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Silent Mizoguchi

December 2nd, 2007 (06:24 pm)

© 2007 D. Gordon

Someone recently described fate to me as a sort of mutable inevitability. Things will happen, but how they happen is up to the individual. For example, Bob may be slated for a car accident, but his personal karma will determine the results: that sizable donation he made to the children's orphanage may get him off with a broken wrist, but embezzling his employer's pension fund could put him into a coma for a few months. How Bob conducts himself determines the path of Bob's life.

The Water Magician

Kenji Mizoguchi's Taki no Shiraito (The Water Magician) is a number of things: an early Mizoguchi notable; a prime example of his portrayal of life's unfairness, especially towards women; an open window on an older, more traditional Japan. It is very clearly a demonstration of the power of fate and karma. The famed Taki no Shiraito, skilled performer of a water-based illusion act, is comfortable in her art, her life, and her beauty. It's a chance meeting with a porter boy, whom she then decides to sponsor through law school, which adds love to the mix. That love compels her to commit kindnesses where she can, even at significant personal cost. Sometimes she gives freely, sometimes grudgingly, but she gives. It is when her fortunes reverse that karma plays out in her life. Are her kind acts enough to mitigate her troubles? Does karma demand a different price? And does that karma allow her to achieve her most heartfelt wish? That you'll have to watch the movie to find out. But this idea of karma is the heart of the story behind The Water Magician.

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Given that between the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake and World War II firebombing much Japanese film was lost, I always feel lucky to see any Japanese silents (keep in mind that movies through Asia remained silent until about 1936-1938). Add to the mix that this is an early, successful Mizoguchi film and I feel like I'm batting a thousand. As mentioned above, the plight of women in society is a major theme in his work. Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff may be more complex and subtle, but The Water Magician is a clear predecessor to Mizoguchi's later films and quite sophisticated in its own right.

The print itself isn't pristine; occasional scratches and other artifacts make their way across the screen. But there is no obvious nitrate deterioration, and there's more than enough brightness to easily see the print. The DVD, put out by Digital Meme of Japan in their Talking Silents series, has two benshi narration tracks (by Matsuda Shunsui, father of Japanese film preservation, and Sawato Midori, modern-day benshi superstar) over a single musical track; while the music itself doesn't always fit, the narration more than makes up for it by coming close to creating the sense of actual voices.

And then there's the luminous face of Irie Takako as Taki no Shiraito. She appears in roughly 75% of the scenes, and it's a joy watching her portray a woman whose only real sin is loving too much.

I've mentioned before that Mizoguchi is probably one of my favorites directors (after all, I range the movie Internet as Lady Wakasa). I'm incredibly overjoyed that Digital Meme has issued a series of Japanese silents around a few notable personalities. This is what film is about.