Criterion Review: A STORY FROM CHIKAMATSU (1954)

Kenji Mizoguchi tells of THE CRUCIFIED LOVERS

One of the more notable facets of film is how it can give insights into another time or place. Kenji Mizoguchi’s A Story from Chikamatsu does both, while also showing deft insights into class and social structure in 17th century Japan. With the English title The Crucified Lovers, the film is itself an adaptation of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1715 play Daikyōji Mukashi Goyomi. Reinforcing that work’s intent, Mizoguchi crafts an intimate tale while castigating an era beholden to certain ideals and the injustices met upon two ill-fated lovers.


One of a string of late-career masterworks made by Kenji Mizoguchi in the first half of the 1950s, A Story from Chikamatsu (a.k.a. The Crucified Lovers) is an exquisitely moving tale of forbidden love struggling to survive in the face of persecution. Based on a classic of eighteenth-century Japanese drama, the film traces the injustices that befall a Kyoto scroll maker’s wife and his apprentice after each is unfairly accused of wrongdoing. Bound by fate in an illicit, star-crossed romance, they go on the run in search of refuge from the punishment prescribed them: death. Shot in gorgeous, painterly style by master cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, this delicately delivered indictment of societal oppression was heralded by Akira Kurosawa as a “great masterpiece that could only have been made by Mizoguchi.”

The two titles speak of the two sides of the film. A Story from Chikamatsu speaks more to the situational component, the relationships within this community, and the myriad tales that are dipped into. The second title, The Crucified Lovers, alludes to the more serious nature of the tale, societal expectations and laws, and the consequences that can befall those who break them or push the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable within their culture. The looming specter of crucifixion, glimpsed at the film’s open as punishment met to adulterers, lingers throughout. The trope of ill-fated lovers has played out time and again over the years, but where Chikamatsu sets itself apart is in its depiction of not so much a romance, but instead something tinged with more sadness. Neither Osan (Kyōko Kagawa) nor Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa) are content in their lives, one married away by her family for money, the other working to aid the greedy profits of his employee, Osan’s husband Ishun (Eitaro Shindo). Glances and exchanges prompt gossip, driving the pair away in self-preservation, a journey that ironically results in the pair initiating the romance they sought to distance themselves from.

The whole affair provides a glimpse of this time, beset by repressive and authoritarian forces: moral expectations, laws, and even a code of honor, holding everyone to account, only it is imbalanced. Social status, wealth, sex, all have bearing on how flexible these constructs are. Osan is held to account for actions far less egregious than that of her own husband, for instance. It’s not just individual acts but also whether transgressions affect someone above you in status, or affect your family reputation. At its core, the film is about these societal imbalances, and in the case of Osan and Mohei, how this oppression results in the taking of a kindness and twisting it into something more. It’s an injustice, and one that sadly is seemingly not that uncommon in this time and place.

Mizoguchi takes a lived in world, full of character and texture, and imbues it with a beautiful grace. There are sweeping camera movements through space and plot strands with a precision that allows for intimacy, and also an expansive look at this town. All this is aided by ethereal cinematography from Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Floating Weeds, Tokyo Olympiad). But what’s really enthralling are the myriad characters, subplots, and dynamics within this community, something Mizoguchi never loses sight of.

The Package

Criterion offers a new 4K digital restoration of the film, one that that lives up to their usual high standards. The image is free of any damage, detail is very impressive, as are the blacks and contrast, key for a presentation of a black and white film. Special features aren’t as abundant as some Criterion releases, but considering the film is over 60 years old, it’s much harder to compile new material.

  • New interview with actor Kyoko Kagawa: A legend of Japanese cinema, having worked with Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Ran), Yasujiro Ozu (Good Morning), in addition to Kenji Mizoguchi. Now in her late 80s, she still exudes a grace and intelligence, and it’s a genuine pleasure to hear her share her thoughts on her work, and Japanese cinema in general.
  • Mizoguchi: The Auteur Behind the “Metteur-en-scène,” a new illustrated audio essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew: Confession time. A Story from Chikamatsu is my first viewing of a Mizoguchi film. There is a potency to its tale and elegance to the direction that speaks to a deft hand. This featurette is a great addition.
  • New English subtitle translation
  • Liner booklet: Contains an essay by film scholar Haden Guest, as well as detail on the films restoration.

The Bottom Line

A Story from Chikamatsu takes the simplicity of a period melodrama and elevates it with its ruminations on class and societal structure in 17th century Japan. It’s a rich and affecting work from Mizoguchi, given a splendid treatment by Criterion.

A Story from Chikamatsu is available via Criterion from November 13th, 2018.

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