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 Its plot and direction became contrived due to absurd historical references and its psychological conflict seems very unlikely to manifest among those who depicted in the film.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.