Based on Kanji Kunieda’s 1931 novel Utamaro o meguru onnatachi, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna is delicately “split,” a fiction about an actual person: Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), the Tokugawa Era woodblock portraitist. Mizoguchi, who trained as a painter, himself identified with Utamaro’s dedication to his art. From the outset, however, Mizoguchi posits a tension between reality and illusion. An angled shot surveys, outdoors, a long, leftward-facing line of people; the line may not be advancing, but the rightward movement of the tracking camera imparts the illusion of advancement to the stalled procession. The “illusion,” we may say, penetrates a superficial reality to suggest a deeper reality. Here, in one glorious shot, is the essence of art.
This was Mizoguchi’s first film under the postwar U.S. occupation, with its maze of rules and restrictions Mizoguchi hoped to navigate while still exercising some freedom of expression. Thematically, though, Mizoguchi himself was occupied by a division that all artists, whatever their political predicament, strive to navigate: the tension between their commitments to art and life, imagination and experience.
This remarkable film, written by Yoshikata Yoda, dramatizes this tension by splitting its opposing sides into two distinct characters: Utomaro and Seinosuke, Utomaro’s young assistant who embraces the more traditionalist school of art that Utomaro openly scorns. Women—prostitutes—are the subjects of one’s art; these same women are the objects of the other’s sexual activity. The appetites of both men are insatiable.
This is perhaps the first film about an artist to conclude with a montage of the artist’s work. Here, though, the montage, more than a closing gesture or a conspicuously documentary coda, unifies the “split” nature of the film by underscoring the sexually sublimating nature of certain kinds of art.
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