THE LOVE OF SUMAKO THE ACTRESS (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1947)

Starring as early twentieth-century stage actress Sumako Matsui, Kinuyo Tanaka (best actress, Mainichi Film Concours) provides a sumptuous tour-de-force as a feisty, independent woman whose vulnerability is her love for her partner, Hôgetsu Shimamura, the director of the itinerant Art Theater to which she belongs. When Shimamura dies of pneumonia, Sumako falls apart and her acting, one might say, so much falls together that she is told of her current performance, “It wasn’t an interpretation but an extension of reality.” During an engagement of Carmen, she commits suicide. In the closing shot, which is piercing and phenomenal, and which had my whole body shaking, Sumako is shown laid out in her coffin as hands of admirers surround her heavily made-up face with flowers: an ironical indication that her fetishizing fans—posterity—will perpetually obstruct the reunion with her lover that she had hoped for. Devastating.
     Kenji Mizoguchi’s Joyû Sumako no koi claims as one of its principal themes Japan’s bondage to tradition. Shimamura’s Art Theater, beginning with A Doll’s House, tries to motivate Japanese audiences to leave kabuki and enter modernity, but the Japanese, unwilling to embrace his aspirations, help render the theater homeless. Ironically, it is Shimamura who “becomes” Ibsen’s Nora; he leaves his wife, and the respectability attached to marriage, to be with Sumako.
     Dark and dense, with spare light (often from ceiling fixtures), the film somewhat resembles visually Mizoguchi’s earlier, great Tale of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939); but with the later film, sparse light suggests a forlorn world in which the future is trying, without much luck, to make headway. There are also, here, extraordinary examples of deep focus, revealing complex, detailed interiors that are correlative to the familial and social forces contesting the future’s right to exist.

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