While most of Japan’s citizens are suffering the effects of a recession, Grand Scroll Master Ishun (Eitarô Shindô) is thriving. Not only does he have a monopoly on the calendars that every family needs, but he’s also the emperor’s exclusive printer. Less fortunate — and more irresponsible — is his merchant brother-in-law, Dôki (Haruo Tanaka), who’s going to be sent to prison if he can’t pay off a debt within the next three days. As he’s apparently done many times before, Dôki turns to Osan (Kyôko Kagawa), his sister and Ishun’s wife, for help; their mother, Okô (Chieko Naniwa), also stops by and pressures her daughter to get the money from Ishun. “I’ll ask him,” Osan says at last. “But it’s been like this from the day we got married. I’m always asking him for money. It pains me.”
Despite his wealth, Ishun is a rather stingy sort — at least in most respects. Unbeknownst to his wife, this man who refuses to give a loan even to his own sister is eager to lavish expensive gifts on a servant girl named Otama (Yôko Minamida). “You’ve got no parents or family. I can buy a house for you,” he tells her, clutching her hand. Otama wants no part of it, nor does she appreciate Ishun’s unsolicited visits to her bedroom. Desperate to fend him off, she lies and says that she’s going to marry Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa), his talented young assistant clerk. Mohei refuses to take part in this deception (“I can do anything else, but I can’t lie to him”), yet when he learns about Osan’s financial dilemma, he decides to write out the necessary money order and use Ishun’s seal on it, only to be caught in the act by the man himself. “I want to borrow money with the master’s name,” Mohei says. “I can pay it back within the month. Please turn a blind eye for twenty days.” Ishun doesn’t seem terribly upset until Mohei refuses to tell him what the loan is for, and then he explodes, accusing him of ingratitude and threatening him with arrest. Otama’s attempts to cover for him only make matters worse, and Mohei is locked up in a storage building for the night; Ishun intends to have him arrested the next morning.
Realizing that Ishun now has her at his mercy, Otama finally tells Osan how he’s been pursuing and forcing himself on her. Osan is shocked and appalled, not merely by her husband’s behavior but also by his willingness to spend enormous amounts of money on an illicit affair when he won’t do a thing for family members in need. In order to confront him, she remains in Otama’s room to await his inevitable arrival; however, Mohei shows up first, having escaped from the storage building. Another employee sees the two of them together there and reports it to Ishun, who accuses his wife of committing adultery as revenge against him — a charge that so infuriates her that she can no longer bear to stay in their house. Outside, she runs into Mohei, and the two set off together, bound by a crime they didn’t commit.
Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1954 film A Story from Chikamatsu, originally Chikamatsu monogatari, is also known in English as The Crucified Lovers. (Chikamatsu, for the record, is not a place but the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century playwright upon whose work the movie was based.) In spite of this sensational title, it doesn’t seem to be as well known as many of Mizoguchi’s other films from the same period, such as The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and I think I enjoyed it all the more for its relative obscurity. With the exception of Street of Shame (1956), his reputed masterpieces tend to leave me a bit cold. I respect them, I admire them, but I’m not moved or touched by them the way other people seem to be. This time, instead of going in with high expectations — a major part of my Mizoguchi problem, I’m sure — I started watching the movie a bit reluctantly, though I was determined to keep an open mind. While it didn’t change my life or even provoke any strong feelings, I found it quite interesting, especially as the story played out and the themes developed.
A Story of Chikamatsu‘s world is one of injustice, inequality and power struggles, all of which are intertwined. The sexual double standard is hardly surprising, and Otama articulates it after seeing an adulterous couple (a samurai’s wife and his retainer) paraded down the street en route to their crucifixion: “A man can lead as lewd a life as he wants. When a woman does the same thing, why does she end up crucified?” Through her experiences with Ishun, she knows about this subject firsthand, and indeed, he has no fear of being punished for his infidelity; conversely, Osan’s alleged affair threatens to destroy the entire household.
Class, too, creates different rules for different groups of people. Man though he is, Mohei can’t “lead a life as lewd as he wants” if it involves a woman who’s his social better, much less a married one. “You don’t have the status to fall for your master’s wife,” his father admonishes him. The irony is that he’s both a devoted, loyal employee and, at least in theory, a morally rigid person. Of the samurai’s condemned wife, he says, “I pity her, but you mustn’t stray from the moral path. That’s the rule of the law.” Upon discovering that Osan needs money, however, he lets his feelings take over, going so far as to deceive Ishun in order to help her. His actions evoke a line of dialogue from the beginning of the film: “How can starving people afford to worry about moral principles?”
It’s fitting that financial problems set the plot in motion, because money is all-important. In some ways, Ishun’s wealth gives him security: unlike many people, he doesn’t have to worry about buying food or fending off creditors, and it allows him to hobnob with the nobility, most of whom aren’t as cash-rich as he is. In other respects, though, it puts him in a precarious spot. The nobles may be willing to dine at his house and borrow his money, but that doesn’t mean he’s one of them. A merchant’s household can be abolished for “excessive luxury,” and although Ishun is too miserly to fall into that trap, the situation with Osan and Mohei could cause serious trouble if it becomes public knowledge. There’s also a threat from below, as two of his employees plot to use these circumstances to their advantage, crushing him and taking over.
For Osan, who was married off to the much older Ishun because her family needed money (and not for the last time), running away becomes preferable to that unjust, hypocritical, heartless way of life. Unfortunately, it may also mean sealing her own doom, and Mohei’s as well — these two unlikely fugitives. As she tells him, “Nothing is more unpredictable than a person’s fate.”
This post is part of the 2016 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.