves around a radical theatre group within a school who wish to break away from the Japanese tradition of Kabuki and start tackling the European classics; for their inaugural play, they settle on Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” – however, they’re stuck when it comes to filling the demanding leading role of a liberated woman i.e. until the director stumbles upon a quarreling couple on the street, where the woman has decided to leave her partner for good to pursue an acting career (she’s the real-life Sumako Matsui, considered the first modern Japanese stage actress)! Opening on the director giving a passionate lecture about Theatre and Art, one is immediately thrust into the subject matter – and, indeed, this emerges to be an unsung film on the profession; still, as the title suggests, the leading lady – who’s shot to stardom with the play – becomes involved in an affair with the director, which all but ruins their lives: the latter abandons his family, resigns from his position at the school and the company’s reduced to touring the Continent because they can’t afford a place of their own! However, this itinerant living eventually takes its toll on the director – who succumbs to pneumonia; the outfit decides to stick together…but the actress – who naturally suffers most from the loss of her loved one – can’t bear it for long and, after scoring a great success with a straight rendition of “Carmen”, commits suicide (the year is 1918)!
The latter marks yet another remarkable (and award-winning) performance from the versatile Kinuyo Tanaka in a role which, appropriately, allows her to virtually run the gamut of emotions: from determination in having a career to a willingness to learn the ropes to displaying confidence (and even pride) in her work, not to mention the personal conflicts brought on by the affair. By avoiding to play on the feelings inherent in the central romance, one’s tempted to accept it as being of an intellectual nature rather than physical; Mizoguchi, in fact, prefers to concentrate on the way this relationship affects the people around them – the director’s colleagues and, especially, his family (his wife’s domineering mother reminds him that he owes his career to her own social status, while his own daughter’s marriage prospects are quashed by his ‘immoral behavior’). There is, however, a moving subtext in the doom-laden performance being held on the night of the director’s death; similarly, the actress – as if imbued with her lover’s spirit – takes over the staging during the climax of “Carmen” herself.
The film, then, boasts a wonderful (and poetic) final image – the face of the actress in her coffin adorned by flowers from her admirers; incidentally, the beauty of the cinematography throughout is evident in spite of a damaged source print. On a personal note, I found it rather strange to watch the works of literary giants such as Ibsen and Tolstoy being enacted by Japanese actors but, I guess, that’s just the kind of stuff the Japanese would choose to produce in order to distance themselves from the traditional style of Kabuki! For the record, in spite of its relatively high reputation (being a work by a renowned master film-maker), Mizoguchi himself is said to have preferred the Teinosuke Kinugasa version of the same events – called THE ACTRESS, and made that very year!!
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