Meito Bijomaru (1945)

The Museum of the Moving Image (New York) is hosting the Series on Mizoguchi films during this May. The program includes many Mizoguchi’s works rarely seen, and one of them is war-time Jidaigeki, Meito Bijomaru (名刀美女丸, 1945).

Mizoguchi’s films during the war years are usually associated with the word “unfortunate” – unfortunate, because some of the supposedly masterpieces from this era –A Woman of Osaka, A Life of an Actor, Three Generations of Danjuro– are considered lost. Particularly, A Woman of Osaka was hailed as one of the Mizoguchi’s pivotal works by those who had seen it. Another set of “unfortunate” works are available for us to see, and they are the product of the time. Musashi Miyamoto, Meito Bijomaru, and Victory Song were awkward amalgam of fascist chauvinism and Mizuguchi’s sensibility. Kaneto Shindo made a pointedly harsh criticism of these films, which have influenced viewing experience of many Mizoguchi admirers ever since. They are not good. They are laughable. They are at the bottom of Mizoguchi’s career. It has been quoted often, too often, that Mizugochi himself had said he made these films to make money. I am not quite sure if he really made money out of these films. It was the last days of the pathetic war. He probably made barely enough to bring food on the table, I would say.
Although Mizoguchi directed many historical films during his career, he was never good at Samurai genre. Audience could sense he was not interested in violent whirling of swords, suspenseful confrontation, or catharsis of revenge. However, as a part of propaganda effort within the film industry, he reluctantly made these three “unfortunate” films. Some critics argue, these were “assignments”, without Mizuguchi’s heart in them. Others see there are, indeed the hint of Mizoguchi’s touches, here and there. Long takes, women’s suffering, evocative misse-en-scene. They do have some Mizoguchi’s directorial marks – in Meito Bijomaru, for example, there are quite few long takes. But some of them are just plain takes as films rolled for minutes without a cinematic merit. I wonder if this failure to bring anything meaningful was due to technical or economic difficulties in the production or disinterest in the creator’s part. Maybe a little bit of both.
Probably, one of the most disturbing aspects of these films is its revisionist nature. Especially, Meito Bijomaru seems to suffer the most. Its plot and direction became contrived due to absurd historical references and its psychological conflict seems very unlikely to manifest among those who depicted in the film.
Meito Bijomaru is set to the last days of the Tokugawa Era. The Tokugawa Era is the last, and the most prosperous period of the feudal government, headed by the Shogun, the Master of Samurai (sort of). Technically, the Shogun was appointed by the Emperor, but during this period, the lineage of the Emperor was stripped of practical political power. After almost two centuries of Shogun government, with virtually no contact with foreign countries, the nation faced the crisis from the two fronts: diplomatic pressure (and military threats) from foreign countries, especially the United States, to open up the country, and domestic upheaval led by the samurais, who were dissatisfied with the Tokugawa (Shogun) Government. These revolutionary samurais were preparing for the new government, to reinstate the Emperor as the head of the state. But they were divided in the foreign policies: one was adamantly refusing diplomatic relations with foreign countries, the other considered careful diplomatic relations with the Western Nations unavoidable. Shogun Government failed to contain these revolutionary factions, even suffered a disgraceful loss at suppressing armed samurais. This led to Shogun’s voluntary delegation of sovereignty to the Emperor. The reactionary militants, who opposed to the new Imperial Government, started the guerilla war, but eventually lost after long years of miserable rout and tragic deaths.
The plot of Meito Bijomaru was set against this historical backdrop. Kiyohide, the veteran sword blacksmith, and Kiyone’s master, is deeply involved in this revolutionary movement. The meeting held at his place every night was the secret workshop for the politics and history of the (Imperial) Nation. That’s why it is raided by the Police (still under the Shogun government). On the other hand, Naito, the high-ranking official within the Shogun government and the target of Kiyone/Sasa-e revenge, becomes an officer in the Reactionary Forces. The conflict between the Reactionary Forces and the New Government Forces (ex-Revolutionary Movement) at the end of the film is based on the Battle of Toba-Fushimi (1868). But the details of story are frustratingly unrealistic or arbitrary. To me, at least.
First of all, the psychological torment experienced by Kiyohide, and later by Kiyone, seems so manufactured. Their desire to make a sword par excellence, infused with the higher, eternal ideal of the Nation, does sound too phony. This idea of a soul living in a sword, especially the soul of the Emperor’s Nation, had its origin in idolization and worship of Japanese swords, popularized by military during the WWII. It just seems out of place in this historical context. However, utter ignorance of swords is pathetically evident. Kiyohide’s shop is supposed to be the best one around, but the sword dedicated to Ichijiro, Sasa-e’s father, broke so easily. It is inconceivable. If you are talking about a piece sold in bundles at roadside, maybe. But not the one out of the shop in Edo, whose clients include the highest ranks in the Government. Actually, I couldn’t help but burst into laughter when I saw Ichijiro’s sword broke at its neck. Such comic antics should have belonged to kid’s movies. One of the most annoying moments occur whenever one of the characters on the screen mentions the name of the Emperor. Every actor on the screen immediately takes the stiff posture, which was to show respect to the Emperor. This was the salutatory “Attention” position, which you were required to take whenever the word ‘Emperor’ was uttered. The custom was the product of totalitarian regime, or the Imperial regime. I find the character of Kiyone (in mid-19th century) taking that posture unnatural. It was not motivated by the historical reference: it was required by the censor in 1945. You can find the similar “stiff Attention postition” in Yasujiro Ozu’s There Was a Father, and Mizoguchi’s Genroku Chusingura.
Overall plot must have been convenient for war propaganda. The story of a sword to build the Emperor’s nation, a woman getting ready for the revenge of her father, the soul in a weapon … all seem to fit in the unrealistic fantasy of Emperor’s Military in 1945.
All this said, there are some points of interest in Meito Bijomaru. The revenge scene is one long tracking shot: it does not rely on the rapid editing technique to integrate the violent physical movements. Instead, the scene builds up the tension by continuous crescendo. The last boat ride also have the quintessential atmosphere rarely seen in the films from this era. You see that this boat ride is the other end of the arc extending from the earlier scene, in which Kiyone’s dead serious questions are answered by Sasa-e’s comical gesture. In these scenes, Isuzu Yamada’s acting really shines through. Maybe, just maybe, if the film had been made in a different decade, maybe a decade earlier, by Mizoguchi, it might have become fantastic rather than unrealistic, a tightly woven romance and revenge rather than a strange amalgam of chauvinistic ideas and struggling art.

