“The Lady of Musashino” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1951)

The Lady of Musashino (Musashino Fujin, 1951), writer-director Kenju Mizoguchi’s morality tale set in contemporary post-war Japan, again takes up the theme of disadvantaged women in a male-dominated society. Somewhat like the earlier Women of the Night (Yoru No Onnatachi, 1948), Mizoguchi paints a picture of moral decline in a society devastated by a massively destructive war and the invasion of foreign ideas and practices that are seen to be weakening Japan’s traditional cultural strengths. Although European filmmakers, particularly the Italian neorealists, had shown an increased interest during this postwar period in the everyday concerns of ordinary people, Mizoguchi’s concern for contemporary social issues, both in Women of the Night and The Lady of Musashino, does not fit into the neorealist category. The form of both these two films is still essentially theatrical and somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, both films take on a dramatic appearance of social criticism and depict shockingly frank situations involving women subjected to compromised situations.

The story of The Lady of Musashino revolves around the life of Michiko Akiyama, which is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who also starred in Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (Yoru No Onnatachi, 1948), The Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna, 1952), Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô Dayû, 1954). At the beginning of the film, which is set in the closing stages of the war, Michiko and her husband, Tadao Akiyama, referred to simply as “Akiyama”, have fled the devastating air raids of Tokyo and have made it to her parents’ large estate in nearby Musashino. (Musashino at that time was apparently a lush pastoral area in the countryside, but the relentless urban expansion of Tokyo has now rendered it a district of that city.) Also living nearby is another member of the extended family, Michiko’s cousin, Eijo Ono, and his wife, Tomiko. Since virtually all able-bodied men were serving in the military at this time, it is clear that both Akiyama and Ono are considered to be somewhat unsavory characters, especially to Michiko’s father who comes from a samurai lineage. Soon, however, the hardships of the wartime period take their toll (the horrors of the atomic bomb attack are mentioned casually, as if they were just one among many), and both of Michiko’s parents pass away, leaving their estate at Musashino to Michiko. After the war ends, another cousin of Michiko’s, Tsutomu, who had been a prisoner of war, returns and also takes up residence with Michiko’s family.

The intra-family social situation now has these principal players:
  • Akiyama. Michiko’s husband comes from peasant stock and is now a university professor. Michiko’s patrician father saw him as vulgar, undependable, and unworthy of his daughter. His academic interest in the Julian Sorel character from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, identifies him as a moral relativist and a man willingly polluted by new-fashioned foreign values.
  • Eiji Ono. Michiko’s cousin has become rich running a munitions factory, and is therefore a profiteer. He is shown to be a man of loose morals and almost exclusively devoted to personal material gain.
  • Tomiko Ono. Ono’s wife is brazenly lascivious and openly makes a show of how loveless her own marriage is.
  • Tsutomu. Michiko’s other cousin is younger than the others and studies at a university. He is presented as a naive, unformed youth subject to the temptations of sex and alcohol.
  • Michiko. Trapped in a loveless marriage, she suffers through the domestic turmoil and stands as the only person with any moral fibre.
As the story unfolds, conventional social values are challenged. Tsutomu begins drunkenly carousing and sleeping with many pretty girls at the university. Akiyama openly propositions Tomiko for a sexual liaison. Tomoko makes a sexual play for Tsutomu. And Tsutomu begins to lust after his older cousin, Michiko, who has similar, but suppressed, feelings, in turn, for him. But noone is very happy through all this, and all the lustful gestures seem like “frowns of a summer night”. Michiko resists Tsutomu’s advances on moral grounds, not because they are cousins, but because she is a married woman. Eventually, when she learns of Akiyama’s plans to run away with Tomiko and swindle her out of the deed to her estate, Michiko decides to commit suicide first and leave the bulk of her estate to Tsutomu. She poisons herself with government-supplied cyanide, believing that she has “saved” Tsutomu from moral depravity.

