ReFramed 16: Kenji Mizoguchi’s ‘The Crucified Lovers’ (1954)

Jordan Cronk: Thus far, we’ve been fortunate enough with ReFramed to kind of focus on some of our favorite films that for one reason or another don’t get the attention they deserve from either audiences or critics. This has resulted in a lot of talk about individual directors’ best works—say, Love Streams, Stalker, The Green Ray, A Brighter Summer Day, etc. I’m sure we’ll soon venture back toward canonical works like these in the near future, but outside of our Hitchcock two-fer (Frenzy and Family Plot), we haven’t taken a whole lot of time to push for less visible works from major directors that haven’t crossed that invisible barrier between curiosity and classic. The Japanese film industry is especially ripe for such discoveries, as many great works remain unavailable or simply buried amidst the plethora of releases from the golden age of East-Asian cinema.

Kenji Mizoguchi, arguably the greatest of all Japanese filmmakers, has a dense and knotty oeuvre, and one that remains sadly under-represented on the home video front (at least in Region 1 format). Two of his best films, 1953s Ugetsu and 1954s Sansho the Bailiff, are solidly ensconced in the canon, but outside of those two peak-era works, other fine Mizoguchi films languish just left of widespread regard. His other great 1954 film, The Crucified Lovers, is one film that I feel undoubtedly deserves to be reconsidered, at the very least, alongside Mizoguchi’s greatest works.

Objectionably speaking, I wouldn’t put it quite on the same level as his those other two masterworks, or earlier triumphs such as Story of the Last Chrysanthemums or The Straights of Love and Hate, but with a filmography so vast and so underseen, it begs to suggest that his entire catalogue is slightly mis-weighed. With all the attention paid to two admittedly magnificent works, it leaves outliers such as The Crucified Lovers dangling with no discourse to contextually place the film within his broader catalogue.

Further—and this why I’ve been pushing to talk about this film in particular for so long—the criticism that is currently available ranges from proper recognition—Jonathan Rosenbaum and Donald Richie are both outspoken proponents—to curiously discouraging takes—otherwise reverential Japanese film historian Tony Rayns spends a majority of his R2 DVD introduction to the film disclosing how Mizoguchi’s heart wasn’t into realizing this particular story and thus slighting the film in light of his concurrent works. Akira Kurosawa was also a fan, considering it Mizoguchi finest achievement.

In any case, I’ve been encouraging you to get your hands on a bootleg copy of the film for a while now, and I’m really curious as to how you perceive the film, Calum? Do you see the artistry at work here, or am I simply banging a drum for a film that sits appropriately within Mizoguchi lesser known films?

Calum Marsh: Well, Jordan, I’ll start by admitting that I don’t think I’m as intimately familiar with Mizoguchi’s filmography as you obviously are, and that I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to focusing almost exclusively on those already considered canonical classics. I’ve been meaning to delve deeper into his work for a long while, though, and this seemed like a good opportunity to begin to do so. I believe you’re right that Crucified Lovers isn’t quite the unqualified masterpiece that Ugetsu is, but I think it’s actually a more interesting film, both formally and thematically, and as a result it’s the one I’d rather discuss critically.

Visually, Crucified Lovers is mostly what film scholars will have come to expect from Mizoguchi: his much-discussed “scroll shots”—long takes which pan slowly from one side of a composition to the other, intended to resemble the style of a traditional Japanese scroll painting—figure into its aesthetic prominently, and one of the film’s most significant sequences repeats the haunting, chiaroscuro night-fog set up so crucial to the look of Ugetsu. I don’t want to undersell the quality of his aesthetic, of course—this is a stunning film to look at, even in the fairly beat-up form in which prints of it survive—but if you’re even marginally familiar with the Mizoguchi canon, nothing here will feel revelatory.

The very worst Crucified Lovers could be, then, is a slight iteration of a style Mizoguchi had perfected elsewhere, and there wouldn’t be anything inherently disagreeable about that. But what really interests me about this film, and what I hadn’t been anticipating at all, is its incredible passion on behalf of a clear social cause. Crucified Lovers is about how well-intentioned social gestures inadvertently cause a tragic misunderstanding, but, beneath the particulars of its narrative (which gets very involved), it is a film about social injustice and the oppression of women—and though it’s set in 17th Century Japan, it clearly has its sights set on a modern condition as much as much as a classical one. Crucified Lovers is in many ways a feminist film, and I think the case could be made that Mizoguchi is one of the earliest feminist filmmakers.

