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Tomu Uchida: Part 8

May 2nd, 2008 (08:07 pm)

Movie #8: Yoshiwara: The Pleasure Quarter (Yoto Monogatari: Hana No Yoshiwara Hyakunin Giri).

We're baaack!

© 2008
D. Gordon

One year after making Love in Osaka, Uchida was back to Meiji Japan and prostitution with Yoshiwara: The Pleasure Quarter, although with a different spin. Jirozaemon is a prosperous textile mill owner. He's gentle, kind, fair to his employees - an all-around good guy. The only problem is the birthmark covering most of the right side of his face; he wants a son to carry on his name and the business, but no woman will have him because of it. After the Nth marriage offer gone bad, a friend takes him to the Yoshiwara district to cheer him up; not something he'd normally do, but he finally gives in. However, only one courtesan will come near him: Tamatsuru, who looks past his birthmark and literally puts a smile on his face. Unfortunately, the kind-hearted Jirozaemon is too much of an innocent to realize that Tamatsuru is actually looking to escape a lifetime sentence of servitude to the brothel owners, the brothel owners can smell a rube a mile away, and everyone besides him is out for whatever they can get.

My impression of this movie is just - wow. Even if Uchida keeps a partial lid on the technical experiments, he still creates a completely satisfying tale. Jirozaemon tumbles from kind-hearted soul to vengeful spirit, while Tamatsuru ascends from street prostitute to grand courtesan (oiran). The screenplay was adapted by Mizoguchi writer Yoshitaka Yoda from Shinshichi Kawatake's 19th century kabuki play Kagotsurube Sato No Eizame, but how the action plays out is pure Uchida. Each shot contributes to the story: Tamatsuru's husband's feet running through a flooded rice paddy only to be stopped by the brothel's murderous bouncers; Tamatsuru's feet describing graceful arcs in her mile-high oiran geta before they're stopped as well. And as always, there's a grace to Uchida's visuals; seen, for example, in one beautiful sequence as the camera moves with a pleasure boat on a lake, gliding along until it deposits us on a platform with three figures watching the waters, the boat slipping away behind it. This introduces the fragile hope behind Jirozaemon's latest marriage offer, and the events which follow it.

Part of the impact of the film comes from how completely recognizable Jirozaemon is as a character. Despite his wealth and a hint of noble birth (he was left as a foundling at his parents' door), he's an ordinary guy trying, like most of us, to find a little happiness. The difference is that he wears his "ugliness" on his face, while most (and especially Tamatsuru and the brothel owners) keep theirs hidden on the inside. His downfall comes in part because he never learned that lesson; but learn it he does by the end, and reacts in the only real way possible to him. The ending is stylized and extreme, and some might call it predictable; but sometimes the fun isn't so much in the destination as in getting there. Jirozaemon confronts the social stigma and the pain it has caused; he may lose all, but he gains his self-respect.

And Uchida's technical efforts... not as showy as, say, The Mad Fox, but he still weaves them together in a way that just might be the high point of the retrospective. At least for me: I still can't get Tamatsuru's coming-out procession out of my head, with its mix of sights and sounds: Tamatsuru on those geta, arrayed in a stiff, stylized, blazing kimono, inching forward, hand on her assistant's shoulder; the scrape of the geta as they slowly describe those arcs; the looks on the faces of the brothel owners behind her, smug in their newly increased stature; the voice of the crier declaring Tamatsuru's new position; the thick crowds looking on; the biwa playing at the back of the procession and the rattle of the standard-bearers' staffs. They're slowly proceeding to their fates - they just don't know it yet.