Original release: December 17th, 1946
Running time: 106 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese with English subtitles
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writer: Yoshikata Yoda
Cast: Minosuke Bandô, Kinuyo Tanaka, Toshiko Iizuka, Kôtarô Bandô, Hiroko Kawasaki
When the American occupation of Japan began in 1945, after the country’s surrender to the Allied powers, they were to experience great changes in the following years.
Cinema was no exception – but from the filmmakers’ perspective, this only meant one set of rules would be replaced with another.
With these new rules, filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa took their work in a new direction, embracing the more liberal and democratic ideals of the post-war Japan.
It was however, difficult to make period films – otherwise known as Jidaigeki – as the occupying forces saw this genre as potentially spreading nationalism and feudalistic ideology.
Kenji Mizoguchi’s first piece in the occupation-era is nevertheless a period drama, after he managed to convince the authorities that Utamaro And His Five Women was in line with democratic values and there would be no swordplay involved. The lack of subtext that’s relevant to the reality of the occupation and cultural changes is not due to a timid filmmaker; Mizoguchi stayed very much true to himself and made the film about the subject that defined most of his work: women.
In spite of Utamaro And His Five Women being a Jidaigeki based on the life of famous Japanese printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro, it’s widely regarded as an autobiographical piece. The protagonist Utamaro (Minosuke Bandô) – just like Mizoguchi – is an artist who has an obsessive relationship with his female models. The story revolves around the painter and five women who are part of his life to different degrees. The film shows, most of all, that Utamaro’s art cannot exist without women; his work becomes flat and uninspiring without the company of geishas.
I always appreciate hints of self-criticism in Mizoguchi’s films that shed some light on the director’s views about women, but Utamaro And His Five Women is no exception from the filmmaker’s internal conflict underpinning some elements of the story. I couldn’t help thinking that Mizoguchi seeing himself through the character of Utamaro is at times overtly flattering.
While it’s made clear through dialogue that Utamaro doesn’t love any woman; he can only love all women in what is perhaps a conceptual or abstract love, the character is also very respectful to the opposite gender throughout. I wondered if the portrayal of this respectful behaviour was in line with Mizoguchi’s life and relationships.
One of the five women in the film is Okita played by actress Kinuyo Tanaka. When Okita misses a pre-arranged drawing session with Utamaro, his merchant finds her disrespect unacceptable. Utamaro on the other hand reacts very stoically and says to the merchant “women don’t owe him anything because he draws them”.
Not without great irony, Kinuyo Tanaka later ended her relationship with Mizoguchi when he tried to prevent her from becoming a film director. Her countered a recommendation from the Directors Guild of Japan for a studio to hire her to direct a film. She nevertheless went on to successfully make films but not without struggle.
It is hard to know whether Utamaro’s generally selfless relationships with women in this film reflect truthfully on Mizoguchi in real life, or can be seen and interpreted as an innate desire for redemption.
Art also plays a significant role in the film and Utamaro And His Five Women has a very positive message on the subject. The Japanese art of woodblock prints, known in Japan as Ukiyo-e, is in strong contrast with the more rigid rival form taught in Kanō school – one of the most famous painting schools in Japan. Ukiyo-e is shown to be a more revealing portrayal of the human form due to there being no rules and restrictions. Mizoguchi indicates art can hardly be taught in schools as it can only flourish by pushing boundaries and constantly evolving.
While individual components in Utamaro And His Five Women are quite fascinating, the film as a whole doesn’t have a strong enough hold. Scenes like Utamaro painting on the beautiful model Takasode’s (Toshiko Iizuka) bare back are visually reflective of integral connection between Mizoguchi’s art and his female subjects. Okita is a representation of the Japanese ‘moga’ or modern girl and – once again – Mizoguchi takes this character type to a painful end.
While these will be interesting to an audience that’s already familiar with Mizoguchi’s work, the film dealing with several characters divides its focus and I also found the thematic focus fairly weak – especially when compared to other films by the director.
Mizoguchi’s pre-occupation films are recommended for first time ‘Mizoguchi visitors’ to be able to fully appreciate Utamaro And His Five Women.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.