Kenji Mizoguchi and art under the occupation, "not the temptation of the absolute but the call of the void" (Godard on Montparnasse 19). The juxtaposition is utterly direct, the katana and the brush, Utamaro (Minosuke Bando) is challenged and calmly turns a duel of swords into a painting contest. ("Lovely, but she’s not alive" is his verdict on the hotheaded samurai’s sketch, he improves it with two or three lines and leaves the opponent as stupefied as Salieri.) Positioning himself against the school of prestigious tradition, the 18th-century engraver seeks "prints of flesh and blood" and dashes through a harem of muses. The aged courtesan (Kiniko Shiratao) still longing for a portrait, the beauty (Toshiko Iizuka) whose sublime skin overpowers the best tattoo artist in town, above all the volatile model (Kinuyo Tanaka) with no use for half-hearted emotions. The callow apprentice (Kotaro Bando) abandons his fiancée (Eiko Ohara) and joins the pursuit of splendor, though this bohemian life is not without its droughts: A splendid long take finds the uninspired Utamaro surrounded by crumpled scrolls, a servant draws the curtains and brings a candle to illuminate the darkness, and the tones of Mizoguchi’s mise en scène are adjusted in tandem with those on the artisan’s easel. The aesthete as firebrand literally manacled by censors, and as voyeur drawing furiously while a lecherous lord’s concubines dive into a lake (each kimono drops before the camera’s rapidly panning eye). "I sense a masterpiece... if I could get a closer look!" Picasso’s Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu is the key image, trenchantly enhanced when Utamaro uses Iizuka’s bare back as a canvas -- a Japanese feminist’s self-aware ode to all the heroines who have carried the famed male gaze on their shoulders. Minnelli has Lust for Life and Russell has Savage Messiah and Rivette has La Belle Noiseuse, but nothing beats Mizoguchi’s own analysis in Princess Yang Kwei-Fei. With Hiroko Kawasaki, Shotaro Nakamura, and Mimpei Tomimoto. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce