Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
One of the most dangerous things that a film critic can do is abandon neutrality and fully embrace personal feelings and emotions while writing a review. For the year and a half that I have maintained this blog, I have strived to keep my work neutral and analytical, explaining the technical and historical reasons why certain films should be regarded as forgotten classics. But I find that today I cannot do that. My love for this film and what it means to me forces me to write the most personal review that I have ever composed. Any newspaper or literary journal would reject it. But I don’t care.
My love for film and desire to be a film maker can all be traced to a showing of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) one Friday evening at my college. I know that satori moments lack credibility, but with God as my witness, the moment that the elevator opened and blood poured out into the corridor of the Overlook Hotel, I knew that I HAD to be a director. It was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes.
Afterward, I went about ravenously consuming films at a rate of 2-4 a day. But there was one mental block that kept me from truly exploring all that the world of film had to offer: foreign films. I could never get into them. They just seemed pale and uninteresting. Still, I was committed to giving them a try. One weekend when I was home from college I was flipping through the channels when I came across Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) on a channel that specialized in foreign films. I remember sitting transfixed as my mind and preconceptions of what the cinema as a medium could accomplish were blown away. The final hurdle had been jumped: I loved foreign film.
And not just any foreign films, Japanese films in particular. Long time readers might notice that a good percentage of the films that I write about on this site are Japanese. Well, to be honest, I just feel an affinity for Japanese film because it was the first genre of foreign film that I fell in love with. Directors like Ozu, Teshigahara, Nagisa, Imamura, and Suzuki became more than just directors, they became close personal friends. To this day I consider Kurosawa to be my sensei, a fact that I cling to without a shred of irony. And then there was Mizoguchi.
My relationship with Mizoguchi has been a tumultuous one. Ugetsu has long remained one of my favorite films of all time, but I never felt like he made many more films of that caliber. After three years, I have tracked down and watched 17 of his films, and only one of them, Sansho the Bailiff (1954), felt like it was anywhere near the same level of quality as Ugetsu. Sure, I have seen great films by Mizoguchi, and have even written about two of them here on this site. But none of them reached the level of Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff in my opinion.
Or so I thought.
During my entire experience at college, one of my teachers, and close personal friends, was a man named Matthew Mizenko. I was shocked to find that he was just as obsessed with Japanese cinema as I was. I wasted many afternoons shooting the breeze with him about Japanese films, talking about how ingenious they were and how nobody will ever appreciate Family Game (1983) as the masterpiece that it was. Many times the topic of the conversation would drift to Mizoguchi. And strangely, whenever it did, he would always bring up the title of this film entitled Waga Koi Wa Moenu, which to this day neither of us can decide on how to properly translate it into English. He insisted that it was one of Mizoguchi’s true masterpieces, a film that not only rivaled Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, but may in fact transcend them. I spent countless hours searching the internet for copies of this film, finally coming to the conclusion that Mizenko was pulling my leg and that this film didn’t really exist.
Until about a week ago.
To my surprise, I found a site online that provided a download link to this elusive film. After much cynical guffawing, I downloaded it and opened it, fully expecting Mizenko’s face to pop up on my monitor with a sign saying, “Fooled you!!!”
But lo and behold, an actual film started. And this wasn’t just any film. Ladies and gentlemen, I found a classic; a genuine, bona-fide forgotten classic of yesteryear. Out of all of the 100+ films that I have reviewed on this site, none of them come close to being more deserving of that title as My Love Burns¸ a film by Kenji Mizoguchi.
My Love Burns is a story that deals with Mizoguchi’s favorite theme: the plight of Japanese women. All throughout his career, Mizoguchi advocated women’s rights. Many of his films were portraits of working girls (The Water Magician, The Love of the Actress Sumako), prostitutes (Sisters of the Gion, Osaka Elegy), geishas (A Geisha), and all other roles traditionally played by women in Japanese society. They depicted strong women exploited and abused by their families, friends, and the world at large. Even in films where the protagonists were males, Mizoguchi would almost always include a female character or love interest that was abused, ignored, or forgotten in order to advance the fortunes of the men around her. Both Ugetsu and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), considered to be two of Mizoguchi’s finest films, had female love interests who literally died due to the callous neglect of their men. In many ways, Mizoguchi can be seen as one of the first, and greatest, cinematic feminists.
