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Musashino fujin (1951)

Lady Musashino, The Lady from Musashino

Directed by:

Kenji Mizoguchi

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 85 minutes

UK Certificate: PG

On DVD

Country: Japan

It is hard to believe, when you look at the postmodern metropolis of Tokyo today, that it emerged from a deeply conservative imperialist state whose pride, along with a considerable part of its population, was destroyed by the Second World War. 'The Lady of Musashino' was made just six years after the War ended by a director who had been an eyewitness to the profound transformations which Japan was undergoing at the time. By dramatising the social and moral tensions which such changes engendered, Kenji Mizoguchi offers an elegy for the past which was quickly being buried, as well as a remarkably accurate prediction of Japan's industry-driven future.

Near the end of the War, Michiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), a middle-aged woman of samurai blood, flees Tokyo for her ancestral home in Musashino, accompanied by her husband Akiyama (Masayuki Mori), a university professor of peasant stock. After her mother and father die in rapid succession, Michiko resolves to remain in the property which she has inherited and to live by the old-world code of her family, even if this means staying loyal to her loveless marriage and stoically resisting her mutual desire for a younger cousin, Tsutomu (Akihiko Katayama). Her husband, however, has designs on their flirtatious married neighbour Tomiko (Yukiko Todoroki), who in turn has her eyes on Tsutomu, and when Michiko realises that her honour, her inheritance and the morals of her cousin are all at risk, she takes drastic measures to secure the continuity of all three in a changing world where she no longer has a place.

In 'The Lady of Musashino', the narrative shifts jarringly from one episode to the next, conveying the bewildering speed with which the old world of the prewar era vanished. In one scene Michiko's father tells his wife: “We've lived here for generations and we're still here now” – and in the next he is praying at a shrine after her death. At the cemetery, he reassures a concerned Michiko: “Hey, I'm not about to die!” – and in the scene which immediately follows we learn that he has died. “It's the end of the world”, as Tomiko's husband says about the atomic bombs used against Japan – and in a sense it is the end of Michiko's old world, and the beginning of a new one where the values of marriage and family have been eroded. Only the return from war of young Tsutomu, long believed dead, promises the survival of an older ethos – but he too is caught between the classical music that he shares with Michiko and the new jazz that he plays for his louche college friends, between the traditions and purity of Musashino and the seductive lure of a Tokyo whose expansion is rapidly encroaching upon the ancient community's watery borders.

Mizoguchi's tale of longing, sorrow and outmoded nobility plays itself out like a Greek tragedy, with the downfall of one family reflecting the problems and anxieties of an entire society faced with overwhelming change. The result is a sophisticated film whose symbolism and social comment never distract from the melancholy of its story – a story which, for all its concern with a particular time and place, remains timeless and of universal appeal.

It's Got: Outstanding performances, intelligent and moving script, highly elliptical narrative compression to evoke the disorienting rapidity of time passing, and photography which draws a strong visual contrast between the purity of Musashino and the modernity of Tokyo (before a powerful final image which shows the one being taken over by the other).

It Needs: Even if it is about the inevitability of change, there is absolutely nothing here that needs changing.

DVD Extras Although the black-and-white print is excellent, there are few extras - an option for English subtitles, scene selection, and a comprehensive filmography for Mizoguchi (whose white script, superimposed on a beautiful still of Tsutomus return home which is also dominated by white, is difficult to read without using the zoom function and/or squinting a lot). DVD Extras Rating: 2/10

Alternatives:

End of Summer, Floating Weeds, House of Sand and Fog, The Life of O-Haru

Summary

An elegy for Japanese times past and future, leaving a taste as bitter as cyanide.

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