A rare extant silent film by Japan’s great Kenji Mizoguchi, Taki no shiraito, a.k.a. The Water Magician and White Threads of Waterfall, opens on an image inside the performance tent of a traveling carnival troupe: on top of a table, two small monkeys—symbolically, humanity—each of which is tied on a short leash that’s in the grip of a different human hand and both of which, additionally, are tethered to one another. It is an image of perpetual bondage, but also one implying the self-realization of one monkey through the other and sublime self-sacrifice. The shot is deceptively quick; it governs the entire work.
The protagonist is a young woman: Tomo Mizoshima, who under the stage name of Taki no Shiraito is a celebrated water juggler, the star of the show. She is, we discover, a prisoner of her fame, ironically, rootless, and we cannot help but wonder how indeed she arrived at her “new identity,” her theatrical existence. Her identification with water, coupled with the confidence and agility of her performance, makes her seem, at one level. a force of Nature. Not until she meets and falls in love with rickshaw driver Kinya Murakoshi, however, does she seem fully human, with a life apart from the rehearsed stage. “Kinya-San,” a struggling orphan, is much the same age as she, in his mid-twenties. (It is with him that we first learn of Tomo’s real name.) The young lovers claim their own romantic “place” in the world: a bridge—tellingly, a structure above water—where they routinely meet and share breathless moments set to the beating of their combinate heart. At the last, tragically, only one of them will appear on the bridge. In effect, the absent Tomo will have eternally “become” the rushing water underneath.
Hers is a crippling odyssey that has brought her from celebrity to joblessness, prostitution, the theft of the necessary money she has made in this endeavor, and her stabbing death of a predatory man, with a knife from the act of the carnival knife-thrower, which leads to her being tried, convicted and herself sentenced to death. The young prosecutor from Tokyo is Kinya-San, the boy whose legal studies she had bankrolled, sacrificing herself.
Mizoguchi stresses the warped centrality of money—the desperate need for money—in a sick society.
Adapted from a novel by Kyoka Izumi, the story is likely to remind Westerners of Madame X, but involving a pair of separated former lovers rather than a long-separated, unsuspecting mother and son. It’s trash; but yet again Mizoguchi has transformed melodrama, with its pile-on of suffering, into brilliant and overwhelming art. One of his means for doing so is the film’s sensitive structure. Most of the film is disjointed, correlative to the breakdown of Tomo’s circumstance and spirit. Eventually, Tomo dreams of seeing her beloved but once more; when this occurs, before and during her capital trial, the film passes, almost imperceptibly, into fluid continuity—an especially rich outcome for its discharge of irony, given the fate toward which Tomo is headed.
Tokihiko Okada is excellent as the grave Kinya, who blesses Tomo by telling her he owes her everything (and he certainly does), and exquisite Takako Irie is magnificent as Tomo. Irie’s performance is increasingly impressive, increasingly moving. It is attuned to a woman’s soul.
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