LADY OYÛ (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1951)

Meiji-period Japan; a marriage has been arranged for Shizu and young carpenter Shinnosuke. Accompanied by her widowed sister who lives with her young child with in-laws who prohibit her remarriage, Shizu visits Shinnosuke, who instantly falls in love with Oyû, mistaking her for Shizu. Shinnosuke and Shizu marry, but in name only—he, to be able to see Oyû; she, to sacrifice her happiness for her elder sister, who loves Shinnosuke. Soon, there is potentially ruinous gossip. After Oyû’s child dies, the couple move away and make their marriage real, but Shizu still believes that her spouse loves her sister; Shinnosuke cannot convince her otherwise. When she dies in childbirth, which Shizu has more or less willed so that spouse and sister can reunite, Shinnosuke leaves their infant with Oyû, but without seeing her as he has vowed never to set eyes on her again. Unlike Oyû, he will remain truly wed to the deceased spouse.
     From the 1932 novel Ashikari by Junichirô Tanizaki, Kenji Mizoguchi has wrought an exquisite melodrama of suppressed feelings and both the nobility and tortured ambivalence that often lie behind these. Mizoguchi expressed dissatisfaction with the result, probably in part because Tanizaki vetoed the idea of the proposed film’s using the book’s series of long flashbacks to relate the tale. But Oyû-sama transcends this obstacle with its brilliant final shot, which finds Shinnosuke, after depositing his child at his sister-in-law’s place, standing amidst reeds and underneath a pale full moon, and then walking behind a tree and out of sight forever as the moon keeps haunting watch: an extension of Shinnosuke’s silent reflection, which converts the linear narrative, retroactively, into memory.
     Yuji Hori is wonderful as Shinnosuke, the memory of whose wife inspires him to sacrifice more than is apparent.

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