This month’s edition of What We’re Watching brings us a look at two Kenji Mizoguchi films as well as a number of striking, memorable films that we hope you’ll watch and remember in the years to come just as much as we will. Without further ado:
Women of the Night (1948)
Picture a neorealist Roberto Rossellini film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi (or perhaps the other way around) — well, it exists in the form of Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night! That is, to imagine a film that captures the raw, grimy, and uncompromising documentary style of Italian neorealism merged with the exceptional force and purity of Mizoguchi’s mise-en-scène is to envision the Japanese director’s angriest, despairing, and, frankly, blunt film. It is hardly a little-known fact that the years following the end of World War II were a notably special time for cinema, with the amount of mass destruction sustained globally leaving much of the world in a state of instability; stories were yearning to be told from voices unheard. After the most influential movement to emerge from this period, Italian neorealism, by-way-of Rossellini’s esteemed War Trilogy, blossomed on the worldstage, its influence rippled and spread internationally. Mizoguchi was but one of many filmmakers to be impressed and inspired by these films so much so that he directed his own film in the spirit of neorealism — using the style to shed light on an area of post-war Japanese society that is sparsely discussed, a more niche societal component that may be overlooked by other biographers of life in post-war Japan — directly taking cues from Rossellini’s work.
And so, Women of the Night is entirely shot on location in Osaka (a location familiar to Mizoguchi, previously explored in Osaka Elegy nearly two decades prior, though primarily through the lens of constructed sets) and tells the story of three women: Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka), a war widow struggling to financially support her son and herself as rations and resources dwindle by the day; Fusako’s sister Natsuko (Saene Takasugi), a dance-hall girl who has all but assimilated to the wave of American culture that has permeated post-war Japan by American occupiers, she wears distinctly western clothing and dances to American music; and lastly, Fusako’s friend and sister-in-law (sibling to her deceased husband) Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who is aching to escape her overprotective mother and experience the nightlife and glamor of the excitements typically entailed by adulthood.
The way that the story plays out is that, due to the effects of the war — whether internally or externally, through direct or indirect consequence (i.e. the death of Fusako’s husband or obstacles brought about by a domino effect — these three women suffer tragic fates that turn each to a life of prostitution. By the end of the film, the three characters are each at a physical and psychological state that could not be further removed from what is seen at the beginning and the effect achieved is devastating. With this film, Mizoguchi, one of cinema’s most emphatic feminists, places the limelight on the women of Japan , the ones that need it most in post-war Japan — whether the working-class widow or the naive youth — the ones that are or will be forced to fend for themselves in the cruel and unforgiving reality of a nation reduced to rubble in more ways than one. – Timan Zheng
Taira Clan Saga (1955)
Possibly the most unique artistic statement of Kenji Mizoguchi’s vast filmography comes in the form of Taira Clan Saga, his penultimate film and the second of his only two directed colour films (postdating the markedly better-known Princess Yang Kwei Fei by several months). Set in the Heian period of Japanese history, an era that is — in hindsight — often recognized as its “golden age”, Taira Clan Saga depicts a tumultuous time in which Japan was imbued with division and strife. To condense the historical context of this epoch, it was in this time that the Japanese emperor, while present, lost any true sense of authority, an absence of power that would be supplanted by and circulated across various factions, all of which would prolong until the modern era. In Taira’s instance, it captures the specific historical event of the struggle between the Taira and Fujiwara clan for control of Japan nearing the end of the Heian era (both groups constituting two of the four great clans that dictated Japanese politics for the period). As the film’s prologue delineates, Japan is in a state of chaos as a corruption-induced unstable economy leads to famine and riots across the nation — the once dependable governing Fujiwara clan, unable to remedy the situation, is challenged by the reinstated original “monk” emperor (the people’s choice) and a war breaks out between the Fujiwara-conscripted Taira samurai and the monk army — in which the samurai ultimately become their own independent faction.
It is here that Mizoguchi tells the story of Kiyomori (Raizo Ichikawa), the son of a samurai and soon-to-be chief of the Taira clan, who has an identity crisis after learning that he may be the illegitimate son of the current emperor or even the mere bastard of some commonplace monk. And it is in Kiyomori’s conundrum that the central conflict of the film lies; each potential relation represents a diverging route, a distinct path with widespread implications if Kiyomori, as the future head of the powerful Taira clan, decides to embrace it. To be and recognize oneself as the emperor’s son is to symbolically uphold and secure the status quo; to accept that one descends from an everyday monk is to bolster the revolutionary actions as well as religious and politically-motivated anarchy of the oppressed everyday monks; or to remain the son of a samurai — regardless of the truth — to maintain and sustain the identity and core values that one knows.
