In Mizoguchi’s Oyu-Sama, the protagonists rarely see each other’s faces. Instead, they turn their backs. They also rarely face the camera.
This camera position seems to be justified at the beginning of the film as the hero, Shin-nosuke, notices Oyu in the garden. He is looking at her, in admiration; he follows herâ€”as the camera stays following behind him. Hence, this peculiar position seems to be a natural choice. Indeed, this semi-POV strategy is so meticulously calculated that we see (with him) Oyu, but not Shizu, her younger sister and the woman he was to meet that day for a matchmaking session, who somehow remains hidden behind somebody else for most of the sequence.
But very soon, the film reveals that concentrating on the backs is its visual strategy, even its theme, so much so that the semi-POV at the beginning was in part just a set-up for the audience to accept this style. On one very hot and sunny afternoon, Shin-nosuke encounters Oyu on the street of Osaka, struck by the heat and falling ill. He helps her to a house he know nearby, supporting her from her back. In the evening, as he remains at her bedside, he sees her sleeping and the desires within him is aroused. To suppress this forbidden desire, he turns his back to Oyu. Behind him, Oyu, who was indeed already awake, stares at his back, and she too turns her back.
Thus, Mizoguchiâ€™s film reveals its dramatic structure, and its physical as well as visual schemeâ€”it is a drama of three people, each of them forced to suppress his or her desire and emotion, unable to face the other two, even though they genuinely care for each other. It is their very goodness and naivety that prevent them to be honest, and since they are indeed so naively honest, they cannot face each other. Hence, all they can do is to turn their back to each other, as well as to the camera.
Shin-nosuke loves Oyu, but she is a widow, he cannot jeopardize her life. Besides, he is supposed to marry Shizu. Oyu is aware of his love, but because she is a widow, she knows that marrying her instead of Shizu would destroy Shin-nosukeâ€™s social status (she knows better about such conformist conservative restrictions). Shizu, who loves both Shin-nosuke and her sister, follows her moral discipline of self-sacrifice and is determined to keep them together at her own cost, so that they can love each other and remain a “happy family.”
Thus, Mizoguchiâ€™s film becomes about hypocrisy and disguise and, therefore, a film about faces that cannot be exposed. Because of their own sincerity and the incapacity of hiding their feelings, they are doomed, entrapped to remain in that physical position.
Entrapment is of course among Mizoguchi’s favorite themes; being trapped in social roles, social values, and social structures. In his pre-war mature phase, heÂ often expressed the suppressed emotions of being entrapped by choosing to avoid directly depicting them.
Take The 47 Ronin for instance, in which the ‘hero’ Oishi, is always shown in long shots, his facial expression always deadpan, because individual desires have to be ignored in the formalistic universe of bureaucratic samurais. The Confucian moral code prevails; humans are mere representations of family honor. Hence Mizoguchi’s camera there also often remains on the back of the characters, showing the family insignias printed on their backs, instead of showing their faces. In The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, many would have noticed that even until the end of the film, they still cannot recognize the heroine’s face (no wonder, since the film barely shows her face). This happens in Oyu-Sama too, because the charactersâ€™ emotions are suppressed, need to be hidden, and so they literally turn their backs.
Still, there are also quite obvious stylistic features in Oyu-Sama that distinguishes this post-war Mizoguchi from his pre-war mature period, the first peak of his career spanning from The Sisters of Gion to The 47 Ronin (culminating with this nearly 4 hours, two parts epic released on the day Japan entered in war with the US). The pre-war Mizoguchi often preferred to use cinema as an observing art form, registering human behaviors in their full ambiguity, while the camera refusing to identify with the characters’ emotion, except for some very rare pivotal crucial moments (such as the sudden introduction of camera movements in the otherwise static The 47 Ronin when the camera makes circular movements around Takamine Mieko, or the sudden outburst of anger from Yamada Isuzu at the end of The Sisters of Gion).
After several years of struggling to adapt himself to post-war Japan, when he was perhaps too self-conscious that he was an old-fashioned, maybe rather misogynist (to the point of attempting to make three ‘feminist’ films), and not-so-highly educated ‘craftsman,’ Mizoguchi joined the Daiei studio and there met the cameraman Kazuo Miyagawa. Generally heralded for their collaboration in Ugetsu, Oyu-Sama was their first film together. Miyagawa was known for his bold and elaborate, yet spontaneous lighting style Kurosawaâ€™s Rashomon (using mirrors instead of white reflection boards to enhance the contrasts of sunbeams coming through the woods quickly comes to mind). At the same time, he forced Mizoguchi to introduce elaborate choreography in his mise-en-scene, but also gave Mizoguchi the freedom of using the cinematic medium as a plastic art form, through which he can construct a more direct connection to the emotions that, though not directly appearing on the surface, are still definitely there within the characters. This allowed Mizoguchi to venture into more subtle, complex psychological dramasâ€”a prime example being Oyu-Sama.
The precision of Miyagawa’s shots, of Mizoguchi’s placement of the characters within the shots, their choices of frame size, the proximity and the distance from the camera, as well as how to paint the frame with various level of lights and shades,became more important, not only to record the behaviors of the characters, but also to express what cannot be directly seen through the designing of the shots. Shin-nosuke marries Shizu, convinced by Oyu that by marrying her beloved sister, he can continue to see Oyu, the woman he is really in love with, to remain close to her as ‘a sibling’. On the wedding night, Shizu keeps turning her back to him, and confesses her reasons for accepting the marriage. The camera almost always stays on her back or her profile, but never entirely faces her. Nevertheless, in an elaborately designed long take, the camera goes so close to her, follows her in proximity as she is continuously followed by Shin-nosuke, sitting in one room, standing up, crossing a hallway, entering another room, where now Shin-nosuke has to turn his back to her (and both of them to the camera).
