Film #245: The Lady of Musashino (1951)

musashinodirector: Kenji Mizoguchi
language: Japanese
length: 84 minutes
watched on: 25 November 2016

My friend and I were going through some DVDs that I had in my little collection – I think this one originated with my sister. It’s been a while since I’ve watched any classic/old Japanese cinema – I’ve found that I’ve tended to avoid going to the cinema to watch Japanese movies in Japan (the lack of subtitles doesn’t encourage me, basically). So it’s probably been since Seven Samurai, one of the first movies I reviewed on here – and ironically, it was on in my local cinema recently. But that’s by the by.

This movie is about postwar Japan, and it depicts a rich family living in a traditional style house, just outside Tokyo in Musashino… which is now just part of Tokyo and pretty much where I used to live. It’s now completely built up, never mind the Japanese people who still lazily characterize it as “countryside”.

By today’s standards it’s totally PG and doesn’t depict any kissing, but by the standards of the day I’m guessing it was a bit risqué – the main plot is basically a sex comedy, as the main characters’ allegiances shift from one person to the next, and the titular “Lady of Musashino” has an affair with her cousin. At the same time, her husband is preaching in his university classes that adultery should be morally allowed within society, and acts accordingly, sleeping with the other main female character, but has rather the opposite reaction when he finds out his wife has also reacted in kind.

I found it difficult to follow at times – the setup is almost lightning fast, as a dying mother and father in one scene are completely gone after a quick fade-out. At other times too, scenes and plot points were set up with one sentence, meaning that I had to keep paying attention. There are also too many characters at the beginning, pared down to five main players by the end, once I’d got the hang of who was who.

Anyway, after a while the distracted looks of despair started to grate on me. I’d like to say this is a trope of older Japanese drama, but it’s still alive and kicking in modern drama, which in this aspect at least take its cue from theatre – characters look away from each other a lot when they want to be melodramatic. The other thing was the overly formal language, even to lovers, which I found (in the modern context at least) was unrealistic.

Anyway, the film seems to dislike all its protagonists, and it seems to be an attack and lament on the state of post-war morals in Japan. Basically the main character has to kill herself honorably so that she can one-up her husband in the war of attrition (he’s trying to swindle her out of property). At some point I became annoyed by this too, and I didn’t agree with the message that the director was apparently trying to put across about the morals. I wasn’t around then, yes, but this situation also doesn’t ring true to life. There’s also the very final shot of the movie, in which we see that development of the city is encroaching on Musashino, obviously also lamenting that the poor morals of the inner city are corrupting the minds of the country folk.

I’d like to find out where that shot, and the shots of the lake featured in the movie a few times, were filmed. Were they Inokashira park, Jindaiji, or somewhere like that? In which case they’d be familiar to me, yet completely changed. It’s very interesting to me how that kind of stuff has changed into the modern day.

Anyway, the film wasn’t what we’d expected at all from an older Japanese movie, what with all the sex comedy and the melodramatic intrigue, but we got emotionally invested in it, and started cursing out certain characters near the end. So in that sense it was a fun romp and set out to do what it wanted. But I don’t agree with the underlying message.

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