Help! Expert wanted! These characters are strange. Their behaviour is foreign. It is alien, both in space and in time; especially in time - this is a pre-modern society, where mores are determined by cultural codes whose meaning we find odd and incomprehensible. We guess at things. We stumble. We make things up. Our thoughts wander into the woods and are lost.
An attractive woman is kneeling in a bedroom. Profiled against the wall, and wearing an intricately patterned kimono, she looks like - she could be - an exquisite portrait, we think of a block print of the Ukiyo-e. It is Oshizu. She is talking to her sister through an open door. “Are you cold?” she asks. To the affirmative reply Oshizu gleefully responds, “I could come under the blankets and keep you warm”. Lady Oyu laughs: “You should do that for your husband.” The camera cutting to a new angle exposes a large empty space, where Shinnosuke lies alone on his mat. After looking forlornly at his wife he turns away to sleep.
To a modern European sensibility this scene is suffused with sexuality. And while we cannot deny a hint of sex in Oshizu’s request, we sense that it exhibits a far larger range of emotions than simple physical desire. Oshizu is in love with Oyu. But it is an innocent - a sibling - love that has been taken to extremes; Oshizu having retained a child’s feelings far too long into adulthood. It is the kind of love - without a guide we roam the woods, looking for paths and landmarks - that we imagine existed amongst the British bourgeoisie in the 19th century; when women were educated and refined but were restricted to largely their own gender; this created intense friendships that were nevertheless platonic – sex was closeted away in the bedroom; a secret to be shared only with the husband.1 If I am right - though not original: John Fowles’ mentions this idea in The French Lieutenant’s Woman - Oshizu’s feelings may not be that strange; especially in a country where the sexes have been segregated to an even greater extent than in Victorian England. Closeted within a strictly female society it will be hard to leave it; even harder to transfer this strongly feminine atmosphere, and the feelings they engender, onto a man. Oshizu and Oyu are able to freely share their emotions because there is no risk of sexual congress; the strict rituals, the extremely cultivated milieu, banishes even the thought of such transgression. In Japan, even in the early 20th century, two women could love each without a thought of sexual desire.
But Japan is changing. We notice how many characters sit on seats… The modern world is squeezing in between the interstices of an archaic and insulated society, where nearly everybody wears traditional dress; which disguises, at least for us, these new influences of the West. Another quiet but prominent feature: it is Shinnosuke’s aunt that runs the business;2 her rooms, unlike those of Oyu’s - who is surrounded by a court of female servants -, consisting exclusively of young men. There is a tension here between an old, stable but slightly sterile world - Oyu is a widow who by convention cannot remarry - and a new one that is just being born; and which has all the insecurities of the new arrival. Shinnosuke is its emblem. He is an orphan, whose shyness prevents him from conversing easily with women.
His parentless status is freighted with symbolic meaning. Shinnosuke’s attachment to the past is weak, and so he contains within himself the potential to break its influence. It also suggests his fragility… Shinnosuke is no hero. He lacks the strength to create a new world; he is strong enough only to weaken the old - in a marvellous scene he tries to touch the sleeping Oyu, but fails after much agonising effort. Too weak to break the taboo. However, Shinnosuke has, by staying with her whilst she recovers from heatstroke, compromised Oyu’s purity, and so ruined her reputation - rumours circulate and she goes into exile. Shinnosuke is not a creative force. He destroys through his ineffectiveness. His sensibility not weighted down by the past he is a ship without an anchor. It is a sensibility adrift…between an old world to which he gives obeisance and a new world that he doesn't know exists. Only later, when he lives in Tokyo, will he come to know this world; though even then it passes him by. Thus a train - that ship of fate - forms merely the backdrop to a house and lifestyle yet to enter the 20th century. A ship adrift… It may crash into and wreck a harbour; but it will never discover new lands beyond the horizon.
Shinnosuke’s presence gives a new meaning to the bedroom scene, which once would have purely innocent. When a man enters into the relationship sex inevitably follows behind him; Oshizu words now taking on a sexual inflection. Oyu is oblivious to this modulation in feeling; although it will stir deep inside Oshizu; her denial of her husband raising up, through its repression, the sexual instinct, which, however, has no person to focus upon; for Oshizu will never think of her sister as a sexual being - Oyu is too aloof, too much the idealised object, for a disciple to pollute with base desires. Nevertheless, while Oshizu will not explicitly think of Oyu in carnal terms, sex exists as a new and extra layer of feeling, complicating the platonic relationship and increasing the threat that sexual desire will reveal itself in some, possibly brutal, form. The breakdown of this three-way relationship is assured.
A new kind of life is on the threshold of being born; but the conventions are so strong, so powerful and alive, that they stifle its germination.
