The Lady of Musashino
d. Kenji Mizoguchi / 1951 / Japan / 88 mins
Kenji Mizoguchi filmed The Lady of Musashino shortly before his most celebrated works, The Life of Oharu and Ugetsu. Even if this film is not his greatest, it still singles Mizoguchi out as one of the most prolific and talented directors of postwar Japan. Most known for employing the burgeoning culture of neo-realism, here Mizoguchi portrays his story of Japan’s rapidly changing society as more of a Greek tragedy. Although conservatively filmed compared to his later works, there is plenty of visual symbolism on offer and the characters themselves seem to be more reflective of various political and social ideals than “real” individuals. Together however, the melodrama of this family speaks volumes on the issues of morality and society that Japan was facing at the time.
Kinuyo Tanaka leads the ensemble cast as Michiko Akiyama, the conscious of the film. She feels duty bound to continue her parent’s legacy and be the best wife possible towards her adulterous husband. Her morals give her a stability that the other characters lack but it is hard to feel that her selfless behaviour is one society should adopt, as it ensures she is constricted and powerless under a shadow of benevolence.
Tadao (Masayuki Mori) is Michiko’s hypocritical husband, keeping her enslaved to a loveless marriage whilst attempting to bed the flirtatious wife of Michiko’s cousin. Tadao acts as polar opposite to Michiko, scorning traditionalism to preach more Western philosophies. He references Stendhal and tells his pupils that adultery is one of the few practices of freedom available under a repressive society. In truth though, Tadao is nothing more than a hedonist, his fantasies and unscrupulous behaviour ultimately leading to his downfall.
Michiko’s cousin is a weapons manufacturer and war profiteer, Eiji Ono (So Yamamura). His financial obsession causes his marriage to be just as loveless as Michiko’s, his frustrated wife Tomiko (Yukiko Todoroki) becoming more lascivious and deceitful as a consequence.
Just as the film’s opening sequences deal with the aftermath of the war and the death of the previous generation, Tsutomu’s (Akihiko Katayama) arrival represents the new one. The younger cousin of Michiko, Tsutomu has returned from a POW camp and is attempting to make sense of the newly transformed world around him. He too dabbles in the debauchery that Tadao extolls, living in the city promiscuously but eventually finding such a life unfulfilling. The Lady of Musashino follows Michiko and Tsutomu’s friendship develop into one of love, the repressed urges of those around them reaching fever pitch as Michiko refuses to be unfaithful.
Mizoguchi’s greatest achievement is in drawing together these disparate themes of heated tensions to depict a society in the midst of great change. He continues his tradition as one of the earliest and greatest feminist directors of his age, many of his films dealing with Japanese heroines who are subject to unfair social doctrine. But although blame is clearly allocated to the lack of morals that Tadao, Eiji and Tomiko adopt, it is difficult to feel that Michiko’s passiveness (and her belief that it is her moral responsibility to accept such powerlessness willingly) is supposed to be recommended, altruistic though it may be. Perhaps this is simply showing of the times, that contemporary feminism demands women should be encouraged to fight against patriarchal oppression, rather than simply point out its existence. The film offers no easy answers, at the same time as lambasting Stendhal’s conceptions of womanising, it is itself an adaptation of A Wife in Musashino, a book written by Ōoka Shôhei and modelled after Stendhal’s own creation of the psychological novel.
Whilst Michiko may be the film’s heroine, it is Tsutomu we are invited to engage with most actively, pulled between the dichotomy of the cultures of East and West. As Tadao finds independence in sex and Michiko relies on obedience, Tsutomu preaches that love is the ultimate source of freedom. This may sit easily with a Western audience, but Michiko’s unwillingness to turn against the traditionalism of her forefathers singles her out as the only individual not motivated by selfish desires.
The film is made in its final moments, its final imagery. Michiko’s sacrifice appears tragic and needless but her plight and selfless actions may just have been enough to give Tsutomu the tools and desire to actively address his societies problems in a way that she was not able to. What remains most poignant is that she has taught him that Musashino no longer exists, that the industrialisation of Japan has led to its absorption under Tokyo. Mizoguchi’s depiction of the land is loving, the streams, bodies of water and even rainfall becoming evocative of Tsutomu and Michiko’s passion.
Michiko’s perception of the world in many ways mirrors the deftness with which Mizoguchi paints postwar Japan, conceptions of loss that are devoid of rosy nostalgia and both pessimism and hope for a future of equality and freedoms that can exist without the destructive influence of decadence. The Lady of Musashino draws a startlingly vivid indictment of Japan’s changing national philosophy and although Mizoguchi isn’t quite able to take sides, one can see the humanist and Buddhist ideals that would shape his greatest works take form.