May 25, 2008

The Lady of Musashino

The history of the twentieth century is the history of the impact of the two World Wars. Wherever you are in the world, your family was directly impacted by those wars and their massive consequences- revolution, depression, decolonisation, post war prosperity, casualties and social change. Social change followed on from war inexorably. In the UK for example, the real decade of sexual liberation was the forties not the sixties, the fifties were an attempt to repress the anarchy of the war years. If in the allied countries life was smashed and changed forever by the experience of war, then in the defeated nations, in Japan and Germany and Italy, that was even more true. Luckily for us as historians, we have copious amounts of evidence with which to understand that process. Amongst that evidence is the reaction of film makers: the Italian neo-realist tradition for example stemmed from the condition of Italian society after the war and sought to analyse and explain what had happened. If that was true of European filmmakers then it was also true of Japanese filmmakers, who sought to explain their defeat and the reconstruction of the post war era with all the tools they could lay their hands on.

Of all the explanations of the social change happening in Japan from 1945 onwards, the Lady from Musashino, a film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, has a unique vantage point. Mizoguchi was an accomplished director by the point he made this film and you can see it in the way that he forms his frames and directs his actors. You can also observe it in the economy with which he conveys the story- he uses only 88 minutes to tell a story whose characters are complete and which spans several years. He uses voice over occasionally but more often relies upon subtle visual techniques to supplement an excellent, if minamalist, script. The story is easily told: it is a story of an unhappy marriage, between Michiko and her husband Akiyama. Michiko falls in love with her cousin returning from the war, Tsutsomo and Akiyama is secretly in love with Michiko's other cousin Ono's wife Tomiko. The love pentagon is at the beggining of the film presided over by Michiko's father and mother, but they die as Japan falls to the allies and thus the stage is set for the tragedy to come.

I do not wish to get any further into the story, but rather to explore some thematic points. Because this is a film that makes you think. Michiko's father begins the film by berrating the Meijj Restoration, and restating his own martial samurai ethic. Akiyama does not come from that background and is a university Professor from a peasant family. He is totally contaminated by Western influence- in particular by Stendhal. Michiko and him live very different kinds of lives. Michiko's love affair with Tsutsomo reminds me of nothing more than the relationship in Brief Encounter, its got the same muted restraint. Michiko though explores the reasons for staying respectable in a different way than either character manages to in Brief Encounter: she argues that there is a moral code and that we have to stick by it whether it is evil or good. Our moral code is what we will, it is created out of our volition (God is scarcely mentioned in this) but once uttered it must be performed. In that sense Michiko sees the real value in life being in oaths- she takes two oaths during the film, one to her father on his death and the second to her lover and she believes in her own terms that she has kept those oaths and consequently throughout the movie is convinced of her own rectitude.

The world of the movie is more complicated than this: for whereas Michiko represents absolute conservatism, there is a sense in which she also acknowledges the need for change. She tells Tsutsomo that believing in the persistance of the Samurai ideal (symbolised by the estate of Musashino) is believing in an illusion- the future is the industrial and Americanised city of Tokyo. She has sworn her oath of fidelity to the old tradition: but she has no problem in seeing that that tradition must change. (Interestingly it is technical and economic change that forces moral change here, not the redundancy of the ethic that had led to the Nanking massacre and other like horrors.) The artificial moral code she lives by is a constricting one which restricts her own happiness and propels her to damage others. But she holds to her oaths, because they give her life a moral framework which the lives of Akiyama and Tomiko lack. Deprived of any moral framework those two are blown hither and thither by their lusts: Michiko says at one point that morality not love is the only power, and by that she means that morality can give a life structure and meaning, whereas love can only give it excitement and content. In that sense, Tsutsomo is perhaps the most interesting character- because within him we can perceive the conflict between the two principles. Tsutsomo lives a life of abandon in Tokyo but swiftly realises that it does not satisfy him, he then comes to the countryside and finds that a woman whom he can at last love, but she denies him because of her morality which is in part what he loves, because she is embedded in marriage with a husband who hates and abuses her.

The obvious conclusion is the promotion of a new standard of morality and a new kind of Japan: the age of the samurai is over and the age of the automobile has begun. Samurai morality propelled Japan into a bloody war, there is no question that flowing through this is the resentment of the soldiers that went against those that stayed behind to sleep with girls and party all day. The resentment though is something that is a double edged sword because of course traditional Japan went to war in the first place. Michiko advises Tsutsomo that ultimately the traditional way of doing things must die and industrial Japan replace it: but her example informs him of the fact that with that new industrial Japan the norms, the principles of morality must be adopted. Morality is a matter of volition and though the content of the oaths must change, the fact of the oath must not change. Morality will still exist because without it life becomes meaningless- it becomes the life that Tomiko lives- but morality has to change with the new times. Tsutsomo walks out of the film without giving us a clue as to whether Michiko's dream of a new modern yet still moral Japan has become a success: like the impact of the French Revolution, it may be too early to discuss that question, all we can do is wait and see.


lady macleod said...

fascinating! I love the different intricacies that we can perceive from a story on film or paper. I really enjoyed this, thank you.

Gracchi said...

Thanks milady!