Lady Oyu lives in the house of her in-laws, where she is condemned to a celibate life. Her feelings are channelled into aesthetics; Oyu a highly talented musician and aesthete who has turned both herself and the house into an art object. During a concert she plays classical Japanese music whilst wearing a gorgeous kimono from the Heian era, one of the most refined in Japan’s history she tells Shinnosuke and his aunt; going on to say that she only plays the koto to show off her clothes - the music is merely decoration. Oyu is alive with charm and mischievous fun. She is clever, and adores the rich texture of beauty itself. Her sensibility suggests the sensuous nature of an artistic talent. Oyu is an artist. A typical one too; her imagination is a powerful filter that makes her insensitive to the feelings of others. But art is never enough. She needs to love someone. It is Oshizu.
Oyu is afraid of losing her sister. Once married Oshizu will live in semi-seclusion with the in-laws; her visits to her own family few, unless her husband is tolerant and unconventional; that is, a rare specimen. Oyu has therefore opposed all previous suitors for Oshizu, saying that each were of the common run.
Shinnosuke is the next candidate.
By an accident of timing he meets the female cavalcade before it reaches his house. He mistakes Oyu, who returns his admiring gaze, for Oshizu, the woman he is to choose for his wife. This first sighting destroys the younger sister’s chances. But Shinnosuke is weak; and Oyu, intuiting that he will allow her to keep Oshizu, is determined that they should marry, and so persuades him to change his mind. The marriage, however, is already doomed; for the aunt has foolishly told Oyu of Shinnosuke’s mistake; and Oyu, possibly out of vanity, possibly because of its incongruity, tells Oshizu; alerting her to his real feelings.
The emotions become entangled and dense. Oyu herself is attracted to Shinnosuke; this feeling growing during the honeymoon - yes, she accompanies the married couple! Oshizu sees this attraction and is convinced that Oyu is in love with Shinnosuke – “her eyes light up when she sees him, and she is full of radiance.” This is too simple a view. Oyu only thinks of Shinnosuke as a brother-law. Like the artist she is Oyu loves both with intensity and with indifference: a kind and gentle man the same as a garden full of roses or a classical song. But… How she loves those roses! How she seduces these songs! Love is of far greater intensity in Oyu than in more sedate characters; whose responses will be weaker and more incoherent. Poor Oshizu. Such a complicated personality as Lady Oyu’s is beyond her comprehension; her’s a simple sensibility that can only worship as at a shrine.
The honeymoon. It is a dangerous time. With all three so close together the boundaries that separate the different feelings will be crossed; some playacting between Shinnosuke and Oyu taking on a sublimated sexual tinge. Nevertheless, the artist retains her control: inside her human frame exists a cold and fixed personality; imagine a statue; think of a golden Buddha. It is just this quality that Oshizu worships. It is this quality that has entered her soul. This is why she can marry Shinnosuke with the sole purpose of giving him to Oyu. Oshizu sacrificing herself and rejecting the marriage bed. There will be no consummation: “I will be a sister to you” she tells her husband on their wedding night.
It is the power of Lady Oyu. The artist creates a world for others to believe in. These worlds can be so wonderful! especially for the strong and creative. They are a disaster for the weak who, in revering their idol, try to conform to her beliefs and lifestyle. To worship an artist is to destroy oneself, ultimately.3 The life, the free flow of feeling and passion, is slowly drained out of Shinnosuke and Oshizu as they imprison themselves within the latter’s cult of adoration. Oyu has become their icon. She is a fixed image that instead of enlivening the congregation deadens its sensibility; which becomes all reverence and emotion. An artist should stimulate us to create new things.4 The danger is always that she will steal our vitality.
During the honeymoon the underlying affinity between Oyu and Shinnosuke becomes increasingly apparent. So free and affectionate is their behaviour that a servant in the inn thinks that they are the married couple. Oyu thinks this is funny and pushes Oshizu into the arms of her husband; a sign not only of her ignorance about others’ feelings but also her own lack of sexual jealousy; clearly she has no conscious desire for Shinnosuke. This scene is the start of a crisis that reveals the true nature of Oshizu’s marriage; the revelation shocking her sister.
For Shinnosuke the marriage is both sterile and sexually alive; the repression is awakening his desire for Oshizu, which suffuses his feelings, now stronger and more loving than before. Something else appears to be happening too: the closer Shinnosuke gets closer to Oyu the more he treats her as a sister; while Oshizu, jealous of the sibling relationship, is beginning, with the rise of this passion, to feel a sexual desire for her husband, which causes her anguish and confusion. The boundary fences have fallen down, and the neatly divided gardens have become a weeded wilderness. All is mixed up. All is changing. Now it is Shinnosuke who is Oyu’s “brother”; while Oyu is Oshizu’s rival; for sexual or for sisterly love we are none too sure.
