Thursday, 28 February 2008

The Woman in the Rumour (Mizoguchi, 1954)

Thanks to the wonderful folks over at Masters of Cinema, the Chikamatsu DVD features another Mizoguchi from the same year: Uwasa no onna (aka The Woman in the Rumour.) It's a relatively short effort (84 mins) so I decided to put some spare time this afternoon to good use by giving it a spin. This was my first experience with a contemporary film from the director, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Of course, the concern with women (specifically, prostitutes) is typical of Mizoguchi and to his credit, he doesn't shove the issue of their oppression down our throats. On the contrary, he spends some time articulating the possible empowerment and safety that the profession can provide whilst never losing sight of the instabilities that plague this world. Mizoguchi's knack for social commentary is at it's most effortless during these scenes in the geisha house. However, his astute observations share an uneasy relationship with the romantic turmoils that gradually assume the film's spotlight - frankly, they're just not that interesting despite the unpredictable directions that they take (the ease with which Dr. Matoba accepted Hatsuko's money really surprised me!) Fortunately, Mizoguchi isn't focused on the melodramatic aspects so much as he's concerned with the clash between traditionality and modernity. The distinct use of costume in this film (geishas sporting classical Japanese dresses, other characters in Western attire) underscores the tensions which manifest themselves most clearly in the mother-daughter relationship at the film's core. These conflicts are deftly played out by both female leads, but Kinuyo Tanaka's work as the ageing madame is particularly worthy of commendation. The actress lets loose here, using every fibre of her frame to convey her character's insecurities. It's a brave and highly expressive performance, which dares to use body language as a method for audience communication, and Tanaka pulls it off with ease. Her trademark ability to internalize her characters' anxieties is not lost either - the film's most memorable sequence occurs at a noh theatre where the cruelty of a comedy ridiculing an older woman's love becomes unbearable to watch thanks to Tanaka's heartbreaking reaction shots.

The contemporary setting of this film restricts the extent to which Mizoguchi can utilize the lyrical compositions that characterize his period pieces, but the film is nonetheless an aesthetically pleasing effort. Intriguingly, the film begins and ends with exactly the same high-angled establishing shot that opens Chikamatsu Monogatari (which would be Mizoguchi's next film), drawing attention to the circularity that's a recurrent idea within the director's filmography. Rumour concludes by criticizing Japan's failure to create more opportunities for females to escape their objectification, and thus the graphic match that's created by the film's last shot and Chikamatsu's first has the effect of underlining the shared mysoginism in society both past and present. It's a powerful conclusion, and one that makes The Woman in the Rumour essential viewing for any Mizoguchi enthusiast.

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