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Utamaro, a great artist, lives to create portraits of beautiful women, and the brothels of Tokyo provide his models. A world of passion swirls around him, as the women in his life vie for lovers. And, occasionally, his art gets him into trouble.Written by
George S. Davis <email@example.com>
Mizoguchi's introspective and highly poetic meditation on the true nature of the artist
This is the best of the fourteen films I've seen by Mizoguchi, who is probably most famous for three films he made in the early '50s: "The Life of Oharu", "Ugetsu", and "Sansho the Bailiff". These are very good films, for certain, but I've found that my favorite Mizoguchi films tend to be earlier in his career, during a period that began with the advent of sound cinema (1936 or so, in Japan), and ended in the late '40s. "Osaka Elegy", "Sisters of the Gion", "Story of the Last Chrystanthemums", "The 47 Ronin: Part I", "The 47 Ronin: Part II", "Otamaro and His Five Women", and "Women of the Night" — these films lack the exquisite elements of mood and atmosphere that made Mizoguchi's early '50s films so great, but otherwise I think they are superior. They are very simply but poignantly toned, and they possess a poetry that I believe is unique to this period in Mizoguchi's body of work.
Mizoguchi's camera-work is among the best in the history of the medium. His slow, graceful tracking shots are the absolute quintessence of cinematic poetry. His camera never moves too quickly or too suddenly; it is always perfectly paced with the mood and tone of the film. Furthermore, his compositions are impeccable. He immerses the viewer in diagonally oriented compositions that are not only visually stunning, but seem to perfectly echo, with a geometrical precision similar to what Kobayashi later achieved in "Harakiri" and "Samurai Rebellion", the rigid order and structure of Japanese society, particularly in his jidaigeki (period dramas) set during Japan's Edo period.
"Utamaro and His Five Women" is one such jidaigeki. It is about the real-life artist Kitagawa Utamaro, who lived toward the end of the 18th century. This subject allows Mizoguchi to execute his most thematically profound film by far. While I always profess the brilliance of Mizoguchi's formal talents, my criticism of his films has always been with their content. His meaningful dissections of Japanese society notwithstanding, Mizoguchi was never a filmmaker whose narratives contained a great deal of depth or substance. In a Mizoguchi film, the substance, the beauty, the poetry — they are almost invariably found in the film's form, not in its content. In terms of the content of his cinema, he often relied on increasingly unsubtle social messages and clumsy melodrama as his career progressed, and this has always been a stumbling block for me in my love of his films, even though my respect for him remains immense.
One of the greatest aspects of "Utamaro and His Five Women" is that it lacks the manipulated drama and overwhelming histrionics that Mizoguchi employed in so many other films. There are a few minutes late in the film where, unable to resist himself, he falters and stumbles into the muddy waters of heavy-handed dramatics, floundering about for a moment before regaining his composure. Aside from these few instants, however, the film is almost perfect. It is lighter in tone than most of his other work, and the subtext is profound on a completely different level from anything else I've seen by him.
Utamaro, here, is engaged as a surrogate for Mizoguchi himself. The parallels between these two titans of Japanese art are many, though Mizoguchi never beats us over the head with them, like I might have expected him to. Here, he employs a subtlety that is uncharacteristic of him, and it serves the film wonderfully.
Utamaro wants to "capture the soul of the woman" with his art. Mizoguchi spent virtually an entire career attempting to do exactly that (and for all my criticism of his lack of subtlety, his efforts in that regard truly can not be applauded enough). Utamaro also protests the overuse of color in painting. Like Mizoguchi, he favors restraint to indulgence. With almost a hundred films to his name, Mizoguchi made exactly two color films, both at the end of his career, just before his death (it seems that even artists like Mizoguchi and Bresson couldn't resist the changing tides forever).
Put simply, Utamaro is Mizoguchi. Of course, that's an oversimplification. It's reductive, and it's probably detrimental to the film's essence as a character study. But it's also accurate, I think. After all, how much can Mizoguchi (or anyone, almost two centuries after the fact) know about the life of Utamaro and his true nature as a human being and as an artist? Naturally, Mizoguchi has to fill in the gaps that history has left open, and naturally, he's going to turn to his own experience, his own nature, to do that. For that reason, I feel that, ultimately, while "Utamaro and His Five Women" is undoubtedly a character study, it is a character study, first and foremost, of Kenji Mizoguchi.
It is also a study of the nature of art, and the role of the artist in society (Japanese society, specifically). As an artist, Utamaro has succeeded to some extent in freeing himself from the rigid Japanese social hierarchy of that time period, but he can not truly escape it. Society pervades even art, as Utamaro is continuously spoken down to by highbrow artists who refer to him as a lowly woodblock painter. Mizoguchi detests this kind of social structure — this perceived superiority and inferiority amongst individuals in a society — and while Mizoguchi was not a communist as far as I know, one can certainly detect many leftist tendencies in his films, which are inundated with social messages, and early works like "The Song of Home" had unquestionably Marxist overtones. It's no surprise to see Mizoguchi leaning leftward on the political spectrum, since communism sought to resolve the very issues that troubled him so deeply, but Mizoguchi never bought into it in the end. ''Communism solves the problems of class,'' he once said, ''but overlooks the problems of man and woman which still remain afterwards.''
RATING: 9.00 out of 10 stars
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