The proximity to the unseen emotions, the directorial precision that enables that, and the question of form, are indeed critical to Mizoguchi’s structuring of Oyu-Sama, since essentially, it is a story in which nothing happens in direct terms, therefore there is nothing to be seen directly.
In other words, it depicts a universe (the upper-class Osaka merchants) where nothing happens directlyâ€”another huge leap from Mizoguchi’s previous films in which his camera merely observed what happens and what the characters do â€“ it is only through their actions that we are introduced to their dilemmas and suppressed emotions (maybe with an enormous exception of The 47 Ronin in which, too, everything happens solely in people’s mind or behind the thick curtains of politics, structured as a series of fragmented moral/political discussions).
Indeed, it is not only that this universe of the upper class functions solely through pertinent insinuations smuggled in gossips and casual conversations, the main characters, as good-willing and sincere as they themselves are in their struggles for the happiness of each other, also are unable to do anything directly, or even to say anything directlyâ€”as being too honest would immediately shatter their fragile artificial euphemistic illusion of pure love (and doomed to be mistaken as perverse).Â Essentially, everything happens in their minds, expressed through what they can never directly say, or show. Everything must be hidden beneath their backs, the only part of their bodies that they can expose to the camera.
It is only in the epilogue, two years after the main portion of the story, that something happens â€“ here, at first glance, Mizoguchi seems to have returned to his customary style of observational realism. Yet, one can quickly recognize that here too, Mizoguchi’s realism has become meticulously controlled and choreographed. The train going back and forth in the background, for instance, reveals how calculated each movement is in this sequence. Mizoguchi also chooses many actions important for plot information to be hidden, only glimpsed at, behind doors, windows, or the laundry hung in the garden.
Even here, important things have already happened therefore not to be seen: abandoned by Oyu, Shin-nosuke and Shizu have moved to Tokyo, and they became really man and wife, she is now pregnant. We are provided no explanation about Shin-nosukeâ€™s economical downfall â€“ he is now living in a rented old shack in the outskirts of Tokyo. He has lost his business of prized antiques and has become a merchant of old second-hand daily use objects. We are also not told how he finally convinced Shizu to become his real wife, nor how Shizu finally accepted her own desire and began loving her husband as a man.
The prevailing understanding of the history of cinema as an art of registering the human world in all its ambiguity, in film criticism terms defined by Andre Bazin and his theory of “realism”, is that Italian post-war neo-realism was a crucial rupture for cinema to reach its fundament. I would like to argue that the rupture from controlled environments to be shot mainly in studios, therefore the need to incorporate certain elements of artificiality, was already happening in the mid to late thirties, not in Europe but in Japan, with Kenji Mizoguchi as its chief engineer (not also to forget his peers such as Tomu Uchida, Hiroshi Shimizu, Sadao Yamanaka, etc. And this is not to discredit in any way the artistry of Roberto Rossellini, Visconti, and so forth; these pre-war Japanese films were rarely shown abroad).
With the stylistic boldness he explored starting with Osaka Elegy, already reaching perfection with the following Sisters of Gion, Mizoguchi had achieved the essential realism of cinema as an art form of registering human behavior. His continuous challenges reached its peak with The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, indeed stylistically already so close to the top-notch avant-garde films of the post-war or post-nouvelle vague cinema in challenging the form of cinema itself to its limit. Notice for instance the use of sound in this generally considered Mizoguchi’s pre-war masterpiece and his refusal of a conventional score, scoring the film mostly with incidental sounds and music played within the scene or heard in the distance, or the way he keeps long static shots, avoiding conventional close-ups to enhance dramatic moment, indeed the bold choice of almost never showing the heroineâ€™s face. Even Antonioni was never that bold in these sorts of experiments. Even Bergman was never so boldly existentialist.
Or The 47 Ronin in which everything is presented as fragments of the complex reality of political intrigues and moral codes, in which what were happening are never communicated directly on screen, but always guessed through what the protagonists say about the reality â€“ the only way to express a social system as a whole.
With Oyu-Sama, Mizoguchi not only returned to what he could do the best, the continuation to what he had explored; he also entered into another dimension of his art â€“ a desire of perfection of the form of cinema, combining cinema as an art of registering the complexity of humanity, and cinema as an audio-visual plastic art, a sculpture of time, space, and light carved with human emotions.
Using a psychodrama of manners by Jun-ichiro Tanizaki as its platform, Mizoguchi started a new adventure in his cinematography with Oyu-Sama.
Tanizakiâ€™s universe, filled with traditional and conventional details and depicting an upper class in which the matters of taste were of the highest importance, was indeed ideal for Mizoguchi at this point, for at this point his ambition was not only to make good emotional films, his honest depiction of how he sees the human society. Now, with Miyagawa, his ambition was also to make his cinema a perfect Japanese art form, equivalents of antique art pieces, paintings or tea objects, porcelains, etc. that he himself became an ardent collector around this timeâ€”in which tradition, innovation, simplicity and innovation, the matters of good taste, opens the viewerâ€™s mind to philosophical meditation.
And all of that, without losing the realistic edge that he always was known for.
In that context, let us also not forget that Oyu-Sama marks also his first collaboration with Fumio Hayasaka the composer. Here the musical score itself is still maybe conventional film scoring, but minimal, reserved, coming in only when it’s absolutely necessary, not explaining or filling up the absence of direct emotional expressions, but underscoring with precision. As with the camera, the precision of the cinematic form is already established with the sound. As for what they would do in the future, like the almost total absence of themes and melodies in Crucified Lovers, with elaborate use of Japanese traditional instruments, in Oyu-sama, we may already have a glimpse of that musical adventure.