Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyoko Kagawa, Yoko Minamida, Eitaro Shindo, Sakae Ozawa, Ichiro Sugai, Haruo Tanaka, Tatsuya Ishiguro, Chieko Naniwa
Written by: Yoshikata Yoda, Matsutaro Kawaguchi, based on a play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 102
Date: 11/13/2018

A Story from Chikamatsu (1954)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Paper Trail

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As Kenji Mizoguchi becomes slightly more and more recognized not only as one of the great masters of Japanese cinema, but as one of the great masters of world cinema, his films have been trickling out into American markets. Made the same year as his much better known Sansho the Bailiff (1954), A Story from Chikamatsu easily ranks as one of the director's greatest, and its appearance on Criterion Blu-ray in 2018 is cause for cheers.

As critic Dudley Andrew points out in his excellent visual essay on the disc, Mizoguchi is much harder to define than his contemporaries Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Mizoguchi's background was in theater, and in his films, he chose a kind of theatrical middle-distance that was meant to eschew the close-ups of glamorous Hollywood cinema and the cult of movie stars, instead capturing something closer to social realism. The director also tended to prefer stories that cast light on society's social ills, often refracted through time.

Adapted from an 18th century play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu — who also provided the source for Masahiro Shinoda's excellent film Double Suicide (1969) — A Story from Chikamatsu is set in a world obsessed with wealth and social status, and especially with the social status of men. A miserly paper merchant, Ishun (Eitaro Shindo), does great business in the middle of a recession, given that he makes the annual calendars for the Emperor. He hoards his wealth, refusing to give anyone loans and spending only a pittance on his hard-working employees.

His best worker is Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa), who works through the night even when ill. The pretty young employee Otama (Yoko Minamida) loves Mohei and brightly flirts with him. However, Ishun, while married to Osan (Kyoko Kagawa), insists on sneaking into Otama's room at night and having his way with Otama. One day Otama lies and says she's engaged to Mohei, hoping that her boss will stop. But it sets off a deadly chain reaction.

Osan's brother desperately needs money to keep his business afloat, and Osan asks Mohei for it; he agrees and illegally uses the master's seal to get it. He's imprisoned, and a distraught Otama tearfully tells Osan about Osan's husband's nightly visits. So Osan waits in Otama's room to confront her husband, but Mohei escapes and shows up instead. Thus it looks like Mohei and Osan are lovers, and they must go on the run. The catch is that Mohei actually is in love with Osan, and she reciprocates. (The sequence in which this is revealed, through a long take with the lovers in a boat, is the movie's most powerful.) But there's only so long they can hide.

Of course, every secondary character quickly and firmly forms a harsh opinion of the circumstances, and not even family bonds can overcome the societal judgments. Others take advantage of the situation, plotting and preparing usurp newly opened positions. The final shot is an ironic beauty, with the lovers finding their only happiness on the way to potential death. Mizoguchi tells the story with extraordinary intelligence and patience, somehow focusing on a sense of passion rather than outrage or indignant preaching. A Story from Chikamatsu will make you angry, but first it will move you to the core.

Criterion's Blu-ray release comes with their usual high-level, near-perfect picture and sound (no complaints) with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. There's an 11-minute interview with actress Kyoko Kagawa, the aforementioned visual essay by Andrew (about 40 minutes), and a liner notes essay by Haden Guest. The new cover art is by Michael Boland.

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