Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

近松物語 (The Crucified Lovers)

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

I have never seen Madam with such an air of happiness! Mohei as well, his expression so alive and beaming...It's hard to imagine they are on their way to the scaffold...

One morning in Kyoto during the early Edo period, a somber procession makes it way down the main streets. People crowd into streetsides, doors, and windows to grab a peek at the main attraction of the parade. They watch as a horse walks by with two people, a man and a woman, tied back-to-back on top. They have been found guilty of adultery. Their punishment is crucifixion, for adultery is a capital offense under the Tokugawa shoguns. But first, they must be revealed to the public and shamed before they are executed. And so the stream of people continues until it exits the town and arrives at the execution grounds. One of the many people watching this display is a rich scroll-maker named Ishun. 'How dreadful women are,' Ishun mutters when a pair of condemned are paraded down the street. He shakes his head and continues, 'If a samurai does not punish the adulterer himself, he loses his rank and title.' The woman accompanying him says 'Better to die by the hand of one's husband than to perish so shamefully!' But she has been ignored. Ishun has already moved on and left her behind. This callous act sets the stage for one of Kenji Mizoguchi's last films, 近松物語 , which literally translates to A Story From Chikamatsu. But it's Western title, The Crucified Lovers, seems more appropriate considering it beings with two lovers being crucified and it ends the same way. What we as an audience will witness between these two events is a story of tragic love and harsh social injustice.

It all starts with a misunderstanding. Ishun's wife, Osan, is frmo an impoverished family. One day, her brother asks her for a loan for a payment on their ancestral home's interest. Ishun is notorious for being stingy. So, Osan asks one of his top assistants, Mohei, for help. Little does she know, Mohei is in love with her. So, he decides to take a serious risk and forges a receipt for the money that her brother needs. But unfortunately, he is caught. In a terrifying shot, we see the outside of Ishun's office, we hear Mohei apologizing, and then we see him getting thrown out by Ishun. When he lands, he quickly prostrates himself in front of him and begs for forgiveness. Osan is about to leap to his defense when suddenly a maid named O-Tama yells out that it was her fault. She claims that she had asked for the money. In reality, O-Tama is madly in love with Mohei. All she wanted to do was protect him. But this was a bad choice on her part. Ishun has tried on several occasions to seduce her, including one early scene where he goes into her room, starts to stroke her arm underneath her kimono, and says, 'I can come in here and do what I want when I want to.' Enraged at the thought that O-Tama loves Mohei, he has Ishun imprisoned in his attic.

Here, the plot begins to get complicated, but I will try to summarize it as succinctly as possible. In what seems like a scene out of a French farce, there is an unfortunate bed-swapping. When Osan goes to thank O-Tama for her help, she discovers that her husband has been cheating. So, in an attempt to catch him in the act, she sleeps in O-Tama's bed. However, Mohei escapes from the attic and goes to O-Tama's room where he hopes to thank her before he tries to escape to avoid being handed over to the authorities. However, he discovers Osan in O-Tama's bed. At that exact moment, the shop clerk walks in and sees the two together. The alarm is raised and general havoc ensues. In the commotion, Mohei manages to get away. However, Osan is forced to face her husband's wrath. He gives her a dagger and tells her to do what a person of her status should do. However, instead of killing herself, she flees. As chance should have it, she runs into Mohei again. The two go on the run to Osaka. They come to realize their love for one another and swear to never be apart again. However, the authorities are looking for them, and there is nowhere to hide........

It is difficult to give a good description of this movie's plot while doing it justice. It is no easier than if somebody told you to give a detailed summary of all five acts of Shakespeare's Hamlet in one paragraph. But that seems appropriate considering that it is based on the play Daikyoji sekireki by Monzaemon Chikamatsu, who is called the Japanese Shakespeare. It is a deep, complicated plot that examines a wide array of human emotions. However, we find ourselves caught up in the social implications and the flagrant hypocrisies of the antagonist Ishun. For that, we have to thank the veteran director, Kenji Mizoguchi. No stranger to social issues (particularly ones pertaining to women's rights) Mizoguchi has established a long line of truly insidious and cruel male antagonists who use women to their disposal. One of the most memorable is Mr. Asai from Osaka Elegy (1936) who forces his daughter into prostitution because 'it's his right to use his daughter as he sees fit' and then throws her out of his house when she is arrested and brings shame to his family. Just like Ishun, Mr. Asai sees women as commodities or vassals of pleasure designed only to serve men. When they become inconvenient or troublesome, they simply get rid of them. But why do these antagonists keep showing up in Mizoguchi's movies?

