Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Intimations of the Known: On Kenji Mizoguchi's PORTRAIT OF MADAME YUKI

(The following was originally published in the special February 22, 2008 movie-issue of The New-York Ghost edited by B. Kite. Other contributors besides Kite included Luc Sante, Bill Krohn, David Cairns, Toni Schlesinger, Victoria Nelson, Christoph Huber, Jason McBride, and Ed Park.)

There’s a hardened notion that we love cinema because it shows us that which we have not experienced directly or because it hurls us inside, makes us part of, the experience on-screen.

Were we to buy into the notion, our movie-watching would seem hardly more substantial than Emma Bovary’s reading habits (funny though, the day the camera films the piano at the lake is the day we’ve really got something). So as the years pass and the contra-distinctions proliferate, the cinema I love most is that which shows me what I already know and this is, maybe, surprise enough—an imitation of the inside, a cant I comprehend or jeu de piste or, cards on the table now, secret ‘show’ — a film that speaks in passwords, malavoglia and non sanctum.

In Kenji Mizoguchi’s Portrait of Madame Yuki [1950], Hamako, a young maidservant, enters the service of a gentlewoman whose open-close rapport with her foster-brother husband, vaginal-peristaltic, pulls in the forces that ultimately lead the titular Yuki to die by her own hand. Docile Hamako from day one serves as solitary witness to the unseen, at least that which remains ‘invisible’ to the spectator: the master in flagrante, forcing himself upon Yuki.

Given that the sum of Madame’s time on-screen attests to her repulsion over the husband’s loutishness and cruel liaisons, does this sex, hidden in plain view, constitute the same sort of ‘marital rape’ that we find in Hitchcock’s Marnie [1964]?

To answer this, we must consider Yuki’s confession to her ‘platonic friend’ the koto instructor: "Despite my feelings, my body accepts, against me, my husband’s love. A demon lives in the female body; each time I see that man, the demon dominates me."

Hamako’s observation of Yuki’s sexual servility plays as indoctrination, the education of a housekeeper — with every reaction shot, it’s emphasized that Hamako is the surveyor, that her shock is the show, that we can rely on our assumptions of the sight seen.

Compulsion is dominant.

The protagonist thus figures not as our own double but as our avatar, navigating a labyrinth of ‘the known’ (we’ve charted similar courses in Vertigo [1958] and Blue Velvet [1986] too) — why else all the caesuras, the scenes that fade to black without warning? When Yuki steals out of her lunar room to spend the night with her husband, the implication is that she has given herself over to the four-way orgy proposed earlier that evening in the presence of the husband’s mistress and a male associate ( — yes, fade to black); when a pair of geisha arrive to service the husband, the two first flank Yuki, rising gently and shuffling forward into the fade-out...

What Mizoguchi sets up, really happens. And so we move forward, onward, gliding not along with but behind Hamako who can only stumble upon all that we already sense. (Buried from view, but also present, yes, is the rumored ‘pornographic’ sequence cut by the Japanese, i.e. occupying American, censors...) Inevitability colors the film, an inevitability exactly in line with Mizo’s mise-en-scène: the trademark ‘diagonal’ tracking-shot that traces out the slash of a blade — that positions Yuki to drown in a lake, and Hamako to peer at the corpse which, for the viewer, must remain off-screen. For Mizoguchi never films discovery. Stabbed in the back unawares by a prostitute at 27 and from then on exploiting the cinema’s power to tell one’s secret by keeping silent, he is the filmmaker for whom the crescent moon and the razor became synonymous — accordingly, he films destiny, and adheres to its codes.