The Crucified Lovers has another translation, A Story from Chikamatsu. It comes to us from 1954, a fertile year in director Kenji Mizoguchi’s career. He also released Sansho the Bailiff that year, a movie about the Heian period. Lovers, instead, takes place during the Edo period. Both the playwright Chikamatsu and Mizoguchi depicts as communal, if not outright urban. That might have had its benefits but this story is mostly about that social structure’s pitfalls. One of that society’s victims is Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa), who we first see as a sickly scroll maker. He works for a greedy almanac publisher, Ishun (Eitaro Shindo). Ishun cheats on his wife O-San (Kyoko Kagawa) with one of the servants, Otama (Yoko Minamida).
The publisher might be the only person whose business is doing well, but the poverty around him eventually affects him. Mohei attempts to help O-San’s family by forging cheques, but Ishun pins worse crimes to him. In a way, it’s revolutionary that the play came out when it did in 1715. There’s this assumption that Edo period Japan was a time when the Tokugawa Shongunate clamped down on subversive ideas. However, it can’t always stop the revolutionary air that’s coming from both Japan and the West. The source material covers the ridiculousness of an overtly lawful society and its sexual paranoia.
Mizoguchi, living and working in a more liberal, modern Japan, has in an inherent fascination towards his country’s past. A past with complexities, where unequal societies begin with families and workplaces. When people shamed each other publicly. It’s as if he’s holding a mirror that shows the monsters we used to be. He lived in a country where, generations ago, good people received unjust punishment and that bad people win. But that’s still true today, and I wonder what kind of stories he would tell today. There’s also a fascination that’s a theme within TIFF’s retrospective of Japan’s movies – men. Mizoguchi’s male protagonists don’t have the same virility as Kurosawa’s or the sordid, offscreen pasts that Ozu’s had.
There’s these men’s gullibility, their motivations and sensitivity. He cast the perfect sensitive man in Hasegawa, who would end up using that quality in An Actor’s Revenge. But while that movie divides his two sides, they’re intact here. Audiences might have found it ridiculous that a man like Mohei would ever take up a lover. But Ishun’s accusation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We also learn that he committed the initial crime because of another that he couldn’t think of committing. But by doing so he commits other actions that proves himself as a worthy man. The old adage that with sensitivity comes strength is true here, and he needs every ounce of that.