Kiyomori’s choice will dictate the direction of this mass conflict closing out the Heian period and in this, change the course of Japanese history — and part of why the Heian period is given the “golden age” moniker is because it was from resolving the chaotic divisions of this time that the fundamental tenets of modern Japanese culture and governance was derived. What makes this so interesting for a Mizoguchi film is that it is the rare work of his that veers away from an emphasis on its individual characters in a societal context and instead focuses on the broader group aspect of it all (it is even uncharacteristic for Mizoguchi in parts, namely the one-dimensionality of the main female character). The conflict of Taira Clan Saga parallels the exact era that it was released — the post-war years of Japan rife with division — and so the film serves as an optimistic indicator of the future on Mizoguchi’s behalf that despite contemporary hardships in a disorderly time, the best is yet to come. – Timan Zheng
Aimless Bullet (1960)
I had the pleasure of catching a restoration screening of Yu Hyun-mok‘s Aimless Bullet (or Obaltan) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this month, a film that is often cited to be the greatest South Korean film and one of the most influential as well as important films in the history of Korean cinema, and yet it was only recently restored through a laborious process by the Korean Film Archive. Aimless Bullet is a post-war film, though not in reference to World War II but the Korean War; the mid-to-late ‘50s were the time of epilogue for the Korean people left in the wake of the destruction sustained in a drawn-out conflict that extended the pain and displacement felt throughout World War II. While, for much of the affected world, the latter half of the ‘40s was the time of post-war reconstruction and “return to normalcy”, the situation was different for Korea: the end of World War II — which constituted the end of Japanese imperialism and occupation in Korea — simply lead to another conflict, the Korean conflict spurred by ideological division between Northern and Southern Korea, which itself led to the Korean War from 1950-1953. By the war’s end, many families were separated by the opposing sides of the country with no means of communication or visitation, as a border was drawn between the North and South. The material and psychological toll on civilians was immense as industrial infrastructure was destroyed and nearly ten percent of Korea’s pre-war population were killed in the conflict — and for the South, occupying American troops now roamed the streets. Yu’s Aimless Bullet is essentially an in-progress documentation of the aftermath of this conflict — much in the vein of Italian neorealism, effectively serving as Korea’s Germany Year Zero — and how it has impacted the lives of the nation’s citizens as well as the rippling effects to Korean society in general.
The film chronicles the struggles of two brothers, Chul-ho, an accountant suffering from an aching toothache that he is too poor to afford treatment for, all whilst providing for his family, and Yong-ho, an esteemed but disillusioned war veteran who is unable to reintegrate within society — his destitute attitude leading to an inevitable destructive and ill-fated crime spiral — and many other distinct individual portraits of post-war Korea who, in one way or the other, relate to the brothers. The story utilizes an intertwining dual-perspective structure via the brothers and, through this, Yu manages to cover a ton of material, shedding light on a variety of post-war Korean life whether through the accounts of an insecure soldier who resigns to all social obligations after having been physically disabled by the war, the laborious youth that becomes the sole provider for their family, those traumatized and left in a state of psychosis, to the women who resort to a life of prostitution often for the amusement of American troops, or the fact that the brothers are both displaced North Koreans, just to name a few.
The film was actually banned upon release due to the uncompromising reality that Yu displayed, and given the amount of insight that it provides into post-war South Korea, delving into the psychology and conditions of the nation’s most basic units — a time that is perhaps the most crucial for understanding Korea and its people — it is not difficult to see why many consider Aimless Bullet to be the single most important Korean film ever made. As it turns out, Aimless Bullet is a relatively unknown film, even your average Bergman or Tarkovsky-enthuthiast is unlikely to have heard of it despite the recent influx and popularity of South Korean film worldwide — hopefully, the film’s recent restoration will change this. – Timan Zheng
The Killing of America (1981)
The Killing of America is a 1981 exploitation documentary about the violence epidemic in the United States. Beginning with the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and concluding with the 1980 murder of John Lennon, the film paints a two-decade history of America through its increasing levels of internal violence in a 90-minute narrated montage of archival snuff footage. Covering everything from political assassinations to police violence to cult suicide to spree killings to serial murders, the film paints the problem of violence in America with an escalating feeling of doom and apocalyptic implication. Its politics are at first ostensibly well-meaning in their attempts to understand the scope of the problem, but as the film goes on one can’t escape the sense of the filmmakers’ anger imploding under the sheer weight of all the pain and misery they are depicting.
At a certain point the film’s righteous anger towards the violence in America seems to falter and resign into manic, perverse fascination with the macabre, before ending on a note of pure, cruel cynicism. Its final scene shows footage from the vigil memorial for John Lennon, in which his iconic song ‘Imagine’ is played over images of the weeping masses, before cutting to a low-angle shot of an American flag waving hopefully in the wind. The narrator concludes the film by claiming two people were shot at this vigil, and that five more people have been murdered while the audience has watched the movie. I first discovered The Killing of America back in late 2020 and it’s stayed on my mind ever since. I find it ruthlessly mean, hopeless, and punitively unproductive, and yet totally upsetting and inescapable. It may not care to understand the causes or solutions to the problem of violence in America itself, but as far as presentations go where the goal is to shock and overwhelm the audience, it is frankly unparalleled. It is a horrific, ugly, deeply fascinating piece of art. – Ben McDonald