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The Water Magician

The Water Magician is a 1933 silent film (with benshi accompaniment) by Kenji Mizoguchi.

Takino Shiraito (played by Irie Takako) is a water magician in a traveling funfair in northern Chubu, it seems between Kanazawa and Naoetsu. She's famous for her artistry in controlling the long paddles that direct streams of water into shapes and patterns which enthrall her audiences. She meets a miserable carriage driver who rides her into town on the back of his horse after his carriage breaks down. Shiraito has a golden heart and, taking on the role of mother (often portrayed in Mizoguchi films; note too that the boy is an orphan), she resolves to pay his college tuition in dribs and drabs and sends him off to Tokyo so he can become a lawyer.

The story is singular and tragic. The boy does finish his studies, thanks to Shiraito, who despite her struggles manages to send him money regularly. But her will to help him and others ultimately leads to her downfall. Unable to fulfill her promise, of providing the boy with a few yen from time to time, she offers herself to (or is raped by) a usurer, and afterwards is robbed by the carnival's knife thrower. In the commotion he drops a knife which, after Shiraito regains consciousness, she picks up. Certain that the usurer had set up the robbery, and furious she has lost what she had demeaned herself for, Shiraito returns and kills the man during what appears to be an act of self-defense against an attempt to rape her. Later charged with murder, she is as astonished as she is overjoyed to discover that the prosecutor is the very boy she has helped reach the position of authority and high status he now holds. She implores him to carry out his duty, dutifully for her and for him, and this he reluctantly does, and Shiraito is consequently sentenced to death, choosing instead to end her own life right there in the courtroom, while the boy puts a bullet in his head a year later on a bank of the Asano River.

Water as a symbol for purification and the passage of time (one of the last lines: The river flows on as before and as it always will), suicide as an act of ultimate love (to reunite in another—generally accepted as better—world), and the rigid, inescapable confines of social roles . . . these are all themes in this film as well as in others by Mizoguchi. I found most of The Water Magician compelling, and it got me most thinking about the inner-workings of Shiraito. No matter what misfortune was thrown at her, even her inevitable death at a young age, she didn't fail to find enough good around her to press forward, albeit in a self-sacrificial and arguably Japanese sort of way.

Interesting asides:

● Shiraito "bit out her tongue in the courthouse," the benshi tell us. Apparently, suicide by biting off one's tongue was (maybe still is) often used in Chinese literature and films depicting ancient China. This was the first time I'd heard the expression, and in Mizoguchi's film it seems this is literally how she ends herself.

The Water Magician was adapted from an Izumi Kyoka novel entitled The Righteous and the Chivalrous.

● Shiraito's lover, the boy (Kinya), was played by Okada Tokihiko, who died at the age of 31 from tuberculosis, a year after The Water Magician was made.


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