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A Story from Chikamatsu

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Criterion Collection: A Story from Chikamatsu | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: A Story from Chikamatsu | Blu-ray Review

Playing like the tortured precursor to Masahiro Shinoda’s similarly tragic tale of stymied romance with 1969’s Double Suicide is the great Kenji Mizoguchi’s late period masterwork A Story of Chikamatsu (which is also known by the much more befitting title The Crucified Lovers). So, it’s no surprise to learn they’re based on works from the same author, playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu, often credited as the “Japanese Shakespeare.” Social and political injustices trail a pair of doomed lovers brought together in a rather fateful turn of events, their simmering desires only unleashed into full bloom as they become fugitives in the crosshairs of both the Edo period’s crushingly conservative law enforcement and the selfishness of a cuckolded businessman whose extermination of his apprentice is the only way to save his social reputation.

Greed is the ultimate rot at the heart of A Story from Chikamatsu. Ishun (Eitaro Shindo) is a master scroll maker, a wealthy but frugal entrepreneur in 17th century Kyoto. His much younger wife Osan (Kyoko Kagawa) was married to him to support her financially troubled family. When she is approached to help them pay a debt, Osan is unsure how she could possibly ask her husband, fearing his wrath and ultimate refusal. Instead, she seeks consolation from her husband’s prized apprentice Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa), who secretly has a crush on Osan, and predictably promises to get her the small sum she needs. At first resorting to fraudulent means to skim the money from his master’s profits, Mohei is forced to consult Ishun or face potential blackmail from a colleague. Ishun responds with a fit of rage, and has his apprentice detained to await punishment by law enforcement. Meanwhile, Osan discovers her husband’s own adultery played a hand in this decision and so decides to abscond with Mohei to help him avoid undue punishment. Ishun dispatches his own men to find them and bring Osan back on her own. If the authorities catch the escaped eventual lovers first, he risks losing his reputation and lucrative business for not reporting the supposed adulterous relationship.

Social martyrdom had already long been a staple of Mizoguchi’s oeuvre, master of what the West would dismissively categorize the ‘woman’s picture’ with many of his most formidable titles featuring lovelorn outcasts, usually women facing insurmountable odds, from early classics like Sisters of the Gion, to later masterstrokes such as The Life of Oharu (1952), and fittingly with his final film, the gracefully empathetic Street of Shame (1956). His A Story from Chikamatsu, which competed at the Cannes Film Festival (his only title to do so) arrived the same year he won his second Silver Lion for the more popular Sansho the Bailiff (between these two in the same year he also unveiled the now obscured The Woman of Rumour, a tale of a geisha house owner and her emotionally troubled daughter, ashamed of her mother’s profession).

Performances are routinely fine, with obvious standouts being Kyoko Kagawa and Kazuo Hasegawa. The film was one of seven projects Kagawa was part of in 1954, including Mizoguchi’s Sansho (the year prior, she had starred in Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story). But the pleasures of A Story from Chikamatsu are derived mostly from the film’s look, lensed by the superb Kazuo Miyagawa, who was responsible for countless Japanese classics, including Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) and several Kurosawa titles, such as Rashomon (1950) and Yojimbo (1961).

Disc Review:

Criterion presents A Story from Chikamatsu as a new 4K digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack in its original aspect ratio 1.37:1 (which was supervised by cinematographer Masahiro Miyajima and Martin Scorsese). Audio and visual components are superb in this new transfer, which includes several extra features.

Kyoko Kagawa:
Actor Kyoko Kagawa relays her experiences playing Osan in this ten-minute interview recorded by criterion in Tokyo in 2018, confirming Mizoguchi originally cast her as the maid.

Mizoguchi – The Auteur Behind the “Metteur En Scene”:
Film scholar Dudley Andrew examines how Mizoguchi incorporates elements of Bunraku theater in A Story from Chikamatsu in this forty-one-minute video essay recorded in 2018 for Criterion.

Final Thoughts:

Another of Mizoguchi’s potently empathetic melodramas of humans caught in the thick of severe social injustice, A Story from Chikamatsu is a gorgeously shot period piece on the consequences of oppression.

Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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