30 September 2019 | topitimo-829-270459
Imai's Adaptation of Higuchi's Stories Is Ambitious, But Not One of the Director's Best Works
Higuchi Ichiyo (1972-1896) was one of the most important writers of the Meiji period, and one of the more famous female writers to come out of Japan. Higuchi died to tuberculosis at the very young age of 24, leaving behind a body of work consisting mostly of short stories. These stories depicted the usually-rather-sad lives of Japanese women of the day.
Imai Tadashi (1912-1991) was a famously left-wing director, who often set his films into the past, to criticize the politics of his contemporary society. For a director like him, Higuchi's stories would seem like the natural thing to adapt into a film. And indeed this film, Nigorie (An Inlet for Muddy Water, 1953) was at the time of its release, a critical darling, that received numerous film prizes, over numerous better films.
I really like Imai's work. At best, he is not-unlike Kobayashi in the raw way he clashes with feudal values, and not-unlike Mizoguchi in the way he shows sympathy to people of the past. Yet he is instantly recognizable in his storytelling. I like many of his angrier films like Himeyuri no To (A Tower of Lillies, also 1953), Yoru no tsuzumi (Night Drum, 1958), Adauchi (Revenge, 1964) and Echigo Tsutsuichi Oyashirazu (A Story from Echigo, 1964) better than I do this film.
There's a few reasons. I have, in general, a problem with episodic films. Whereas it must feel like a cool tool in storytelling for the filmmaker, I find that these films often have trouble keeping up the cohesion in narrative or in quality. Also pacing becomes a harder thing to manage, since each episode is supposed to serve as both an independent whole and part of the larger structure. Imai is very interesting in the subjects of his films, but he isn't the best at creating a functioning story arc or pacing. Usually his films feature great endings, but also a second act that kind of drags. Such is the case with this film, too, where the middle episode is easily the weakest.
We open up with the story "The Thirteenth Night", the shortest episode, which deals with a wife, who returns to her family, not being able to face her cruel husband any longer. This episode is set during one night, it's atmospheric, and doesn't go on for too long. Especially the final minutes made the short narrative feel rewarding. The acting is good, and the points that Higuchi's short story was trying to make, are told in a clear-cut manner.
After the first episode we go from marriage-criticism to class-criticism, and from the middle-class to a poor maid, played by Kuga Yoshiko. Her uncle and adoptive father (Nakamura Nobuo) is sick, and Kuga's character asks the lady who employs her to loan two yen for this purpose. She is not willing to do this, the nice woman that she is, so Kuga feels the temptation to steal the money. Imai has criticized class society much better in his other films. The characters in this one are one-dimensional, which makes it harder to invest in the film. Also it is pretty slow.
The third episode, which is the title story, is about the women at a brothel. O-Riki (Awashima Chikage) is the most popular girl, though tormented by her personal past. O-hatsu (Sugimura Haruko) has a husband who frequents O-Riki, and this is, among other things, tearing up their marriage. Meanwhile, Awashima's character has a romance with a stranger played by Yamamura So. This story could have been a movie on its own, really. It's dirty (or muddy), tense and thought-provoking. But the fact, that it's in a movie with two other episodes, really lessens the impact that it has. And of course you are inevitably going to make the necessary Mizoguchi comparisons...
This movie has a lot going for it, though functional pacing is not one of those things. There were a number of good performances, specially in the last episode which gave people time to shine. A modern viewer is bound to view this in at least somewhat feminist light, due to the source author, as well as one of the adapting screenwriters Mizuki Yoko. There were several good scenes that showed the hardships that women were forced to go through in those times. And yet these female fates depicted by Imai probably spoke to the contemporary audience as well. Not one of the director's best (or the year's best), but worth a look anyway.