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Nine Films from Germany, Kobe, 1925

I found this full-page ad in one of the old issues of Kinema Junpo (September 21, 1925). The ad is by a film distributor, probably specialized in German films, to inform exhibitors its new acquisition from UFA. There are nine films listed:

 

Fredericus Rex (1921/22) directed by Arzen von Cserépy
Der Turm des Schweigens (1924) directed by Johaness Guter
Windstürke 9. Die Geschichte einer reichen Erbin (1925) directed by Reinhold Schünzel
Komödie des Herzens (1924) directed by Rochus Gliese
Pietro der Korsar (1925) directed by Arthur Robison
Die Andere (1925) directed by Gerhardt Lamprecht
Mensch gegen Mensch (1924) directed by Hans Steinhoff
Mikaél (1924) directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Ich Liebe Dich! (1924) directed by Paul L. Stein

 

How many of these films do you know? Actually, I only knew Mikaél, and I bet you are in the same league as I was. Don’t worry; because, as far as I have researched, less than half of these films have survived, and only Dreyer’s silent drama is widely available for casual viewing. The last part of four-part Fredericus Rex is available on DVD, but the quality is not up to standard (the whole four-part does seem to exist in the archives). Only recently, the restored print of Der Turm des Schweigens (English title: The Tower of Silence) has been screened in several retrospective film festivals. That’s about it. The status of the other titles were either ‘lost’, ‘unknown’ or worse – no mention whatsoever in any place. But still, the pristine prints of these titles have traveled from Berlin to Kobe, Japan, some 90 years ago.

 

These films were made at the height of UFA’s golden age. In fact, there was the tenth film in this ad, and it was none other than Der letzte Mann (1924) by F. W. Murnau. The film received a full-page spot in the next page. This was the time of Der letzte Mann, Niebelungen, Tartüff, Faust and Metropolis. Back in 1924, a reporter for the German press Film Kurtur, visited the open-set in Neubabelsburg, Berlin, deeply impressed by the sheer wonder of film making art at UFA. There was a gloomy gothic tower from Der Turm des Schweigens, a breathtaking castle from Zur Chronik von Greishuus (1924), the wall from Der Niebelungen, and that apartment building in Der letzte Mann. The creative forces at UFA, from the visionary directors to the artistic-minded producers like Erich Pommer, from a band of legendary cameramen to the progressive art directors, gathered in the psychologically and economically tormented Berlin, and have created influential masterpieces after masterpieces. Yet, today, we have only a fraction of their output. For example, the director of one of the listed film above, Komödie des Herzens (1924), is Rochus Gliese, who went to Hollywood to do art direction in Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), one of the most innovative, beautiful open-air set in the history of cinema. And the art directors for Komödie des Herzens were Robert Herlth and Walter Röhrig, who were also part of Murnau’s team during the critical years of 1920’s. Can you imagine how these three artists, who created visually stunning images after images, at the height of their career, collaborated in this one film? Maybe the film was not a success, but still, it must have been worthwhile for us to study.

 

Some of these nine films found the exhibitors around Japan, as far as I can gather.

 

Here are some stills of the films I found.

 

Fredericus Rex (1921/22)
Fredericus Rex (1921/22)
Der Turm des Schweigens (1924)
Windstürke 9. Die Geschichte einer reichen Erbin (1925)
Komödie des Herzens (1924)
Pietro der Korsar (1925)
Mikaél (1924)
Ich Liebe Dich! (1924)
As for Die Andere (1925) and Mensch gegen Mensch (1924), I couldn’t find any reference, except something you could find in IMDB and a very sketchy plot outline for Die Andere … For Mensch gegen Mensch, something seems to have been so wrong about the story written by Norbert Jacques, but I don’t know what. Does anyone know?
Copyrighted materials, if any, on this web page are included as “fair use”. These are used for the purpose of research, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).