Mizoguchi films all these dramatic events in a style that is rather pedestrian, for him. There are none of his justly-famous long and well-choreographed scenes with extensive tracking and fluid pictorial composition. Even in the gritty, Women of the Night, there were at least some long, elaborate takes involving careful camera tracking and character movements. But in The Lady of Musashino, the film is shot and put together in rather conventional fashion As a consequence, the film, which actually does have something of an expressionistically suggestive scenario, fails to have the expressionistic visual presentation that could support the story and which gives some of Mizoguchi’s other films, such as Sansho the Bailiff, their powerful emotional evocation. In fact one surmises that The Lady of Musashino may have been shot in something of a rush. After all, Kinuyo Tanaka starred in four other films in 1951 besides this one, so the shooting schedule may have been constrained.

Another shortcoming of the film is the acting. Although Kinuyo Tanaka’s performance is characteristically excellent, the other performances are exaggerated and overly histrionic. The men suddenly become ludicrously drunk or so wantonly libidinous as to be laughable. The modern-day setting only magnifies these theatrical shortcomings. When we see a film that is set in a distant period, for example, we suspend our sense of disbelief; and we are more willing to accept schematic and stylized gestures on the part of the actors. But in a modern setting we expect more naturalism, and we have some minimal standards of realism that must be met. This is something that the actors in The Lady of Musashino fail to do. As a consequence, Tomiko and the men are so shamelessly selfish and malicious that the viewer may have difficulty accepting the seriousness of Michiko’s situation.

This brings us to a final difficulty, and that is with the philosophical intent, or message, of the film. At one point when Tsutomu and Michiko seek shelter from a sudden storm in a hostel, Tsutomu tells her, “love is freedom, and freedom is power”, echoing the presumed “immorality” of Stendhal's vision. But Michiko answers that though she does love Tsutomu, she must resist his advances, because, “morality is the only power.” Then she goes to say that there is something even more powerful than morality and that is “one’s word”. By this she means that sharing and holding to a covenant, just for the sake of it being a covenant to which one is “true”, is the most powerful and meaningful thing on earth. This form of loyalty is more important than any morality, she asserts. In fact, she thinks that by maintaining such a level of rigid behaviour, one can wait (or, perhaps, society as a whole can hold together and wait collectively) until public morality ultimately changes for the better and becomes more responsive to the authentic wishes of the people.

But this defining moral position expressed by Michiko, I claim, is not only valueless, it is fundamentally unconscionable. Her position articulating the notion that by swearing to a covenant – an oath of loyalty to an arbitrary public morality which one doesn’t fully embrace – endorses the notion that one should simply be the instrument of a higher power, without evaluating or comprehending the nature of that higher power. This is the same kind of oppressive ethic that was perpetrated on their own people by both the Japanese military government and the German Nazis – to worship power and moral authority, itself, and to hold loyalty to such authority as the highest of all values. You can see the same kind of ultimately corrupt manipulation of the people for the purposes of maintaining blind loyalty to a “Leader” being perpetrated in Iran today. And you can even see it going on in the United States by reading Jeff Sharlett’s chilling account of “The Family”, which depicts a fundamentalist organization insinuating itself into powerful institutions today. "The Family" demands unconditional commitment to a sketchily defined “Jesus” for the purposes of establishing an autocratic hegemony. This group actually celebrates the Nazis for aggregating power by demanding blind loyalty via an arbitrary covenant.

So perhaps we should not just assume that the sentiments expressed in the equally reprehensible message behind, The 47 Ronin (Genroku Chûshingura, 1941-42), which celebrated blind loyalty and seppuku (hara-kiri), were forced upon Mizoguchi by the Japanese government wartime sponsors of the film. Perhaps he actually shared those sentiments expressed in that film – that self-destructive acts of saving “face” are the highest form of behaviour and more important than life, itself. Any philosophy that elevates death above life and "honor" above love, however, is not the Sufi’s way.

It is said that Mizoguchi converted to Buddhism sometime around 1950. After seeing The Lady of Musashino, I would guess that, in view of his great films that came later, he made that conversion after 1951.

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