by Allan Fish
(Japan 1953 130m) not on DVD
Aka. Nigorie; An Inlet of Muddy Water
Three tales of sacrifice
d Tadashi Imai w Yoko Mizuki, Toshiro Ide stories Ichiyo Higuchi ph Shunichiro Nakao m Ikuma Dan art Totetsu Hirakawa
Ken Mitsuda (Kanae Saito), Yat’suko Tanami (Seki Harada), Akiko Tamura (Moyo Saito), Hiro Kumon (Inosuke Saito), Hiroshi Akutagawa (Rokunosuke Takasaka), Yoshiko Kuga (Omine), Nobuo Nakamura (Yasube), Michiko Araki (Shin), Hisao Toake (Tobei), Haruko Sugimura (Ohatsu), So Yamamura (Asanosuke), Seiji Miyaguchi (Gen Shichi), Meiko Hojo (Otaka), Chikage Awashima (Oriki),
Tadashi Imai’s Muddy Water was on a hiding to nothing. In 1953 it was rated the best Japanese film of the year by Kinema Junpo, which could normally be taken with a pinch of salt, until you take a look at those in the top 10 below it. Three of them didn’t quite make the cut here, but were all close (Shindo’s Shukuzu, Naruse’s Older Brother Younger Sister and Imai’s own Tower of the Lilies). The others? Toyoda’s The Mistress, Mizoguchi’s Gion Bayashi, Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy, Gosho’s Where Chimneys are Seen and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari. Oh, and at number two, the little matter of Tokyo Story.
That it doesn’t quite live up to some of those is expected, but Muddy Water is an exceptional film in its own right, now perhaps out of favour for being a portmanteau film when in 1953 such films were in vogue. It comprises three stories by Ichiyo Higuchi, all dealing with the somewhat miserable fates of young women in a world dominated by men. The first, The Thirteenth Night, follows Seki, married for seven years with a small son, who returns home to her parents one night refusing to go back to a husband who treats her appallingly and has had numerous affairs. Her mother is in favour of her staying, but her father talks her into returning for her son’s sake. Reluctantly, she agrees, and her student brother Inosuke hails her a rickshaw cab. Disconsolate, she begins the long journey home, but the rickshaw puller is in no hurry. Asking him to speed up, he suddenly stops and orders her out of the cab. But then she recognises his voice. He is Rokunosuke, a childhood friend whose family business has fallen away and who has lost his family and been reduced to pulling a rickshaw in between bouts of drunkenness. He agrees to take her to where she can get another cab and they discuss the past on the way.
The second story, On the Last Day of the Year, is perhaps the least affecting, following Omine, who works in the establishment of a rather mean woman who is only interested in gaining her husband’s inheritance for her three daughters and disinheriting the admittedly wasteful and arrogant stepson. Returning to visit her aunt and uncle, Omine is told of their debt and promises she’ll get it from her boss. But after initially agreeing, the mistress refuses and Omine steals the money from their safe box. When the mistress opens the box, however, Omine is reprieved when it transpires the stepson has left a note saying he’s taken the entire contents.
Finally, in Troubled Waters, we follow two women. One, Oriki, is the most popular girl at a liquor parlour cum brothel, and fears for her future when she grows too old. She meets a client, Asanosuke, and what begins as a platonic relationship develops into love on her part. Across the alley lives Gen, the man she previously loved, and the other half of the story centres on Gen’s poor cheated wife Ohatsu.
While portmanteau stories have always worked better with an overarching plot device or a connection between the stories, the cumulative effect, while not quite adding up to a masterpiece, is still deeply affecting. Each of the women is effectively trapped by fate or by family ties and cannot escape. Entirely studio shot, and mostly set at night, the photography is subtly shaded, rich in shadows, while Imai and Dan’s use of deep focus to distance the characters subliminally, in a manner evoking Mizoguchi’s thirties masterpieces, is exceptional. Great performances, too, from Sugimura, Awashima, Kuga (in traditional dress for once) and Yamamura.