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Miss Oyu

Miss Oyu (お遊さま) is a 1951 film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and based on Junichiro Tanizaki's 1932 novella entitled The Reed Cutter (蘆刈). The story revolves around two sisters and their relationship with a man named Shinnosuke. He falls in love with the older and more refined yet childish sister, Oyū Kayukawa, but although she's a widow he's unable to marry her since she has a son from her previous marriage—a custom of some upper crust families at the time (early Meiji era) that disallowed women to remarry while caring for a paternal orphan.

Shizu, the younger woman, is heartbroken by her sister's loneliness and misery and determined to sacrifice her own happiness for Oyū. Shinnosuke, after having met with a number of prospective marriage partners, and choosing none, at first mistakes Oyū for her sister, Shizu, with whom he was supposed to meet. Eventually Shinnosuke and Shizu marry, but on their wedding night they agree that the marriage will be "formal" rather than romantic. In other words, Shizu and Shinnosuke will be "brother and sister" while acting under the eyes of society as a happy, upstanding husband and wife. This is so Oyū and Shinnosuke, the true lovers, can spend time together. Oyū is unaware of their pact.

As you might expect from a Mizoguchi-Tanizaki combo, the results here are tragic. Oyū and Shinnosuke must ultimately separate for the sake of social decency. This is after her son dies, partly due to her neglect and lapse of duty. Another son is on the way though. Between Shizu and Shinnosuke, surprisingly, years later, after they have finally entered into some form of intimacy. Times are economically tough for them. They've moved far away and haven't spoken with Oyū for years. The big problem, however, is that Shizu can't take being a mother and wife, and the role in time kills her. It seems she was only able to draw happiness in a sacrificial role, for her sister. In despair, Shinnosuke finds Oyū's home and leaves the newborn for her to find outside. He won't talk to her. Just leaves the baby in the care of a woman responsible for her own son's death. Then off he goes, to wander despairingly among the tall reeds between beach and mountains.

There's plenty that could be written about the film. Like how Mizoguchi has used scenes of nature, either kempt and well-ordered or wild and jumbled, to parallel and drive the plot. Or those potent tracking shots, close-ups, and framing. Or the part of sex, if any, or asexuality, in the story. Or a comparison between the film and novella. But Mizoguchi particularly focused on portraying the peeling away and defiance of social rules as a necessity for love and freedom. And also how these rules tamp down the human spirit, leading to forms of deviance, possibly a greater moral decay, certainly psychological trauma, and then solitude and certain death.

This isn't my favorite Mizoguchi, but it won't slip easily from memory. Quite a few scenes show an idyllic Japan, with bucolic vistas and lush gardens and exquisite homes. It's as visually interesting as its story is compelling. Then there are the musical performances, reminiscent of other Mizoguchi films, like in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) and The Water Magician (1933). Oyū plays the koto. And other songs are used to tell, rather than just add to, the narrative. A good film by one of Japan's greatest directors.


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