[This post is cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark, as part of their Romance countdown. 33 more to go, and 66 already done - so check it out, if you haven't been.]
There's no romance like a doomed romance, and no one does doomed romance like Kenji Mizoguchi. Couples form, usually ill-considered pairings, and they suffer - and suffer and suffer and suffer some more. Though not always together - women suffer more than men, usually for the benefit of men, who go on to better things because of the suffering of a woman; think of The Tale of the Last Chrysanthemum, or Ugetsu, for that matter. But that is something that distinguishes Chikamatsu Monogatari from the rest. It is a tale of doomed romance, and the lovers suffer, they suffer indeed - but they suffer together, and, by Mizoguchi standards, the ending (this isn't exactly a spoiler, since the film is also known as The Tale of Crucified Lovers) is a positively joyous one. They die, yes, but they die together.
It is a convoluted tale, set in 17th century Kyoto, derived from two classic Japanese authors, Chikamatsu and Saikaku. A woman, Osan, is married to a printer - the Great Printer of Kyoto. She has a useless brother who begs money from her, but her husband is a cheapskate; her husband also lusts for a maid, Otama - who pines for Mohei, the printer's best employee; Otama tells Ishun (the printer) that she and Mohei plan to marry, hoping he will leave her alone - it backfires, and he just grows jealous. Mohei, meanwhile, is kind to Osan, who asks him for help for her brother - he is glad to get her money, but he has to embezzle it. A co-worker catches him, and tries to blackmail him - sparking repentance and honesty in Mohei, to everyone's sorrow. He tells the Great Printer - whose natural greed is here augmented by jealousy, and when Otama jumps in saying Mohei did it for her, it all gets worse. Ishun locks up Mohei; the women talk, and when Otama admits to Ishun's lust for her, Osan plans to trap him by hiding in Otama's bed; but Mohei escapes and goes to Otama (he thinks) before Ishun gets there - and they are caught together (Mohei and Osan). Ishun, fearing the disgrace to him from this, tells Osan to kill herself - instead she runs away - with Mohei. And so their fates are sealed.
It is all almost accidental. They do not intend to be involved - to run away together - and certainly not to have an affair: but they are doomed to love, as much as they are doomed lovers. The world conspires to bring them together - misunderstandings, secret motives, social mores conspire to force them out of the house, to travel together, and on the road, they are further harried to the point where they decide to give up and end it all, jumping into Lake Biwa to drown. But here Mohei has to get one last thing off his chest: he says he loves her - he always loved her. Osan is taken aback - as if it had never occurred to her. But you suspect, given her life - her nightmarish family (a horrific set of thieves and no-accounts), her marriage to Ishun (a greedy, selfish, philandering snake) - the revelation that there is a person in the world who loves her - wins her in an instant. She vows to live, to live to love, and they head off together, one step ahead of their pursuers.
But having accepted their love, they follow it all the way. Their life together is a hard one, always on the run, flushed out of one miserable hiding place after another, betrayed by everyone - his father; her brother and mother; random peasants and shopkeepers - but suffering just intensifies their passion. They have each other. Their love may be doomed, but they embrace the doom - every misfortune, every betrayal just raises the stakes on their love - reinforces the idea that all they have in the world is each other. And so they end their days, tied together on horseback, holding hands - free until they cut them down.
As in many stories of doomed love, the lovers are doomed by the world they live in - and as in many of the best (most Mizoguchi; masterpieces like Oliveira's Doomed Love or Francesca, or Murnau's Tabu), this one is as concerned with attacking the evil as it is with the lovers. Mohei and Osan's love story runs alongside an intensely bitter satire against the world they live in. They are surrounded by monsters - everyone around them (except maybe the other women at Ishun's house) is monstrous. Ishun is greedy and cruel, too cheap to give money to his own flesh and blood, raping the help, ruining people for petty offenses; when Osan runs off, all he cares about is saving his reputation and business. Osan's brother is a scoundrel, broke and shameless about everything - ruining his family, faking it as a singer, treating his sister as a bank account. He does exhibit the dubious virtue of honesty - he's quite aware of what a wretch he is, and makes no claims to virtue. Osan's mother plays it a little more politely, but she has no scruples either - she married Osan to Ishun for the money in the first place, and has been pressuring her for money ever since. The peripheral characters aren't any better: Mohei's fellow clerk is a thief, a would be blackmailer, and ready to sell out the boss (and Mohei and Osan along with him) at the hint of a better position elsewhere. Ishun's rival Isan is angling to get Ishun's business - he recruits the clerk to help him ruin Ishun by ruining the lovers, and when he gets what he wants, sells out the faithless clerk without blinking an eye. Then there are the court nobles - playing the great men, but all of them in debt, pawning their belongings to Ishun, then using his misfortunes to get rid of their debts. The poison infects all of society - the women of the house are like a chorus sometimes, against society: why can a man commit adultery and not a woman? why does the woman have no recourse when a man does? and why is the husband ruined along with the wife when she is at fault? Now, the root of all this evil is money - maybe with some sex mixed in. But mostly money. It has poisoned everything - every good thing is corrupted by commerce. Craftsmanship (the printing business) is degraded, utterly subsumed into making money - with Mohei, who does the most work, getting the least out of it; art is corrupt - Osan's brother sings (badly, he as much as says), and his the music teacher grovels and flatters him, since he needs the money. Everything is rotten, except Mohei and Osan's love - nature itself conspires against the lovers. Look at the scene when the authorities arrive at Mohei's father's house - a gorgeous shot, bathed in sunlight - but the light brings their doom.
This film was, according to Tony Rayns at least, something of a job of work for Mizoguchi, not a project he was deeply committed to. That is surprising, looking at it - it is a gorgeous film, as always with Mizoguchi - framing and photography and staging are all superb. The beauty might be a bit more isolated than it is at his best - a string of brilliant moments, with more filler in between - I don't know; maybe. Mizoguchi's standards are very high. I don't think there is any escaping the bitterness of the film - which might be a reflection of his being pushed into making it. But if so, his sense of the corruption of his own art is ably translated into a film about corruption. The anger might even be a bit too on the nose - but that results in some glorious moments of outrage. He gets at these characters in a hurry sometimes - Ishun and his gold:
Or Osan's brother's shameless celebration when he gets the money Osan has raised (at the cost of this whole plot and her ruin, and indeed, the ruin of just about everyone in the story), while his mother takes it all matter of factly - "what's she doing in Osaka?" How much more effectively could a filmmaker convey his contempt for his characters?
Whatever his state of mind, and even if there is less sustained brilliance than in his best work (that's Rayns' view; I'm not sure I see it), there are compensations. We get that bitter satire; and we also get a film where the lovers are purified by their love; we get both together in one work, money's corruption and love's purification poised against each other. And not least, we get a story where the lovers follow through on their love all the way to the bitter end. They are not separated - which is very unusual among Mizoguchi's greatest films. They abandon everything else - all the ugliness and evil in the world, to sink into one another. The worse things become around them, the clearer and stronger their love becomes. It is a corrupt and irredeemable world, and Mizoguchi doesn't pretend it isn't - all there is is love, and love is doomed. There's nothing else in the world worth having - just each other, and they get that, for their short happy lives.