The main reason would probably be that Mizoguchi had a real life experience that changed his perspective on women's rights. His father was a cruel man who made life for his mother and sister miserable. When Mizoguchi was still young, he sold his older sister as a geisha. This trauma of seeing his sister forced into the human meat market transformed Mizoguchi and made him one of cinema's first feminist filmmakers. One can only imagine how many times he seen the face of his father in his villains and the face of his sister in his heroes. Despite his demons, he went on to become one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers of all time. In fact, he is referred to as one of the three godfathers of Japanese cinema, along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. The three formed a kind of trinity that has inspired and amazed filmmakers and moviegoers for generations. If one were to assign them roles (at least in a Christian sense) it would probably go as such:

Ozu is God the Father. His movies explore the inner workings of families and personal relationships in a penetrating manner that many filmmakers have imitated, but never successfully replicated.

Kurosawa is God the Son. His movies always seemed to try and discover a redeemable side to human life. Even in his darker films, he focused on strong, charismatic characters who at least tried to do right. In his later life, his films took on a darker tone, as if he was trying to atone for the sins of his characters.

Mizoguchi is God the Holy Spirit. More than any other director of his era, he was never afraid to explore the dark side of society and witness the suffering of its outcasts. Many of his movies feel like we are witnessing them as if we were some kind of omnipresent deity who sees everything and everybody who suffers. He has been declared a master of the long take and mise-en-scene. One of his greatest trade marks was his 'scroll shots' where he would pan over a scene from left-to-right or right-to-left and observe the action as if we were looking at a living Japanese paint scroll. One great example of this technique is used early on in the film when Ishun enters his workshop looking for Mohei. We get three consecutive shots: one of him entering the shop, one entering the courtyard, and one into his room. Each one starts with him entering the screen from the right and exiting the frame on the left. The three shots sweep across the set, following Ishun as he crosses the set.

Despite all of his amazing talent, for a long time, Mizoguchi was ignored by audiences overseas. Along with his contemporary Ozu, his films were considered too Japanese for Western audiences. However, all this began to change in the 1950s when his work began to get recognized in European Film Festivals. The Crucified Lovers was actually nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. His later movies like Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) received tremendous accolades and finally established Mizoguchi as one of the world's greatest filmmakers. Unfortunately, many of his films are lost or unavailable in the West. So movies like The Crucified Lovers seem doomed to fade away into obscurity. If there is any justice in the world, his movies would be saved and distributed to a wider audience. Go figure. Most of his films deal with injustice in one way or another. Sometimes, they end happily, but most of them end on a sad note. And indeed, The Crucified Lovers ends on a tragic note. Osan and Mohei are being paraded down a street on the way to the executioner's plot where they will be crucified for their adultery. But they seem happy. They hold hands and make defiant faces at the crowds. Even the onlookers admit that they have never seen them that happy. Maybe that is what life is about: those few, fleeting moments where we can find some form of happiness, regardless of what society wants for us. Mizoguchi worked for decades only to be acknowledged for his work in his twilight years. Osan and Mohei loved for only a few days. But those days were enough to see them heading towards their deaths with their hands intertwined and their hearts singing. May we all be so lucky...



  1. Another great review of an Asian film I've never heard of until now! The blog seems to be succeeding in its established goal of bringing unsung cinematic genius to light. The God metaphor was slightly confusing.

  2. Well, if you familiarize yourself with their work it will make more sense. I can't take credit for the Trinity metaphor. I read it somewhere else online, but I can't remember where. But as a lover of all three directors, I can say it makes sense.

  3. I'd also never heard of this although I've seen the two better known titles mentioned in your review. Half way down your reviews I always hesitate whether I should read the plot details, since you manage to tempt me to look around for the movie. I never would have thought Japanese to have practiced such barbarous punishments.

  4. You'd be surprised at how "barbarous" the Japanese could be. The worst was probably during the Tokugawa Era. They excelled at creating new ways to torture and kill people who broke the laws.

    You should read up on how the Tokugawa Shogunate prosecuted Christians.......THAT is some chilling stuff....

  5. Saw this film at our local (Hamilton, New Zealand) film society last night, having been alerted to it by Mark Cousins' wonderful The Story of Film. Wonderful melodrama!