Mizoguchi’s feminist beliefs came to a head in My Love Burns, a film literally dedicated to the women’s rights movement in Japan. The film starts in 1884 Okayama, during that curious time in Japan’s history when the entire country was abandoning millennia of tradition to embrace Western culture and industrialization. A new political party is growing: a progressive one. The party promises massive reforms in the face of severe government opposition. Among these promised reforms is the cause of women’s rights. This attracts the attention of Eiko, a young woman devoted to progressivism despite hostile opposition from her parents. Things come to a climax when her father cruelly sells Chiyo, the daughter of their family servants and Eiko’s close personal friend, into slavery. Unable to tolerate her family’s tyranny any longer, Eiko flees to Tokyo where she marries Kentaro Omoi, the leader of the new progressive party.
After a violent government crackdown, Eiko is thrown into prison where she reunites with Chiyo. Chiyo’s story has been a terrible one. Upon being sold, she was carted off to an all-female factory presided over by evil guards. It was an environment where atrocious daily beatings and brutal rape were everyday occurrences.
After being raped by a prison guard and subsequently beaten when discovered by another guard (it was apparently her fault for seducing the first guard…) Chiyo set a fire that burned the factory down.
Once in prison, Eiko and Chiyo were forced to do hard labor for two years. In 1889, a new constitution was ratified whereby all prisoners of the state were pardoned and released. Upon her new freedom, Eiko reunites with Omoi, ready and willing to thrown herself back into the progressive fight once again. However, she is shocked to discover that Omoi has taken Chiyo up as a concubine. In a moment, Omoi’s true character is revealed. He is an opportunistic politician riding the wave of progressivism into the government. He could care less about women’s rights. To him, women are tools and playthings to be thrown away.
After confronting Omoi and leaving him, Eiko boards a train back home to Okayama. All around her passengers are reading newspapers and declaring what a wonderful man Omoi is. They call him a genius. They praise him as the leader of Japanese progressivism. Eiko’s head sinks. But then, the compartment door opens. It’s none other than Chiyo. Tearfully embracing her old friend, she confesses that she has left Omoi and has recommitted herself to the cause of women’s rights. The two friends embrace as the train pulls into the night and an uncertain future.
So why is this a great film when compared to his other works? I argue that it is because Mizoguchi concerns the film with actions instead of dialogue. Allow me to explain. One of the reasons why so many of Mizoguchi’s films are subpar and ultimately forgettable is because they don’t show things happening. Instead they show people talking about things happening. Many of his films focus on people sitting in rooms across from each other and talking about the events and characters that supposedly populate the story. Much is discussed, little is actually shown. Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff break this tradition by showing the actions and driving events of the film. We see Ohama raped and Genjurō assaulted by ghosts in Ugetsu. We see Anju commit suicide and Zushio find his mother in Sansho the Bailiff. And in My Love Burns, we see the atrocities committed against women.
Some may be surprised to find that My Love Burns was directed by Mizoguchi. It contains scenes of uncharacteristic violence and brutality that he usually avoided. Mizoguchi almost never resorted to showing violence, instead choosing to suggest and imply it. A prominent example would be in Sansho the Bailiff when captured runaway slaves are branded on their foreheads. Mizoguchi shows the slaves being held down, the brand being heated, and the brand being lowered to the brow of the shrieking victim…only to move the camera away at the last second, letting anguished screams confirm our worst fears. But in My Love Burns, Mizoguchi shows all but the most graphic of abuses.
Some may shake their heads and refuse to believe that Mizoguchi would lower himself to such graphic exploitation. But pay attention and look carefully at the scenes of violence. Take, for instance, the scene when the progressive party’s headquarters is raided by policemen. The horrific violence is recorded with a calm, nearly detached camera that sways from side to side…almost as if it was a…Japanese scroll….The violence may be explicit and uncharacteristic, but the man behind the camera could only be Mizoguchi.
As I look over this article, I notice that it is over four pages, easily making it the longest review that I have ever written. And you know what? It’s worth every word. My Love Burns is truly a phenomenal film whose neglect can only be seen as a horrible sin against the cinema. More people deserve to see this film. More people need to see this film. I have uploaded this film to youtube so that everyone can see it. I know that many of you have reservations against watching films on youtube, but I earnestly hope that you all will make an once-in-a-lifetime exception. I know that many of my readers have blogs. I encourage every single one of to watch this film and then write a blog entry about it. I know for a FACT that some of you have powerful connections within the film industry and the world of cinema critics. I pray that you all will tell them about this film and encourage them to see it and reconsider it critically as the masterpiece that it is. Because, you know what, Mizenko was right. My Love Burns truly is one of the greatest films that Kenji Mizoguchi ever made.
Part One of My Love Burns