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Notes and Thoughts

Mizoguchi Film of Rumor, Production Design and Emotional Register

Kato Mikiro
( associate professor of cinema studies, University of Kyoto)


Let me begin with a naive question: who is Mizoguchi Kenji*1? The auteurist critics, even Jean-Luc Godard, would not know who he is. Even the biographers who worked earnestly under the director, such as Shindo Kaneto and Yoda Yoshikata,*2 seem not to tell us who the director really was. But let me answer the question tentatively: Mizoguchi Kenji is the name for a filmic existence who had good control of the quintessential elements in a film. A narrative film consists mainly of light, production design, actors and script. No other director seems to know better than Mizoguchi Kenji how these four elements should be integrated onto the silver screen.

Indeed in any Mizoguchi film, a script is precisely translated into a beautiful three-dimensional set around which an actor moves, and on which light is shed to convey emotional emphasis. Space, motion and emotion are concisely and symbolically interrelated. As director, Mizoguchi Kenji accomplished such a filmic interrelation. And he considered production design to be the most important element. Okamoto ken-ichi, a lighting director*3 of Mizoguchi's films, once told me that Mizoguchi insisted on the authenticity of the set. Nevertheless, no critical studies seem to have ever tried to examine the importance of the set in Mizoguchi's films. The present essay analyses how the production design in Mizoguchi's films functions in order to tell an emotional tale effectively. For convenience and economy of analysis, I mainly discuss Woman of Rumor, which, despite undeniably superb performance of the actress Tanaka Kinuyo, has enjoyed insufficient critical attention not only in the United States but also in Japan.

Woman of Rumor is a late film, coming after Sansho the Bailiff and followed by Crucified Lovers (A Story by Chikamatsu). But Woman of Rumor is not less important than these two internationally acclaimed films. Indeed Woman of Rumor (1954) is more passionate than Jacques Doillon's La Pirate (1984) and even more precisely than Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Remarkably astounding is the authenticity and precision of the production design by Mizutani Hiroshi and the properties supplied by Kozu Shokai Co.,Inc. In the beautiful okiya (a kind of boarding house for geishas) set, the bustling mistress of the house (Tanaka Kinuyo) comes into conflict with her younger lover and her own daughter. The supertechnical combination of Miyagawa Kazuo's camera and Okamoto Ken-ichi's lighting captures this tense love triangle in an almost documentary-like style of detachment. Just as in his own Sisters of Gion, the screenwriter Yoda Yoshikata (whose family name is given as homage to an Oriental sage appearing in The Empire Strikes Back) vividly depicts women of firm determination whose attitudes toward life form a striking contrast to those of indecisive, irresponsible men in Kyoto.

Two examples would sffice to show how Mizoguchi Kenji minutely constructed the emotional aspect of Woman of Rumor through the production design.

As the manager of geishas of the okiya, Tanaka Kinuyo sits behind the choba (cash desk) is half partitioned by shoji (a kind of paper screen) from the lobby (Fig.1). The shoji is lit up from the inside, so that we can faintly see the latticework of the partition through the fine paper. And this latticework is a basic visual structure of the film. Woman of Rumor is a narrative film whose events exclusively take place in an old traditional Kyoto wooden frame house. Therefore cross-stripes reappear again and again as tatami boarders, coffers, lattice doors and partitions, and even as tartan checks of kimonos. Among them, the latticework of the shoji which partitions the cash desk behind which Tanaka Kinuyo sits as the only legitimate subject is the main persistent sign of the woman of rumor. As a widow, she has managed the okiya without the economical help of men, but now she dreams of remarriage with her younger lover, a seemingly promising medical doctor. In the relatively dark lobby, characteristic of the structure of Kyoto houses,*4 the cash desk in a dim light emerges and asserts itself discreetly. The cash desk in a dim light, in so far as Tanaka has managed the okiya by herself, is as it were a small island in a dark sea (Fig 2). On the island, she seems safe and proud of herself.

The cash desk persistently appears in the film; indeed it appears no less than fifteen times. The partitioned cash desk in a dim light is a vivid symbol of the independent but undeniably lonely life of a middle-aged widow, similar to the neon sign outside the restaurant Joan Crawford runs in Mildred Pierce (1945). Moreover, the fact that we can see the latticework through the thin paper screen produces a telling metaphor of film viewing: we, as spectators, see Tanaka's true feeling, her real emotion through the surface. If Woman of Rumor is a film melodrama, then why do we not take into consideration a deep emotional register under/behind the surface?

A second example, the splendid sequence where Tanaka realizes the love triangle, will show how the production design functions as an emotional register in the film. During a Kyogen (Japanese traditional farce) performance whose theme is a making fun of love in old age, Tanaka overhears her young lover chatting with her daughter, and realizes that he seduced her daughter. At the moment she realizes his betrayal, Tanaka shows us a fearful face rimmed with a crooked stalk arranged for ikebana (Japanese traditional flower arrangement, Fig 3-Fig 4). This is the most astounding shot in the film, because it is the only shot where a crooked thing is shown to us emphatically except for the very first title shot of the film (Fig 5). Square patterns, as I discussed above, are the ruling visual motif in the film. Despite the rule, however, the film shows the woman of rumor rimmed with the crooked pattern two times: first, literally the title of Woman of Rumor; second, the referent (the woman who overhears the rumor) the title referred to at the very beginning of the narrative. In other words, Tanaka feels crushed at the betrayal, and the production design registers her emotional crisis through the prop (crooked stalk). Before the betrayal, however, she was safe and proud of herself inside the latticework of the cash desk. Through the striking contrast between the cross and crooked patterns, we can grasp the emotional shift of the heroine.

The total visual concept of the film is determined by Mizoguchi Kenji in collaboration with the production designer Mizutani Hiroshi. A motion picture, by definition, must make visible the invisible, such as emotion. And Mizoguchi adopts this policy: the mise en scene by Mizoguchi rightfully includes the visual network throughout the entire film. In the name of Mizoguchi Kenji, we recognize a director who has a talent to register actors' emotion through the visible: production design.

This paper was originally published in Gerald O'Grady ed., Mizoguchi the Master (Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1996).

1 Japanese names are written in the standard Japanese form: family name before given name.
2 Shindo Kaneto, Aru Eiga Kantoku:Mizoguchi Kenji to Nihon Eiga (A Film Director: Mizoguchi Kenji and Japanese Cinema) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1976); Yoda Yoshikata, Mizoguchi Kenji no Hito to Geijutsu (The Life and Art of Mizoguchi Kenji) (Tokyo: Tabata Shoten, 1970).
3 The position of director of photography does not exist in the Japanese studio system; instead, the camera operator has almost the same power as the director of photography except for lighting, which is entrusted to the lighting director.
4 For a fuller discussion of the relationship between Kyoto and cinema, see Nakajima Sadao, Tsutsui Kiyotada, Kato Mikiro and Iwasaki Kenji, Eiga Roman Kiko (Kyoto, the Cine-city) (Kyoto: Jinbun Shoin, 1994). This book is written both in English and in Japanese.

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