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Chikamatsu Monogatari
cast: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyoko Kagawa, and Eitaro Shindo

director: Kenji Mizoguchi

103 minutes (15) 1954 widescreen ratio 16:9 Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Packaged with Uwasa no onna as part of Eureka's masters of cinema series, Chikamatsu Monogatori is better known as The Crucified Lovers. However, it is worth noting that unlike Uwasa no onna, whose American title The Crucified Woman was largely metaphorical, in the case of Chikamatsu Monogatari, the crucifixion is very much literal.

The title, literally translated means 'a tale of Chikamatsu', a reference to the fact that the film is an adaptation of a play called The Almanac Maker by a 17th century Japanese dramatist named Mozaemon Chikamatsu (who, interestingly, wrote most of his works not for human actors but for puppets). Chikamatsu Monogatari tells of a woman, from a financially unsteady noble house, who is forced to marry a wealthy bourgeois who has accrued vast wealth thanks to his monopoly on printing calendars (or almanacs) for the Japanese court. One day, the woman's hedonistic brother asks her for a small loan to cover some debts. Turned down by her husband, she turns to his most able apprentice who agrees and is promptly caught trying to embezzle a small loan from his master. Immediately, the woman leaps to the apprentice's aid and everyone assumes that they must be lovers. As adultery is a crime punishable by crucifixion, the pair flee together, despite having no relationship to speak of, as the woman has no idea where to go and he feels honour-bound to protect his mistress. Faced with disgrace and death, the pair decide to commit suicide together but then realise that they are actually in love. Eventually they are caught and are taken off to be crucified, but not before the master printer has been ruined and exiled in an attempt to protect himself from the scandal of his wife's actions.

As with Uwasa no onna, the Chikamatsu Monogatari DVD features an excellent featurette by Sight & Sound magazine's Tony Rayns. Rayns explains that the director Mizoguchi had little interest in this project. This might possibly have been motivated by being burned out by three successive prizes at the Venice film festival and partly because he fell out with Kinuyo Tanaka, an actress who appeared in many of his films and whose move into direction he foolishly attempted to block. Either way, Rayns is quite correct that the film is a workman-like and competent piece rather than a work of any great insight.

As most filmmakers of the period were interested in Japan's postwar cultural changes, it is tempting to see in the lovers' crucifixion some brutal attack on the 'old ways' but I suspect that this is speculation, as the film really has no interest in the morality of crucifying adulterers. In fact, one of the aspects of the film that is hardest to get past is the sheer gulf between our culture and the culture of medieval Japan that features in the play and film. The play and film were clearly intended to show how even honourable actions can result in devastating consequences but it is very difficult to get past quite how stupid the film's protagonists really are. Given the scandal that would have been caused by his wife's adultery, the printer would have been willing to listen to reason had the wife stayed around to save face. Similarly, had the apprentice decided to go off and make a new life for himself rather than faithfully loan money to the wife of the man who just ruined his life, then the couple would never have fallen in love. As a result, while we're clearly intended to think that 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions', all I could feel was that the road to hell is paved by people being very stupid, indeed.

The fact that the central dynamic is unbelievable fatally undermines the film. Indeed, it's only if you interpret the film as a cautionary tale about acting impetuously and without thought that it starts to gain any focus. In such a case the questions of morality and love are just motivators, the real reason why everyone ends up poor and dead is because nobody will sit down and talk.

The film's performances are also competent without being particularly noteworthy. The romantic lead Hasegawa was evidently 46 years old when he was cast as a young and foolish apprentice and so he spends much of the film plastered in so much makeup he looks like a drag queen. His performance also fades as the film goes along, starting strongly in its depiction of a clever and competent apprentice and getting increasingly strained and silly once he is called upon to be a tragic lover. Kyoko Kagawa seems to have two modes... she is either impassive or a sobbing mess, while Eitaro Shindo is a character difficult to grasp as early on he is a monster and later he becomes as timid as a lamb, though perhaps that is an intentional comment about how bosses look down upon the people below them while licking the boots of the people above them.

On the whole, I was honestly disappointed with Chikamatsu Monogatari, especially given how much I enjoyed Uwasa no onna. It's a film with very little to say and with very little cultural relevance beyond the seemingly banal. Perhaps better actors with better chemistry and a more engaged director might have made this a film about the conflict between emotion, honour and morality but as it is, it's really not as good as a lot of Mizoguchi's other films.

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