FOR YEARS VERY few Japanese film distributors even bothered to try to sell their films abroad, figuring that Western audiences couldn't appreciate them. Quite apart from differences in acting styles and intonation, and the fact that Oriental actors may be indistinguishable to Westerners, the structure of Japanese society and the problems of its members rest on an entirely different foundation. Questions of honor are of vital importance: individualism is frowned upon, yet each man must stand up for his personal honor even to the point of dying for it. And the place of art in daily life is much more important than it has ever been in the West. Anyone with any pretensions to culture must be able to appreciate a beautiful painting, an exquisite vase, even a well-turned ankle.
The position of women in particular in Japan is strange to us. Until recently either a woman married or retired to maiden aunthood, or she became a prostitute. The prostitutes were often women or great culture and provided men with the only intelligent female conversation around, for wives were generally little more than child-bearers and tea-servers. Kenji Mizoguchi, director of Utamaro and His Five--Women, (1946), is regarded as the women's champion among Japanese film directors, yet even he takes what in another context would be an extremely sexist attitude towards them. "He doesn't love me," says one of Utamaro's five women. "He loves women, all women; he wants to capture their souls." Like Utamaro the painter, Mizoguchi wants to capture their souls, to define their ephemeral charm and their intriguing, fascinating beauty. Mizoguchi loves his women as individuals, they are more than mere objects, yet ultimately, as I was informed by a trailer for Women in Love last week, "Love for men is part of life; for women it's a way of life." Why should this attitude seem more pernicious in Ken Russell's film than in Mizoguchi's? Ultimately, perhaps, it's because I as a Westerner can better retain my detachment from Mizoguchi's 18th century world of artists and courtesans.
Utamaro and his Five Women is not, unfortunately, one of Mizoguchi's best films, yet it exemplifies many of his most pressing themes and is certainly well worth seeing. Its greatest flaw is the lack of simple plot: five women is simply too many to keep track of properly. The artist Utamaro, in trouble with the government for offending a traditional school of art by proclaiming that his own work is superior, is handcuffed for sixty days and is unable to draw. He has tattoeed one of the women; when she runs away with a lover one of Utamaro's disciples comes to him and cries, "She has smirched your work." But he replies, "No, I painted on a body that lives and breathes and loves. Let her do so." Yet for all his espousal of life, he remains apart--at an observer's distance from the world. The five women come and go, running away, falling in love, losing their virtue; but at the end Utamaro, his hands released, reaches for his drawingboard while his friends prepare to fete his new freedom.
What renders this film remarkable, then, is not the depth of its actors but Mizoguchi's perception of their interactions with a restrictive society, one that would keep women from their lovers, artists from their work, men from their friends. No one is ever alone except for the woman trailing her lover. Mizoguchi's fluid camera wanders in and out among the people, the crowds of women lined up before feudal lords, groups walking through the city streets, a girl cringing in a corner. The camera observes everything, tolerant and forgiving. Even the worst actions proceed only from the passions of the too-loving heart. Mizoguchi possesses in full the Japanese gift of finding beauty everywhere.
BUT THE BEAUTY of life, its ineffable yearnings, have their corollary. Mizoguchi is too much in love with his world to treat it harshly--in his film at least--and Yukio Mishima's Rite of Love and Death (1965), showing with it this Friday, is similarly made within assumptions rather than about them. But Rite has none of the warmth of Mizoguchi: love is sublime and passionate rather than tender, death is ordained and noble rather than resented and mesay. Mercifully, considering its intensity, Rite lasts only 25 minutes. It portrays the double suicide of a young lieutenant and his wife in 1936, dealing with the event as a ritual--set upon a stage, without dislogue but interspersed with a written commentary. The couple are very much in love, and before they kill themselves--which the lieutenant must do on a point of honor--they make love for the last time. Rather than fearing death, they look forward to it--a fitting climax to their lives. The suicide scene itself is excruciating; this is the other side of the Japanese coin--but it has a ritual elegance. The utter simplicity of the preparations for death and the complete trust of the couple that they are acting correctly carry them along; within its own context the action is perfect. Can one accept it? It is powerful to those who can, horrifying to those who can't.
Together, the two films range as widely as is possible within the confines of the Japanese tradition: Mishima with his complete fidelity to the ritualistic demands of society, Mizoguchi with his reverence for human strength and frailty, a love so all-encompassing that it can forgive even the transgressions of society when they are couched in the actions of an individual