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Uwasa no onna
cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Tomoemon Otani, and Yoshiko Kuga

director: Kenji Mizoguchi

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

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Packaged with Chikamatsu Monogatori as part of Eureka's masters of cinema series, Uwasa no onna is a sensitive story of an older woman's lust set in a brothel, and directed by a man who many now consider to be one of the first feminist directors. Nicely shot and compelling to watch despite being slightly sloppy at times, Uwasa no onna (translated into English as 'The Woman In Rumour' or 'The Crucified Woman') is a must for anyone interested in social realism and particularly for fans of the better known but contemporary director Yasujiro Ozu.

The film begins with a woman returning to her place of work in the company of her grown-up but still youthful daughter. The setting is a geisha house that also functions as a brothel (contrary to the more correct understanding of geisha, which is more about spending an enjoyable evening with an accomplished female host than it is about getting your jolies). The older woman (a flawless Kinuyo Tanaka who would go on to become Japan's first female director) is the mistress of the house and her daughter has returned home from a conservatoire in Tokyo following a suicide attempt. The daughter (a slightly generic but perfectly decent Yoshiko Kuga) is understandably in a foul mood and rails against her mother's ill-gotten earnings, weeping at how much she hates the geisha house. Worried for the daughter, the mother summons a young doctor and showers him with gifts as she asks him to check on the young woman.

Clearly something is going on here. Upon meeting the daughter, the doctor is immediately intrigued by her beauty and intelligence, thereby setting off a sequence of events that will destroy the mother. It turns out that the doctor and the mistress of the geisha house are lovers. The old woman had an arranged marriage and never knew love growing up but she has set her heart on the young and treacherous doctor. She even promises to buy him a clinic, possibly ruining herself and her family's legacy in the process. The film's climax comes during a night at the noh theatre when a play is performed mocking an old woman who claims to be in love with a young man who is only interested in her money. Humiliated and distraught by how closely the play hits home, the mother steps outside and hears the doctor's plans to run away with her daughter. In one last attempt to buy his affections, she takes out a gigantic loan from a businessman in order to buy the doctor his clinic. As the film ends, the mother is a nervous wreck and the daughter seems ready to step into her shoes.

In an excellent short talk included on the DVD, Sight & Sound magazine's expert on southeast Asian film, Tony Rayns, explains that, unlike Mizoguchi's previous Venice film festival-winning films, Uwasa no onna was a commission by the studio due to the director's lack of a project for that year. Rayns also explains that Mizoguchi, like many men of his generation and background, was a habitual user of prostitutes. However, unlike many men he was deeply sympathetic to their plight (though admittedly this did not stop him using them). These twin facts combine to make a film that is really more about the background than it is the foreground.

The film's secondary plotline governs the daughter's movement from disgust at what goes on in the brothel, through sympathy with the girls and eventually to taking over the family business as mistress of the house. Much like his contemporary Ozu, Mizoguchi was fascinated by Japan's shift from feudalism to modernism and the generational differences that this change brings about. However, where Ozu examined these differences largely within the context of attitudes towards marriage and love, Mizoguchi examined the movement of the geisha house from its traditional non-sexual purpose to the point where it simply becomes a paper-thin sheet of respectability that is draped over a brothel. The daughter's changing attitude to the business shows not only the fact that each new generation of mistress brings new attitudes to the job, but it also shows how young people can rebel against perceived injustices right up until the moment they make their peace with them and become engulfed by the institutions they were once so eager to rebel against. As Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys once put it "harder-core-than-thou for a year or two until it's time to get a real job."

Mizoguchi lavishes attention on his prostitutes as he shows how women are frequently forced into the business out of love for other people and how they will work through terrible illness in order to keep sending that money home every month. He also sets up a nice parallel between the middle class mistress' daughter who can afford to rebel and learn the piano before taking over as mistress and the poor teenaged farm girl who begs to be trained as a prostitute after her older sister works herself to death trying to support the family.

Mizoguchi is sympathetic to the women but he is far from sympathetic to his male characters; who are either drunken children or powerfully manipulative figures. In both cases it is always the men who have the power, even when it's a woman who runs the brothel.

The director's decision to indulge his interest in prostitutes as tragic figures serves to clutter the plot somewhat as the primary plot is continually fighting for room with the more secondary pieces resulting in the main plot arc being dealt with in only a handful of scenes. However, despite his clear lack of interest in the studio-imposed script, Mizoguchi still pulls something wonderful out of the bag in his use of theatre as a means of driving home truths about his characters. We first see this when the mistress and the doctor attend a geisha variety show and the doctor, clearly turned on by the elegant dancing women, keeps looking for their names in the programme, prompting the mistress to confiscate his programme and pinch his hand. As lovely as this scene is, it is as nothing compared to the film's climactic piece of noh theatre, wherein a pair of young men laugh about exploiting an old woman's lusts, mocking her behind her back and talking about how foolish the old look when they fall head over heels in love.

Beautifully shot, delicately acted and packed with interesting things to say, Umasa no onna is definitely worth looking into if you like social dramas... and prostitutes.

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