Cronk: Yes, Mizoguchi’s major theme over the years was indeed women: mainly their place and role in society, their plight against the tide of a male dominated culture. Mizoguchi, of course, is one of the great jidaigeki (period film) directors, and here he and screenwriter Yoda Yoshikata adapt two classic Japanese fables, one a puppet play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon and the other a novel by Ihara Saikaku called Koshoku Gonin Onna, which they actually sourced as the basis for The Life of Oharu a couple years prior.

It’s interesting to me that for the most part Mizoguchi’s pre-war films were contemporary-set stories, and only when the war years approached and the government began to strictly censor art did Mizoguchi grudgingly begin to look back to find parallels with his modern sociological concerns. Because, as we know, after the war, over half his films were period pieces, and the stretch he made here in the early ’50s are perhaps his most bitingly political.

I’m also interested in your assertion that this is a feminist film—and by extension most of Mizoguchi’s films can be read as feminist—because unlike some of his other work, wherein female protagonists are held down by a combination of societal strictures and lifestyle choices of their own design, the lead female in The Crucified Lovers is doomed, as the title promises, to die almost by coincidence.

When Osan, the wife of a well-known stationary entrepreneur, attempts to monetarily help her brother, she unwittingly puts herself in a position where a platonic/business relationship with one of her husband’s clerks is construed as something more risqué. And when forced to confront the accusations, the two decide to flee, only later admitting that love is indeed blossoming and that their fates have in a sense been written. Like you say, it’s a rather involved scenario, but it’s universally romantic in a way that stands out in Mizoguchi’s filmography

Marsh: Indeed. It’s heavy stuff, and at times it seems almost Shakespearian in scope. But unlike the classical tragic heroes, the leads of [i[Crucified Lovers aren’t doomed by their hubris or some other fatal flaw of personality, but by honor—in fact nearly every action in the film, from beginning to end, is motivated by this profound reverence for personal honor, which makes the whole thing very culturally specific. “Shame” is framed by the characters as worse than death, and the protagonists doom themselves by straining so hard to avoid it.

That can make the film somewhat difficult to relate to on a personal level—the social structure depicted in the film seems completely remote from what we’re familiar with—but it makes it easier to approach as a parable. The political dimension of Crucified Lovers makes it much more than a simple period piece, and I think it probably better reflects Mizoguchi’s personal feelings toward Japan in the 1950s than it does Japan in the 17th Century. It’s not uncommon for social and political frustrations to manifest themselves in genre pictures, particularly during periods of repression and censorship; the history of the Japanese cinema is littered with examples of exactly that sort of subversive filmmaking, and Crucified Lovers stands right there along with them.

Cronk: Yeah, the cultural specificity can make the film (and a lot of films from the East, at least the one’s staged in a period setting) difficult to relate to on a personal level in some ways, but the romanticism—despite being nearly, as you say, Shakespearean in scope—is intimate and universal. There’s a great scene right in the middle of the film which you alluded to earlier where our nascent lovers travel across Lake Biwa with intentions of suicide.

This speaks, among others things, to the honor you mention that defines these characters. Suicide, and double suicides even, are the subject of a great many Japanese films, from Nagisa Oshima’s Japanese Summer: Double Suicide and Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide to other Samurai-related films such as Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri and Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism. But with the exception of maybe only Patriotism, The Crucified Lovers is unique in its emotionalism. Mizogchi’s style is in most cases thought of in formalist terms, but this sells short his way with characterization. Particularly in his later films, as his more flamboyant pre-war stylistic gestures settled into a more outwardly conventional but still-unique one-shot, one-take technique, when character took precedence over aesthetic, the audience—perhaps with an eye toward Western audiences, even, as Japan began a more consistent export schedule in the wake of Kurosawa’s Rashomon—is really encouraged to relate to his characters, even as they navigate terrain unique to Japan.

Mizoguchi’s spends a good 40 minutes setting up the intricacies of the relationships and the social obligations intrinsic to this story before opening up the film considerably in its second half, where a series of set pieces to rival anything in his catalogue are constructed and contrasted with the intimacy of this mostly two-person narrative. And it all works toward making the inevitable finale that much more gutting.

Marsh: And it’s very gutting—inevitable, perhaps, but brutal just the same. But I think you’re right that despite its culturally specific circumstances, it’s easy to feel strongly for these characters, and because it spends so much time establishing its own rules, we can completely appreciate the nuances of how it plays out. And there’s something about the Mizoguchi’s particular rhythm—he feels less rigid, formally, than somebody like Ozu, and the tone of the film is much softer than anything by Kurosawa—that’s very seductive and engaging, making it even easier to invest yourself emotionally in the story and in the characters.

What’s interesting, then, is that Crucified Lovers works so well on both levels: on the one hand it’s a dynamic parable about modern Japan, a feminist tract that rails against oppression, but on the other hand, it’s a very moving story about star-crossed lovers meeting a tragic fate.

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