To Kenji Mizoguchi, love moves beyond amorous bond and into political insurrection. This period tragedy, a notch below Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff but still incomparably beautiful, is perhaps his most Borzagean work -- the doomed couple of the title forges a link that affronts emotional and social barriers with the same subversive wondrousness. Adapted from the 17th-century Bunraku (Japanese puppet theatre) play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu, the setting is a feudal society more civilized but scarcely less barbaric than the ones depicted in the director's late masterworks. In 1683 Kyoto, a timid artist-clerk (Kazuo Hasegawa) toils overtime for his lord (Eitaro Shindo), a miserly scroll magnate with a corseted wife (Kyoko Kagawa) and an eye roving towards the kitchen maid (Yoko Minamida). When Hasegawa and Kagawa are wrongly accused of having an affair, the two flee into the country only to see their survival reflexes bleed into a love so fierce it cannot be shattered by their inevitable capture and punishment. As so often with Mizoguchi, money is at the roots of misery -- a grant asked by Kagawa's parasitic brother (and denied by Shindo) kicks off the spiral of misunderstandings, the scrollmaker's wealth both despised and envied by the aged officials who've come to depend on him. Against a society degraded by codified greed, the runaway lovers enact a spiritual rebellion by crossing the cultural rigidity engraved in each of the film's many boxed-in compositions. Accordingly, their love is sealed when they decide to take control of their destinies -- during their justly celebrated crossing of Lake Biwa, the long-take reaches into sublimity as two people about to kill themselves instead confess their emotions for each other and the boat steers out of the shot and into cosmic epiphany. Their transgression brings about the end of order in the microcosm of the lord's manor, but the lovers, bound together on the way to the cross, remain purified, exalted by Mizoguchi's ascending crane. Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa. With Haruo Tanaka, and Cheiko Naniwa. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce