johnlink ranks YORU NO ONNATACHI (WOMEN OF THE NIGHT) (1948)

After being impressed greatly by Kenji  Mizoguchi’s UGESTU, I’ll certainly give anything else of his a shot. WOMEN OF THE NIGHT comes in five years earlier than UGETSU, and is a very different film in tone. This one surprised me with its cynicism and fatalism. But, as you will see, it is also very well made.


I watched YORU NO ONNATACHI (WOMEN OF THE NIGHT) (1948) on 3.3.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

The print which recently premiered on Turner Classics mostly does the film justice. Clearly, several prints were meshed together to give the best possible product. Some of the sound in the first portion of the movie is slightly muffled due to a static in the background. Some of the exteriors are darker than Mizoguchi intended. When writing articles I am careful to consider movies as they appear to us today, while also understanding the film’s place in history. With Yoru no onnatachi, I am forgiving the quality of the print in order to look at the product as it was shot.

Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a young woman waiting for her husband ot return from war. Her young son is very sick, she has no money. Her brother-in-law is an alcoholic who insists on remindering Fusako that he owed her nothing. A woman tells Fusako she should become a prostitute to earn money. Fusako balks. Soon after, she learns her husband has died and her son dies (in a majorly understated moment of the film). Fusako is saved by the generosity of a local businessman (and gangster). However, when Fusako’s sister Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda) returns to the picture she soon takes up with Fusako’s man. The trauma of this leads to Fusako becoming a prostitute after all.

Director Kenji Mizoguchi is known for telling stories with central characters who are female, and WOMEN OF THE NIGHT is no exception. Fusako holds on to her life as long as she can, and she is absolutely transformed into a hard and unforgiving woman when she hits the street. When her sister later faces trouble, she helps out of duty yet does not care to fix her own life. A subplot, which becomes central to the film’s climactic end, involves a young girl who also ends up on the streets. That girl represents the remaining innocence in Fusako. In fact, she could be seen to represent women or even the whole of Japan. We watch her get raped by a young conman and then beaten and stripped by a group of unsympathetic girls. The movie has us see her torment rather than Fusako’s, who embraces her sexual side.

While the movie is about women, Mizoguchi isn’t painting an unbiased picture of them. He shows women to be jealous, violent, uncaring, and vindictive. The film, in many ways, is about women rising above those things and leading the way to recovery for the county. A major theme of the film also involves the recent destruction of Japan during the war. We see rubble in most every external shot. The final scene involves women brawling amongst fallen buildings. There is no dignity for Japan in this scene, and it represents Mizoguchi’s view of Japan’s role in World War 2. A smidgen of optimism comes out at the end, but it is hard to offset the previous 74 minutes of pessimism. Perhaps that is the point Mizoguchi is making. No matter how far you fall, you can always rise again. Doing so is hard and it takes people finding their sense of self-respect to do it.

The internal shots in the film look like the shots Mizoguchi is famous for. He frames his interiors like we are watching a play on a proscenium stage in a live  theater. There is a boxed outline with people moving around in the frame. He plays freely with depth of focus and has actors often moving back in the frame up and down rather than left to right. Doing so provides a unique and voyeuristic vantage point. It is as if we are to forget the camera is there. These shots are among the most still and powerful in the film, and they work on a fascinatingly simple level by doing the unexpected: nothing.

This is a wonderful film, but it is one that is not necessarily a pleasure to watch. Not as complete an experience as Mizoguchi’s UGETSU, this instead a bit of a niche film about post-war Japan. Very solid filmmaking to be sure, but not necessarily essential viewing.







~ by johnlink00 on March 4, 2014.

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