Monday, June 03, 2024

Utamaro and his Five Women (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946) in 35 mm

Immortal beloved

(Warning: plot twists explicitly discussed in detail)

Utamaro and His Five Women begins with a procession-- the camera gliding past men and women in elaborate kimonos with umbrellas held up like banners; cherry blossoms lining the boulevard, arthritic branches holding up tufts of cottony blossoms that suggest a startling depth (you're reminded of Max Fleischer's stereoptical experiments in Popeye). The procession drones on, the men stride forward, the women-- those perched on wooden clogs-- take huge circling steps, their heads bobbing up and down in sinuous waves. It's a fantastic throwaway gesture of virtuosity, as if Mizoguchi had decided to pick up the baton and conduct a warmup passage. 

At first glance the hero is unflappable Kitagawa Utamaro (Minosuke Bando). Challenged by Seinosuke Koide (Kotaro Bando) to draw his sword, Utamaro turns his back and counterchallenges the artist to draw with a paintbrush instead (Utamaro of course wins); confronted with an Edo tattoo artist who refuses to work on courtesan Takasode (Toshiko Iizuka) because her skin was too beautiful to mar, Utamaro offers to sketch a masterpiece on the woman's back for free, for the artist to follow.  Utamaro constantly ignores the call of wealth and of prestige, preferring his work or the company of prostitutes and drinking buddies (in this way scriptwriter Yoshikata Yoda-- basing his script on a novel by Kanji Kuneida-- also seems to have based the artist's character on Mizoguchi himself); Seinosuke on witnessing all this finally acknowledges Utamaro's superior spirit and begs to be his apprentice.

That's about it for samurai honor; Mizoguchi has spent maybe twenty minutes on the subject and summarily dismisses it to focus on his two real concerns: the plight of women, and the role of art in people's lives. 

Utamaro is not alone in his lofty artistic peak; he constantly seeks the company of Okita (Kinuyo Tanaka) who in turn is in love with the younger Shozaburo (Shotaro Nakamura), who in turn has eyes for tattooed Takasode. Seinosuke is followed by his fiancee Yukie (Eiko Ohara), but when Utamaro glimpses Oran (Hiroko Kawasaki) bathing in the sea the master asks to paint her; Seinosuke follows suit, begging Oran to model for him as well, then abandoning poor Yukie as he goes on a sex-and-alcohol-soaked binge with the other woman.

If the abovementioned shenanigans remind you of anything it just might be Max Ophuls' La Ronde, complete with gorgeous tracking shots following the endless coupling and recoupling of humans driven by either desire or hate, which is usually the flip side of desire. Ophuls often has the larger budget and hence the more opulent productions but Mizoguchi has his moments, and the twists and turns and dismayed reactions described may be some of the funniest in his career. At one point Utamaro is arrested for annoying the daimyo and manacled for fifty days-- again Yoda drawing parallels with Mizoguchi's own situation, as the filmmaker argued with the Allied occupation that the script doesn't celebrate feudalism, that Utamaro was really a 'democratic artist,' and that the film advocates for women's rights. 

A few women arguably break free from under Utamaro's shadow. Takesode literally does so with Shozaburo, taking the picture on her back with her ("How dare she run off with your masterpiece!" one follower exclaims, about as horrifying-- and hilarious-- an expression of woman-as-chattel as I've heard recently). Oshin (Kinikin Shiratao) finds love in an unexpected place, mainly because she and her fiancee have decided good companionship and not fleeting beauty is a basis for a relationship ("Oshin has many good characteristics, you just don't know about them," fiancee informs Utamaro). And then there's Okita--

-- Okita, who walks in dazed and disheveled and declares to Utamaro: "the spirit of Okita has come... this woman's spirit has come to bid you farewell." When asked to explain herself, she says "I want to be true to my heart and see my love through to the end." She compares her commitment with Utamaro's own commitment to his art, and we remember how he turned away from Seinosuke's threatened sword and think: she's not wrong. Of all the women Okita has fulfilled herself to a degree even Utamaro has not reached, and she discovers a frightening serenity in that extreme state, like a man who steps off a high roof-- freedom from all earthbound laws, all moral constraints, even the imperative to survive; if she has a wish it's for Utamaro to be kind to his drawings of her. "I want to draw!" responds Utamaro with a piteous cry, pulling at his shackles. Okita leaves him the most powerful and most impotent of men-- powerful because he's been appointed custodian of her legacy, the kind that lasts years even centuries (if you check you'll find prints of her profile on the internet), impotent because he's at best a custodian while she's the walking breathing incarnation of the lifeforce he attempts to capture with his art. 

And Okita, stands. And walks to the door, passing near the camera in a brief breathtaking closeup, the only one in the film. And on the subject of beauty Mizoguchi with this shot makes one thing clear: Yukie may be the youngest, Takasode have the most luminous skin, Oran be the most vivid when dipped in saltwater but Okita-- poor Okita with her slight double chin and funny elongated face-- is hands down the most beautiful. Because we've come to know her, we've come to learn her story, we've watched her burn O so brightly on the 35 mm screen: Okita, who walks out the door and forever into our memories.   

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