A Story From Chikamatsu is one of Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi's more well-known films, along with Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and The Life of Oharu. This 1954 film also goes by The Crucified Lovers here in North America, which refers to an early scene in the film, in which adulterers are tied up on horses and paraded through town in shame on the way to their execution.
Yes, they are crucified. Seems a little extreme of a punishment for the crime, but this is ancient Japan and there was a strict code of ethics to uphold, no matter how dubiously one could twist the "facts" or the "law." That means that certain citizens were either above the law or a lot higher up on the ladder when it came to societal constructs and sociological structures.
For instance, a rich male merchant held power over his entire house, including his wife and definitely over all of his servants. The result of such a power imbalance is precisely what allows a tale like A Story From Chikamatsu to unfold.
Pulled from a Japanese Bunraku puppet play of the same name, Mizoguchi understood that the tragedy and melodrama within A Story From Chikamatsu leaned far more toward the traditions of Kabuki theatre, and adjusted his storytelling techniques as such.
With excellent cinematography from Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Floating Weeds) paired with top-notch direction from Mizoguchi, A Story From Chikamatsu follows the hapless couple Osan and Mohei who both decide to leave the household because of the cruel master heading it up.
For Osan, her husband Ishun is a miser who refuses to lend family money in order to keep afloat and avoid total disgrace and abolishment of their home, business, and name. It appears to be a paltry amount, to add insult to injury, too. But wait, there's more! Ishun has been putting the moves on one of his female servants, which is just such an icky thing to do.
What's more is he accuses another employee, the kind-hearted Mohei of attempted theft and forgery when he asked for a loan rather than doing the accused crimes. And the loan was to help out Osan Ishun's own wife's family.
So while Mohei flees imprisionment and a possible death, so does Osan because of Ishun's cruelty. They accidentally leave at the same time, and so pair up. Naturally, they're seen together and it's assumed they're adulterers on the run. And then, the situation pushes them into each other's arms for real. They've still got to to flee the terrible, long arm of the law however, as irrational as it is.
Fans of world cinema will appreciate this Criterion Collection release; it looks fantastic on Blu-ray, with only mild, minor flickering sporadically. Sound is excellent. It's not quite as stocked in the featurettes department as Criterion releases usually are, but with such an old film, I imagine that collecting and creating special features would be difficult.
The interview with Kyoko Kagawa, who played Osan, is new and it's interesting to hear her recollections about working on the film. She still has grace and plenty of charm to spare. The booklet with essay from film scholar and director of the Harvard Film Archive Haden Guest is illuminating and informative, and the behind-the-scenes featurette is more of a film school class that film scholars and world cinema students will appreciate.
You purchase and read more about this release over at Criterion here