Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women

In keeping with Criterion?s Eclipse series, this box set collects four lesser works by an acknowledged master, here the Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956). Best known for the classic period dramas Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (’53), and Sansho the Bailiff (’54), Mizoguchi spent most of his prolific career — he has almost 100 films to his credit — directing contemporary social realist movies. And this selection brings together four on a theme: the sexual exploitation of women. Spanning 20 years in midcentury Japan, these compelling melodramas survey the lives of working girls, from prewar geishas to postwar streetwalkers, all suffering in a world controlled by hypocritical men — especially wealthy married men, who consider it a privilege of their class to keep a young mistress. The women, we?re led to believe, all enter the life for honest financial reasons: an innocent switchboard operator needs to pay her father?s debt stemming from an embezzlement (Osaka Elegy, ’36); a war widow has nowhere to turn but the streets in Women of the Night (’48); and in the best of the four, Street of Shame (’55), the women inhabiting a brothel end up devastated by murder, madness, and suicide. Women of the Night (’48), the grittiest film here, derives its harsh view from the bombed-out streets and the toughest of corner whores, given to drugs and VD. All in all, Mizoguchi prefers quiet desperation, supported by slow camera movements and evocative sets, to flashy social protest. Didactic to be sure, but it?s still worth sampling these minor films by Mizoguchi, who, along with Ozu and Kurosawa, pretty much defines 20th-century Japanese cinema.