Kenji Mizoguchi’s Miss Oyu suffocates in the aura of high art and good taste. Based on a novella by Japan’s most revered 20th century writer, it features opening credits over paintings of clouds; compositions framed like masterpieces of Chinese and Japanese art; interiors decorated with exquisite furnishings and objets d’art; recitals of classical Japanese music and songs derived from Japanese poetry; references to Heian costume, history and literature; long sequences in historical and natural beauty spots; and carefully rendered depictions of Japanese rituals, such as ikebana, bonsai and tea ceremonies. A bounty of exotic and picturesque Japonica of the sort that could be promoted abroad, in the manner of a tourist brochure. Miss Oyu was an early entry in the cycle of 1950s period dramas that would make Mizoguchi’s reputation abroad.
This glut of culture presents an unattainable ideal of perfection against which a very messy human drama plays out. Mizoguchi was not a travel agent or national cultural body but a left-wing feminist, and, like much of his late work, this film’s sumptuary clothes a scathing critique of human relationships thwarted and maimed by the “loathsome rules” of social institutions, in particular that of the family. It shows how repressed human emotions are diverted into perversity, psychological and physical trauma, and ultimately solitude and death. These institutions are materialised in architecture that confines and separates individuals, and in stage settings that require people to perform rather than access their natural selves. If such a thing as a natural self could be said to exist – most of the images of nature in the film are claustrophobic compositions clearly executed in a studio.
Bachelor Shinnosuke (Yuji Hori) falls in love with the middle-aged widow and mother Miss Oyu (Kinuyo Tanaka), chaperone to her younger sister Shizu (Nobuko Otowa) visiting him as a prospective bride. Family taboo prevents Shinnosuke from marrying Oyu, so he marries Shizu for show instead, agreeing not to consummate their marriage so that Shinnosuke can remain faithful to the apparently unwitting Oyu. The film’s early focus on surface puts into context the psychic cost of the couple’s commitment to appearances. The lack of sexual release and growing rumours about the ménage-a-trois lead to recriminations, separation and further heartbreak. Shizu’s opportunity to live a “normal” life as wife and mother actually kills her. Shinnosuke abandons his child to a woman whose parental neglect had killed her own son, and vanishes in grief into the landscape – wandering, yearning, alone.
Miss Oyu is a radical reworking by Mizoguchi and his long-time screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda of Junichiro Tanizaki’s compact, ironical and possibly supernatural novella The Reed Cutter (1932). Oyu’s narrative in the novella is a story-within-a-story, a chronicle told on a moon-viewing festival to the unnamed narrator by a traveller, about his father’s infatuation with the widow. The first half of the novella is a dense, historically- and culturally-allusive description of the narrator’s walk to a shrine. Every inch of the landscape is layered with centuries of history and culture, and is compared to the modern, technological world inhabited by the narrator (a dialectic more muted in the film).
By removing this elaborate framing story, Mizoguchi at once makes the story more direct (we have immediate access to the narrative and the characters) and more distant – Tanizaki’s sentimental pupil has a personal and even Oedipal stake in his story that is missing from the film. This does not mean that Miss Oyu lacks a perverse charge, even if the mores of the 1950s preclude the astonishing scene of the title character suckling her younger sister in front of an aroused lover/husband. Incestual replaces Oedipal conflict: Shinnosuke first sees Oyu in a dream-like, sun-flooded glade, and later confesses that she reminds him of his dead mother; Shizu sacrifices herself out of intense love for her sister.
One of the key changes made by Mizoguchi is to cast the 41 year-old Tanaka as a character who is 22 in The Reed Cutter, and who retains an insouciant and selfish innocence in spite of marriage, widowhood and motherhood. Tanaka’s performance is thrillingly ambiguous – how much does Oyu know about Shinnosuke’s desire for her? What are her motives for pushing Shizu into marriage with him? There is something of Lady Macbeth about the way she crawls and sidles up to characters, violating all decorum, in order to get her way; something of the hypnotist as she stares and something of the siren as she performs for the object of desire. One of the film’s most powerful sequences depends on this ambiguity – on her way to visit Shinnosuke, Oyu faints in a nearby hamlet. Shinnosuke takes her to an inn to recover; the proximity sanctioned by his medical attention exacerbates his desire, and he has to control himself from assaulting her unconscious body. When he turns away and Oyu slowly opens her eyes, Tanaka’s ambivalent gaze refuses to betray how aware the character has been of what is going on, and whether or not she has engineered it for this purpose. However, any femme fatale-like power Oyu maintains is illusory, and she is soon shown to be at the mercy of society in general, and her male-dominated family in particular.
Although the performance of Tanaka – arguably the greatest actress of the cinema – is indelible, the film’s true focus is the married couple, played by far less accomplished actors. Mizoguchi’s most intense sequence shots – full of ugly reframings and startlingly close set-ups, in contrast to the characteristically gorgeous and detached tracking shots that dominate the rest of the film – chart their anguished interactions, most spectacularly the seven-minute take recording their fateful wedding night. Although they claim to be incompatible because they love another, Shinnosuke and Shizu are actually united by their intense devotion to Oyu, a devotion in Shizu’s case that gives her a spiritual power in the film that is wholly absent from Tanizaki’s text, and marginalises the callow Shinnosuke from his own great romance. In a film where families destroy love and individual lives, it is selfless sister-love that gives Miss Oyu its transgressive power.
Miss Oyu (1951 Japan, 94 min)
Prod Co: Daiei Prod: Masaichi Nagata Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi Scr: Yoshikata Yoda, based on The reed cutter by Junichiro Tanizaki Phot: Kazuo Miyagawa Ed: Mitsuzô Miyata Comp: Fumio Hayasaka Prod Des: Hiroshi Mizutani
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Nobuko Otowa, Yuji Hori