Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

In this series of posts, I’ll be describing my impressions and making personal observations, at first historical and then increasingly critical, as I view every extant film by Kenji Mizoguchi. I will be learning and writing as I watch, and may periodically come back to extend or update my earlier posts.

In its broadly available form, The Downfall of Osen has two soundtracks, one created in 1935 with a sound-on-film benshi narration, another one created in a modern age. The original 1935 soundtrack is the more accurate of the two to the original film, but seeing both recontextualized the benshi in late silent Japanese cinema for me, and as is so often the case seeing multiple versions of a film contributes to a fuller appreciation of it.

The Downfall of Osen was not Mizoguchi's first film made with a soundtrack; he made that around five years earlier. However, it was produced very far into Japan's protracted transition from silent cinema to sound cinema. An essay by Chika Kinoshita ("The Benshi Track: Mizoguchi Kenji's The Downfall of Osen and the Sound Transition") reveals much about the film including, most intriguingly, that it was originally intended as a sound film, but was switched to a silent very shortly before production began, with post-recorded music and benshi narration supplementing intertitles as a means of compromise between a sound system and the limited equipment available to many rural Japanese theatres. That was a rarity at the time, it seems, but the inclusion of a recorded benshi track was not, and led to negative reviews against the film which asserted that it was a detrimental and old-fashioned component. Kinoshita argues that Mizoguchi incorporated the benshi into the space of the film by having the narration draw attention towards important parts of the frame which the film does not visually focalize; he implies that Mizoguchi planned the film around a benshi. I find this a bit far-fetched, and believe that more evidence exists to suggest that Mizoguchi shot The Downfall of Osen in precisely the manner he meant to, and that the benshi served as an after-the-fact compensation for moments when on-set sound could not serve its intended and required purpose. A few scenes suggest that the film was carefully designed for synchronized sound; I’ll give an example in a moment.

The Downfall of Osen is another Mizoguchi film set in the Meiji period and dealing with the self-sacrifice of a woman who destroys her life in order to give an unworthy man she loves a chance for success. The narrative is somewhat fragmented and given to leaps of logic and occasional contrivances, but it is still the most effective Mizoguchi narrative I have seen thus far. It opens with a scene that cuts between a train station where a distinguished, academically-dressed man looks to a nearby temple on a mountain on a rainy night, and a young, poor man on that mountain as he prepares for suicide by knife. The film suggestively cuts between that older man's intent gaze and the young man, suggesting that the former is watching the latter. We gradually realize that, in a twist of form that anticipates the bravura opening of Speed Racer more than 70 years later, we are in fact viewing a flashback that uses the character's mental interaction with their physical space to project their experience with that location across a broad temporal spectrum.

An incredible opening, one made all the more stirring by the sumptuous visuals, which show Mizoguchi's photographic mastery reaching full stride for the first time in his extant work.

A later scene further bears out the importance of sound in this film's planning, as Kinoshita observes. When one dramatic scene ends and both characters leave the frame via the foreground, the camera moves forward on the empty street. In silent presentation (and, indeed, in the new Benshi recording), this shot is attractive but totally oblique, seeming to emphasize little but its own emptiness.

However, the original sound-on-film recording plays the sound of a bell, indicating the tower in the background. That tower belonged to the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, famous for its bells, and this soundmark both redefines the focal point of the shot and deepens the textual weight of the scene. 

The benshi narration (which is fairly unaffected but unobtrusive) and the removal of synchronous sound were far from the most damaging effect of the film's 11th-hour switch to a silent. That would be the intertitles, which frequently interrupt what are otherwise gorgeously mounted long takes and camera movements. Mizoguchi was clearly fully prepared to play with the mise en scene of extended shot lengths, and the dramatic effect of these shots is readable and probably would have been fantastically effective in their intended (read: sound dialogue) context. But the intertitles slice through them mercilessly, reducing their impact, their spatial declamations, to a technical and theoretical object.

Because of this shortcoming, The Downfal of Osen doesn't provide nearly as complete an evidence of its maker's skills as it ought to have; we must instead take the aforementioned flashback sequences, frequently breathtaking lighting and frame composition, and a late-film superimposition of hallucinations in a hospital room as examples that confirm his technical and formal prowess was in search of the the robust narrative shape he required for a masterpiece. Obviously, I am still in the early stages of this filmography crawl, but I suspect that for the non-completionist looking for a chronological run through Mizoguchi, this is a good point to start. I cannot emphasize enough that the original soundtrack provides the superior viewing experience.


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