As the intensity of her emotions increase Oshizu’s feelings grow wilder and become uncontrollable; she will hate her sister as well as loving her. The confusion arising from such a passion will intensify Oshizu’s attachment to Oyu; bonding her ever tighter to the idea of sacrifice and celibacy; for now she must atone for the guilt in feeling such terrible thoughts.
The contrast with Shinnosuke is extraordinary. He is a passive object; his life determined solely by the feelings of these two women. And what feelings they are! Oyu using them to transform her companions into objets d’art. Oshizu left in romantic agony, as she destroys herself for a man who lacks the reverence that gives her such self-sacrificing strength. It is a paradox: a weak man is making “revolutionary” changes in these two women’s lives; one of whom is a powerful and exceptional character.
Oyu is oblivious to these undercurrents. Her games with Shinnosuke, such as making him hold his breath and tickling him, are innocent pranks of the kind she would play with Oshizu. It is only later, when the failure of the marriage becomes very obvious, that Oyu realises there is a problem; although even now she doesn't connect it with herself. Oshizu’s confession thus comes as a shock. Lady Oyu is a remarkable character; one who is able to separate out completely the two sides of her being – the emotional from the intellectual. She is an artist, and thus a dangerous person, who in using other people’s personalities to stimulate her talent is at the same time cut off emotionally from them. Alienated from human sympathy she is denied human understanding; because she cannot know, for she cannot feel, what is inside even her closest friends; the external signs only can she read, which she will interpret in her own, often unearthly and idiosyncratic way.
Mizoguchi shares Bergman’s insight: artists are monsters; self-enclosed egocentrics exiled from the human race. Their great gifts for feeling and intuitive insight relate only to themselves; thus worshippers they will have in abundance, but few lovers and no friends. Lady Oyu knows nothing about Oshizu or Shinnosuke, though she lives with them every day. She doesn't need to: she creates them within her imagination. The victims accept this as right and proper. It is the injustice of life. Beauty and great talent are excused the normal decencies - we forgive them everything.
After the confession Oyu leaves. She is disturbed by Oshizu’s strange behaviour; while her culture, her own carefully crafted refinement, her strict and high intelligence, will prevent her from sleeping with Shinnosuke - it would defile her being, which is made of the spirit not the flesh. Physical love is not enough for someone as beautifully constructed as Lady Oyu. Sex is dangerous and demeaning. And anyway, she sees Shinnosuke as a brother…the taboo is too great.
Oyu is an exquisite specimen. Through her influence she has raised two people out of their animality; to become, unfortunately, not artists but terribly stunted human beings - badly drawn pictures that lacking fluidity are wooden and devoid of life. It is not Oyu’s fault that her talents destroy both Oshizu and Shinnosuke; they are simply not strong enough to resist or overcome her influence. A remarkable human being like Lady Oyu will not be understood either by her worshippers or by the crude and ignorant multitude. Rumours circulate around the two families that there is an immoral relationship between Shinnosuke and Oyu; and although she scotches the slander her behaviour is too unusual to be condoned; she is banished from her in-laws’ house. It is just after her young son dies. Oyu cares about her son deeply, and is devastated by his loss, and yet… she left him to travel on her sister’s honeymoon. Oyu is detached from the world and its normal cares. She is a butterfly. Landing on a young woman’s shoulder she surprises and dazzles the family grouping. As they admire her beauty she imbibes their happiness, until, all at once, she is replete; now she will…she is flying up and flittering around the room; gasps of delight escaping from heads trying to trace her intricate and seemingly fragile flight. A door slams. The butterfly crash lands and flutters across the floor. The door opens again. And Lady Oyu flies out under a gentle sun. A crowd of faces rushes to the open doorway. The smiles, the sighs of joy, the sighs of sadness as they watch her vanishing into the evening air.
And yet…it is Oshizu who is the more radical character. Her love giving her a strength that transcends the social conventions, which she alone is prepared to break.5 Oyu is not so strong. She needs to conform to society’s traditions; her character living off the freedom that only wealth and social respect can provide. Once she needed Oshizu, an emotional hammock to rest from her endless self-creation and self-control; but now she needs Oshizu no longer, such recreation is a luxury that Lady Oyu can live without.
After the crisis a black screen. We believe it is the end of the film.
