Dark, visually bold, sometimes borderline delirious, more often, I am afraid, plodding, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Waga koi wa moenu draws upon turbulent late nineteenth-century Japanese history and a novel by Kôgo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu’s writing partner. The story begins in Okayama in 1884 during the Meiji period, which is meticulously detailed. Kinuyo Tanaka plays Eiko, whose friend Chiyo, the daughter of family servants, is sold into slavery by Chiyo’s father to pay off debts, ratcheting up tension between Eiko and her own father when she protests this outcome. Eiko is devoted to the cause of women’s rights, which are failing to advance even in the midst of an otherwise liberalizing trend in Japan. In Tokyo, Eiko becomes involved in a new progressive party, whose leader, Kentaro Omoi, she marries; alas, his commitment to female equality under the law is no match for his patriarchal tradition and political ambition. A government crackdown leads to Eiko’s imprisonment, along with Chiyo, who has instigated a factory fire. Initially oblivious to Eiko’s feminist cause, Chiyo resists Eiko’s concerns for her welfare. The film’s mix of melodrama and politics is encapsulated in the tangle of relationships amongst the three principals; Chiyo becomes Kentaro’s concubine.
In prison, the women are subjected to brutal treatment. Eiko’s integrity (frustratingly) disallows her freedom through the agency of her spouse’s growing political influence, but both Eiko and Chiyo are pardoned when the 1889 constitution is proclaimed. Kentaro is elected to the new national legislature, and on her way back home by train, during which she reunites with Chiyo, who by now has adopted “the cause,” Eiko overhears praise for Kentaro’s progressivism. The moment pales by comparison with John Ford’s far more powerful final train ride in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
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