Thursday, February 25, 2016

Review - Women of the Night

February 25, 2016

Women of the Night – Japan, 1948

Kenji Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night begins with an aerial view of post-World War II Osaka, and for a moment, it is as if the war is a distant memory. Buildings appear to be either standing or rebuilt, and one could be forgiven for thinking that this is a city well on it way back from near oblivion. However, as Mizoguchi’s camera lowers, we get a better view of day-to-day post-war life. We meet a young wife waiting, hoping against hope that her long-lost husband will return home to relieve his family of poverty, a mother driven by desperation to sell her baby’s summer clothes, a brother-in-law so defeated by the times that he has fallen to alcohol and excuses for behavior that could easily be interpreted as callousness. Within the first few minutes of the film, disaster strikes multiple times: news arrives about the young woman’s husband, and it is not what she was hoping for; deaths visits her child after he is hit by a fit of convulsions; and what should be a happy reunion turns sad as the young woman learns that her parents have both died of malnutrition.

There are other things that we notice in these early scenes – the casual way in which people speak of either prostitution or making an “arrangement” with an interested employer, the lecherous eyes of a man looking at the widowed woman he has just offered to help out in emergencies, and the ready availability of jobs with titles such as “dancer.” Nowhere can hope be seen, and as the film progresses, we witness character after character descend ever lower morally until the innocent, respectable people we see at the beginning of the film are a distant memory. This is clearly not a time that rewards decency.

Women of the Night focuses primarily on three women. First, there’s Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka), the young lady whose hopes for the return of her husband and with him their former stable life are dashed early on in the film; Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), Fusako’s slightly jaded sister who seems to have accepted the precarious position of women in post-war Japan; and Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), a younger woman overwhelmed by the excitement of the lights, music, and revelry she sees around her. Kumiko has been protected by her parents for the majority of her life, and she, like so many other young people her age, yearns to escape the “overprotective” arms of her family. It is a mistake.

As the film continues, Mizoguchi shows us how fast people can fall and how quickly circumstances can turn ugly and force people to make choices that they may have told themselves they would never make. It seems to me that in the film society has lost its social fabric, that interconnectiveness that binds people together and keeps them from giving in to their darker side. Men take advantage of women, women gang up against other women, and police blame victims mistakenly rounded up in sweeps of “wicked women” because they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Much of the film is extremely powerful, yet this is my least favorite of Mizoguchi’s “fallen women” films. Some of the dramatic shifts in character happen a bit too quickly, and the changes can be so jarring that they take some time to get used to them. No doubt this is by design, yet I still felt it was too much too soon. There were also a few too many moments of unrealistic speechifying, moments when characters break into sudden monologues that just seemed forced rather than coming from the characters naturally. Also, too many characters seemed to turn on a dime, to be cold one moment and fighting to reclaim their goodness in the very next. Also hurting the film is the absence of any mention of the United States, which occupied Japan at the time, for it is hard to imagine that situations such as those depicted in the film went unnoticed by military officials. This was not Mizoguchi’s fault, of course, yet the absence is still glaring. And then there is the level of nastiness that permeates almost every moment of the film in which we see groups of women. Early such scenes are eye-opening, yet later ones feel voyeuristic, and it is hard to know just what Mizoguchi is intending with them.

Mizoguchi’s previous two “fallen women” films told more individualistic stories – those of a young woman who becomes her boss’s mistress and of two geisha sisters struggling to come to terms with competing versions of the men in their lives. Women of the Night is different. It is the first such film in which society itself is the enemy. It seems natural therefore that Mizoguchi would give his audience something to hang their hopes on, and here that hope comes in the form of charitable organizations that make it their life’s work to help fallen women turn their lives around. This storyline and the imagery used to express it are a bit heavy-handed, yet they provide a counter-image to everything else we see in the film. On the one hand, we have violence, indifference, and calls for revenge; on the other, the voice of hope and redemption. I never had a doubt which one would win out in the end, but the ride to that conclusion was never dull, and it was occasionally utterly heart wrenching. Women of the Night is not a masterpiece, yet it is a shocking and thought-provoking film about a time during which it was so easy to fall from grace, especially if, like Fusako, so much is stacked against you. (on DVD as part of Eclipse Series 13: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women)

3 stars

*Women of the Night is in Japanese with English subtitles.

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