Mizoguchi returns. He sends us to Tokyo; where Oshizu is dying after giving birth to her first child. Shinnosuke desperate with anxiety tries to convince his wife that he loves her; that this love has grown out of their marriage. Oshizu will not be convinced. She will not give up her idée fixe. There will be no listening to the truth. She reaches out for Oyu’s kimono, the one token left after the crisis that separated them. She asks Shinnosuke to help her put it on. As she stands up, swaying and unsteady, the kimono is carefully placed around her shoulders. It is almost as if…as if Oyu is embracing her… We know she must feel such a thought. It is madness. Her death, which she welcomes, is the moment, she believes, that Shinnosuke is free to marry the woman who loves him. Oshizu has succumbed to monomania. Oshizu is ceasing to exist. The kimono is draped around her body. One sister is being clothed into another. Oshizu is wearing Oyu! She is Oyu.
Another black interlude. It’s as if the screen is breathing.
Lady Oyu is giving a concert. The musicians and guests are sitting on a pavilion that seems to float above the water. It is a beautiful performance. Afterwards a baby is heard crying. It is Oshizu’s; an accompanying letter informing Oyu of her sister’s death and Shinnosuke’s continuing love; it asks her to look after the baby. The artist collapses in grief.
We are to end on a melancholy note.
But then the unexpected happens. Oyu asks for the baby. As she rocks it in her arms she becomes ecstatic. “I have received a gift. I have been given a beautiful child!” This sudden joy cancels out all memory and all sadness. Lady Oyu is happy. An artist immersed in the moment will forget themselves. And everyone else.
Where there is art there will always be life and happiness. But others will be forgotten, like Shinnosuke is forgotten. Yes. It is this indifference that it empties out, that kills, his soul.
He is taken across a river, it could be the River Styx. After the boatman drops him off Shinnosuke roams amongst the reed beds, reciting a dirge; which blames destiny for his predicament - Shinnosuke believes that he was born unlucky. As he recites his song he walks out of the picture; we assume to take his own life.
Oshizu had blamed contingency - if only Oyu hadn’t accompanied her to the matchmaking everything would have been different.
It is Shinnosuke who is right. He waited too long for a bride; and this made him too choosy; by the time he met Oshizu only the perfect woman would do. One day he found her, but she was out of his reach; as all ideals must be. Lady Oyu is untouchable; which is fine and dandy if left at a distance, where she can inspire manifold effort and self-transcendence. Shinnosuke gets too close. Also: he is no hero. He cannot create a new world by living up to some ideal. Too weak he makes the mistake of allowing Oyu to enter his life. This perfect woman accepts the invitation and destroys it.6
To marry Oshizu is to live next door to paradise, whose gates are forever closed to the ordinary person. Shinnosuke can only look in; smell the blossoms and touch the fragrant branches that hang over the garden’s walls. So close. Too close. There is no going inside. Such proximity destroys him. It is only now, when it is too late, during this concert in the water garden, that he appreciates that a beautiful work of art is to be seen and heard only; such sights and sounds best experienced at a distance. Too close and you lose yourself in endless longing and emotional turmoil. Art should remain aloof, it is not made to be touched. Art. Such a dangerous game. Art. It is to be admired not loved. The artist, of course, demands love. But the artist is a wild beast who will kill what she embraces. Lady Oyu so lovely, so kind, so beautifully thoughtful… She is a spider that murders her mate.
Artists must be avoided. Oshizu is attractive and demure. Containing all the impurities that makes our lives comfortable she will make a good wife for a simple man like Shinnosuke. Indeed, Shinnosuke comes to love these qualities, and so reject Oyu; and the sensibility she represents. But it is too late. Perfection has entered his soul to leave it in ruins.
1. We imagine that men shared similar feelings to their own sex, a view ridiculed in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9.
2. Compare with the films of Yoshimura, where it is the women who are the capitalists and modernisers.
3. See the story within a story involving Vinson in Nigel Dennis’ Cards of Identity. The woman loves the man and the ideal, but Vinson loves only the ideal; and so can easily discard the women once they have satisfied him - in his case by making them into his own image.
4. Like Moreland in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, by Anthony Powell.
5. Compare with Arati in Satyajit Ray’s The Big City.
6. For a terrifying example of someone who thought than an ideal can be applied wholesale into real life see Ruth Scurr’s Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. Such characters are not creative thinkers or constructive reformers, builders of new conceptual or physical worlds. No. Not at all. Seeking perfection in the public realm they destroy it. The diversity, the contingencies, the irrationalities of lived life guillotined because they do not fit into the geometrical purity of the perfect, because abstract and therefore unchangeable, idea. The People were wonderful for Robespierre. But of course The People didn't exist as real human beings in their flesh and blood. Not at all. The concept he copied from Rousseau, whom he seems not to have really understood; thus his conflation of The People with the general will.
An idea in itself is a dead thing. To make it live it has to be changed, developed or junked for something better; the very junking, if done with insight and subtlety, part of the creative process of thought. You can’t just copy it. This is to replace a living body with a corpse.