This is a top class example of the type of movie that resulted. The term 'womens movie' can seem a little derisive - but this was simply the market they aimed for. It is an adaption of a well known and respected book from the early '30's, although it is set in contemporary times, while the original was set in the Meiji period. In the excellent Masters of Cinema DVD, Tony Rayne's introduction suggests that Mizoguchi wasn't particularly proud of the movie, one reason being that he was forced by the studio to miscast Kinuyo Tanaka as the eponymous heroine, rather than a more elegant, disciplined actress (Hara Setsuko comes to mind as someone who would have played this beautifully). There is certainly a problem with the movie in that she plays the character as a more forceful, modern woman than was probably intended. But I think only those who read the book would find this a major problem.
The story concerns a young man who rather inconveniently falls in love with the beloved older sister (Miss Oyu) of his intended bride. His bride insists on going ahead with the marriage, but without consummating it, so that he can be close to Miss Oyu, who is a widow who must live at home with her in-laws to take care of her son, but by tradition is not allowed to remarry. Over the years the three-way relationship takes some predictably tragic turns.
The story is far more melodramatic than the movies of this period by Ozu or Naruse. It could have been pretty horrible in the hands of a less skillful director than Mizoguchi. But his astonishingly beautiful sets and his famous one cut scenes sets the movie apart. It really is gorgeous to look at.
These stories were and are seen by some Japanese as problematic, as they can be seen as romanticizing archaic sentiments. To my western eyes, I found it utterly fascinating. The manner in which people struggle under arranged marriages to find love and happiness is utterly alien to westerners, yet still compelling. I had somewhat low expectations about this movie as several sources dismiss it as very minor compared to Mizoguchi's pre-war and later period masterpieces. It is certainly not a work of genius to match Sansho Dayo or Ugetsu, but I found it riveting viewing and certainly not a minor movie by any standards.