The only previous Mizoguchi film I’ve seen is ‘Tale of the Late Chrysanthemums’, made more than a decade before, but both films demonstrate an interest in the themes that recurred throughout his career; notably the position of women in Japanese society and their subjugation and struggle. Set just outside Tokyo during the last days of World War Two (we can sense the bombing of the cities frequently), the film begins with a married couple (Michiko and Akiyama) returning to her parental home. Michiko is from an aristocratic family, whilst her husband is from peasant stock, which was naturally difficult from her family to accept. However, with Michiko as the now widowed father’s only child, it is imperative that they remain together and raise a family in order to keep the family going. Her father frequently reinforces this, and the responsibilities of this instruction cause Michiko great upset in the future.
When Michiko’s father dies soon after the war, she inherits the family home and wealth, though it is this that encourages her cousin, Tsutomu, to return to the family home. He is set up as a complete opposite to Akiyama; he is sensitive and sympathetic, in comparison with Akiyama’s indifference. Akiyama seeks out affairs with other women, notably a friend of Michiko’s named Tomiko. His excuses are that she treats him like an outsider because he isn’t her social equal and is distant towards him, paying him no attention.
Akiyama’s distance brings Michiko and Tsutomu together, and a mutual love starts to develop. Whilst Tsutomu is open about declaring his feelings, Michiko is forced to restrain herself and not act upon hers. She is aware that by doing so, she would disgrace the family name, and is willing to sacrifice her own happiness in order to keep her family’s integrity. Forced to book a room in a hotel together during a torrential rain storm, Michiko fights Tsutomu off when he tries to make a move on her. Even though she knows Akiyama is behaving improperly, she tells Tsutomu that they must. Despite the fact that their relationship is completely chaste, this doesn’t stop Tomiko gossiping to Akiyama about what might be going on between his wife and her cousin, though this occurs after she is rejected by Tsutomu. Akiyana is typically self-righteous on this issue, requesting a divorce and setting Michiko up as the guilty party.
Tomiko and Akiyama run off together with the property deed to Michiko’s house. When told by a lawyer that the only way he can be thwarted is if Michiko changes her will, which she indeed does, placing Tsutomu as sole inheritor of her fortune when she commits suicide. She blames herself still, for provoking Akiyama into having an affair. As she dies, the remaining protagonists blame each other for what has happened, though Tomiko makes the pertinent point that “You men brought her to this”, an indictment of society as much as this group of individuals.
Though not considered as one of the supreme Mizoguchi films like ‘The Life of Oharu’ and ‘Sansho The Bailiff’, ‘The Lady from Musashino’ is still a superb melodrama that accurately portrays a Japan that is still in transition between old and modern values and which still reinforces paternalistic values at the expense of undermining the position of women in society. Michiko is a virtuous heroine, sacrificing herself for her family name and marriage to a feckless adulterer, and let down by everyone.