Sunday, November 08, 2020

Miss Oyu

Mizoguchi and the dentist. 

Miss Oyu 
In the early fifties Mizoguchi made only fine films. This story of a ménage à trois adapted from a short story by Tanizaki is no exception to the rule. 
First the design. A man goes to meet the woman he is to marry (and whom he does not know); he sees Oyu walking in front, Oyu sees him: it’s love at first sight. The problem is that is she’s not the one he is to marry, but her sister, Shizu. In the undergrowth where the meeting takes place (Mizoguchi is cinema’s master of the undergrowth and the glade) everything is already conjoined between dream and fear of awakening. The foreboding of a misfortune which will resemble no other, the need to nonetheless put an image – a shot – to this misfortune (as we say “to put a name to a face”), the impossibility of escaping the music of the great Hayasaka Fumio, who takes this distinguished world by the hand never to let it go. For we are among the well-to-do; Oyu, widowed with a young child, is compelled by social convention to live with her parents-in-law and not re-marry. She is refined and exquisite, gives concerts and is somewhat mincing. It is the archetypal Mizoguchi actress Tanaka Kinuyo who plays Oyu. 
In 1951, between Portrait of Madame Yuki and The Lady of Musashino (both with Tanaka as their leading lady), Mizoguchi was working on his finest portraits of women. Thwarted or impossible loves, baseness of men and Bovaryisme of women. He is always on the side of the women, never the men. In this respect Miss Oyu is a film which sums up the others, like a theorem which contains all possibilities but itself remains exceptionally mysterious. 
There is indeed a man, the nice, helpless Shinnosuke (Hori Yuji). There is indeed Miss Oyu, first as a (somewhat) frivolous and later self-abnegating widow. But they are not the story. Nor does it depend on them. It is the third character, Shizu (Otawa Nobuko) who matters. It is the intermediary who is central. Shizu loves Shinnosuke (so at least she declares), but seeing him smitten by Oyu she offers him this astonishing contract: their marriage will remain unconsummated and the three of them will live together with the onus on him to “make her sister happy”. For Shizu has only one wish: to stay with them, between them, and be their “little sister”. The first part of the film is this strange ménage à trois, which soon sets tongues wagging but where, despite apparent good spirits, sexual frustration is at a peak. 
The second part begins with the death of Oyu’s child. Back with the reality principle, she agrees to marry an old sake brewer and to disappear from the life of the young couple, which falls apart. Everything collapses very quickly: Shizu gives Shinnosuke a child and dies. One evening, Oyu, neglected by her new husband, gives an outdoor concert. The crying of a newborn can be heard in the reeds. Shinnosuke has just abandoned his child with a letter for Oyu. This replacement child is the only link between the three characters, who are now separated forever. It is a small wailing symbol. 
Mizoguchi did not invent this story. He never invented any of them anyway, demanding adaptations of classic and modern novels from his screenwriters (especially Yoda Yoshikata, his favourite whipping boy). This time Yoda tackled “The Reeds Cutter”, one of two short stories by Tanizaki, later published together in France under the title Two Cruel Loves. In Tanizaki’s novel the male character was more central to the story. In the Yoda-Mizoguchi adaptation the centre is empty, or rather it is occupied by Shizu, a character who has agreed to derive all her pleasure from the very fact of being between. It is quite logical. Mizoguchi has always tried to understand what links human beings to one another. Money, desire, kinship. He attempted the impossible: to film these links as they are, like hyphenations. And since he was a great draughtsman and a very solitary man he always preferred the hyphen. 
And then the manner of it – meaning, how to describe the very singular emotion which gets hold of us at each viewing or re-viewing of a Mizoguchi film? I would make a stab at a metaphor, and so as not to give these films any over-worthy and sublimatory image, I would select a rather trivial one. Imaging yourself sitting somewhere else. Not in the cinema theatre, but in the dentist’s chair. Ghastly? Quite. Imagine yourself, stoical but anxious, wide-eyed and wide-mouthed too. The director (what I mean is the dentist) adjusts the chair so as to get a better look. The sick tooth is approached, the cold metal instruments “burn”; this is full-scale metonymy. And when, gradually, the tooth is touched, because of the whole apparatus (I mean to say the editing) it will have become very difficult for you to distinguish between the real pain (ouch!), the blank pain wiped out by the local anaesthetic (ouch?) and the bitter satisfaction of the thought that the pain has been reached and there’s no need to look elsewhere (phew!). Good. 
But there’s still something missing from this banally masochistic ritual. The music is missing, the consoling background noise of some inexplicable cheerfulness or some sublime serenity, the way it floods out of the radio on France-Musique in a never-ending stream. With Mizoguchi, those three components (the stamp of pain, the courage of lucidity and a beauty that has become foreign, even cloying) are each in step with the other. This is why his films are heartrending. This is why Miss Oyu is sublime. 
Mizoguchi’s films conjugate three movements: the movement of the actor’s bodies, the movement of the camera and the movement of the music. Sometimes these movements are synchronic. That’s when we speak of harmony. But harmony doesn’t mean story. The story begins with dissonance, the freewheeling effect, the chalk-scored board or the snagged duration, when the movements begin to desynchronise. As if (to return momentarily to our dental metaphor) the consolatory music were to be stuck, the local anaesthetic no longer worked and the picture collapsed along with the chair. Mizoguchi keeps his actors, camera and music on a leash that is only ever slackened to catch them all the more. Therein lies his cruelty. 
For example, near the middle of Miss Oyu, the music thins out, consoling nobody anymore, absorbing nothing: then, the characters, reduced to their movements, become a dead weight of the disenchanted quotidian, and the gaze held on them becomes documentary. Or else the actor begins to collide with the set, to bump into the grasses, to put up barriers between him and the others, so as to escape. To escape the camera, to escape the other, to escape oneself. The rigidity of the Japanese social code, combined with the tightness of kimonos, makes these flights as desperate (and even faintly burlesque) as sack races. Or else it’s the camera which abruptly disaffiliates itself from what it is showing, taking on a life of its own and soaring up to fasten on the characters from above like so many transfixed butterflies. 
This is why if one had to define the art of Mizoguchi Kenji (whom I hope everyone knows is one of the giants of the cinema) it’s not viewing angles and off camera field we’d need to talk about, but of “taking the field”. In every sense, literal and otherwise. 

First published as “Mizogochi and the hard law of desire” in Libération on 12 December 1988. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. The translation is from the Cinema in Transit project, with a few modifications. 

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