Mother (Tanaka Kinuyo) and daughter (Kuga Mishiko) in conflict.

In one of my fantasies, I learn how to manage time so well that I am able to work my way through all the available films of the directors I love. In reality, this means being decisive now and again and buying a DVD which might get watched.

Mizoguchi Kenji is my sentimental favourite amongst the Japanese and I was delighted to discover that Masters of Cinema are releasing a series of double DVD packs of his films. Of course, this means that I will probably have to buy films that I have already got (or rent the films separately). However, in the case of Uwasa no onna it has been paired with Chikamatsu monogatari, which I think I did see many years ago, but certainly haven’t got.

Uwasa no onna is an untranslatable title that has sometimes been rendered as ‘Woman of Rumour’ or ‘Woman in the rumour’ – summoning up a common Mizoguchi theme of the lives of women in the context of restrictive social mores. This is one of Mizoguchi’s contemporary set films (although most of it takes place in the ‘pleasure’ district of Kyoto, where many of the women are employed as geisha). It’s a melodrama based on a triangle of mother, daughter and young male doctor. The great Tanaka Kinuyo plays the mother, a widow who has invested in a geisha house. Her daughter returns from Tokyo after a failed suicide and is shown as shamed by her mother’s profession. The doctor who comes to visit her is the ‘house doctor’ in whom the mother has more than a professional interest.

The DVD carries a Tony Rayns introduction in which spends most of the time discussing how Mizoguchi didn’t wish to make the film which was forced on him by his studio Daiei and how it was the last film he made with Tanaka, with whom he fell out when she became a successful director herself (the first significant female director in Japan). The introduction is both tantalising and frustrating. Rayns reminds us that Mizoguchi himself knew about the world of the pleasure houses (i.e. brothels) both from personal experience (common and acceptable for middle-class Japanese men of his era) and from his research for several other films which explored the same milieu. In this sense, it is clear why Daiei thought that this was a suitable property. It was written by Yoda Yoshikata, Mizoguchi’s long-term collaborator and Narusawa Masashige, who would go on to be a major collaborator, so something was wrong if Mizoguchi turned away from the script. Rayns suggests that he was simply tired after winning three successive prizes at Venice or disdainful of what was clearly a straightforward genre piece. Daiei’s motives become clear in the trailer included on the DVD which announces a ‘dramatic epic’ with all the sumptuousness of the geisha world. These now seem rather ridiculous claims for what turned out to be an 84 min film with relatively little visual splendour and none of the bravura camerawork that graces a film like Sansho Dayu from the same year.

But this lack of epic scale doesn’t detract from my pleasure in watching the film. What I see is the competent genre work of a team of highly skilled filmmakers and performers. Most of all it makes me wonder about how films like this were seen in Japan in the 1950s. Presumably, this would have been half of a double bill in an upmarket cinema in Tokyo or Osaka. What would it have shown with? Were cinemas at this time controlled by the studios themselves? As one of the newer, smaller studios did Daiei have access to their own cinemas or did they have to rely on their larger competitors for bookings? An interesting brief history of Daiei by Greg Shoemaker answers some of these questions, but raises further seeming contradictions — writing in a fantasy magazine, Shoemaker is more interested in the science fiction and exploitation films which Daiei were making in the same period. Mizoguchi’s more artistic work was an important part of Daiei’s attempts to produce commercially successful period films that would appeal to foreign markets (hence the festival screenings). The more generically inclined period films would then become reliable commercial earners at home in the later 1950s and early 1960s. But though I love Mizoguchi’s period films, I find his contemporary films equally interesting. My question remains. Who were the audiences who got to see what appear now to be small genre pictures for older middle class audiences – in the 1950s perhaps the equivalent of audiences who enjoyed Douglas Sirk’s melodramas?

The obvious thing to do is to compare Mizoguchi’s contemporary films with those of Ozu and Naruse — something increasingly possible now that the DVDs are appearing. Mizoguchi seems to me the more painterly (he was a trained painter I think), less realist but perhaps more concerned overall with ideas of art and society. I think three representations will remain with me from the film. First, the daughter (played by Kuga Mishiko) reminds me so much of Audrey Hepburn and is wonderfully fresh and modern in a mise en scène which is otherwise so traditional. Secondly, Mizoguchi offers us the contrast of the stage life and ‘real life’ with performances of both kabuki and noh plays (the latter being relatively rare in contemporary set films). Finally (and another Mizoguchi trait) is the sense of community shown by the girls in the house who effectively introduce us to all sides of the courtesan’s life.

A note on the DVD: these are direct transfers from Daiei masters and surprisingly for UK DVDs they are NTSC discs. My DVD player/TV set can cope, but the image is never as good as PAL and appears here as rather lacking in contrast. It works fine on my Mac, though here the primitive sound quality is more evident. The DVD twin pack also has a small 56 page booklet, most of which deals with Chikamatsu monogatari, but there is a short extract from Keiko McDonald’s out of print book on Mizoguchi. I found this useful in thinking about the mise en scène of the geisha house itself with the contrast between the cramped quarters of the girls and the more lavish use of space (so precious in Japanese buildings) in the mother’s and daughter’s rooms. No mention of Mizoguchi’s reluctance here but McDonald does note, the Western style of camera work and editing and she concludes that Mizoguchi was, in terms of social critique, adopting an attitude of detachment and of “showing us how it is”.

The final page of the booklet is something to cheer every cinephile – a set of instructions about how to watch a film in Academy ratio on a modern TV set, complete with illustrations showing how the image will be distorted or cropped on widescreen TVs set to ‘fill the screen’ defaults. What an excellent idea — all DVDs should carry this!