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Akasen Chitai + Yokihi

Akasen ChitaiAlongside Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro
  Ozu and Mikio Naruse, Kenji Mizoguchi
  is perhaps the most revered Japanese
  filmmaker of all time. This double-bill,
  Akasen Chitai and Yokihi — the fourth
  and final Mizoguchi release in the
  Masters of Cinema Series
is a major
  event for any fan of classic cinema

PAIRING MIZOGUCHI'S HIGHLY-RESPECTED FINAL FILM, Akasen Chitai, with a lesser-known rarity, Yokihi made a year earlier and one of only two films Mizoguchi ever made in colour is a benefit
to both films, which are now finally on DVD in the
UK for the very first time.

Akasen Chitai was nominated for a 1956 Golden Lion Award (for Best Film) at the prestigious Venice Film Festival — the same award that Yokihi was nominated for the year before. Yokihi was also named by acclaimed Portuguese Director Manoel de Oliveira as his favourite Japanese film of all time. The film has also been described by noted American critic Andrew Sarris as "one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever to treat beauty as a subject".

Akasen Chitai inspired French critic Jean Douchet to proclaim: "For me, along with Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux and Renoir's La Règle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game], the greatest film in the history of cinema."

Sadly the last film by Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho Dayu, Ugetsu Monogatari), Akasen Chitai (Red Light District, aka Street of Shame) presents a vivid portrait of prostitution in 1950s Japan and looks at the lives of the girls, their hopes and dreams and also their disappointments and the resignation to their fate.

Set against a background of 1950s Tokyo where the Japanese government is attempting to introduce an Anti-Prostitution Bill, Akasen Chitai takes place in a Tokyo brothel called Dreamland — an obvious irony, given the faded hopes of those who work there — and is a compelling study of women torn between financial necessity and questions of conscience. The proposed Bill has a consequence because it has made men think twice about being seen entering a brothel and Dreamland is suffering financially. Akasen Chitai is beautifully presented and gives a sympathetic view of young women who sell themselves for money.

The Master and Madam of Dreamland, Murazo Taya (Eitaro Shindo) and Tatsuko Taya (Sadako Sawamura) see themselves as social workers who have a responsibility to look after the women. In some ways they do have a significant role to play because without them the girls who work at Dreamland might be at risk on the street or completely destitute. But a certain MP, Mrs Takehisa, doesn't see it that way: "Prostitution is an unforgivable evil, forcing women to sell their bodies."

Tokyo's Yoshiwara District (The Red Light District) is over 300 years old and Tatsuko's family has been there for four generations. "If prostitution is so unpopular," she remarks, "how come it's lasted 300 years?" She says: "In the olden days we were seen as courtesans trained in the arts of poetry, the tea ceremony, flower arranging and calligraphy. We were treated just like noblewomen."

Each of the girls has a very different story: how they entered the profession; and why they stay. But they all share the struggle to make sense of the red light district with its cycle of exploitation.

Top girl is Yasumi (Ayako Wakao), who dreams of a husband and a better life and she saves hard, lending money to the other girls with a ten per cent interest charge. Yasumi says that she came there to make 200,000 yen bail money for her father who got mixed up in a corruption scandal. Her life was ruined just for money and she loathes poverty.

Young widow Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) hopes one day to live with her son, Shuichi, whom she has supported through his schooling and who has no idea how she earns her living.

Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) is married, but her husband is sick and they have a young son to care for. They can hardly afford medicine and food, let alone to pay for hospital treatment. She desperately wants to leave her profession but is trapped by poverty. She and her husband have even contemplated suicide. And then there is Yorie (Hiroko Machida), who was sold as a teenager for 2,000 yen and longs to return home.

Things are stirred up by the arrival of Mickey (Machiko Kyo), a modern young Westernised teenager who has fallen out with her playboy businessman father and has run away from home because of his treatment of her mother. The story goes that she was used and abused by an American and is "as hard-boiled as hell". She has no compunction about luring away the other girls' clients.

Other key characters are a policeman, Officer Miyazaki (Daisuke Kato), who sympathises with the Tayas; the man who provides quilts, Mr Aoki; former petty criminal Eiko (Kenji Sugawara); and Otane (Kumeko Urabe), a woman who helps out at Dreamland.

Produced by Masaichi Nagata, Akasen Chitai is based on a story by Yoshiko Shibaki with a screenplay by Masashige Narusawa. Cinematography is by Kazuo Miyagawa. The streets are bleak and the songs, under the circumstances, are poignant: "I am a maiden of sixteen years born in Manchuria, Next March as the spring snow begins to thaw and the flowers burst into bloom, welcoming the spring, I will leave for the next village to wed my fiancé… They'll welcome me with crashing gongs and beating drums when I arrive in my carriage, festooned with flowers…"

"Akasen Chitai is beautifully presented and gives a sympathetic view of young women who sell themselves for money" — MotorBar

YokihiSet many centuries earlier, in Eighth
  Century T
ang China, Yokihi (Imperial
  Concubine Yang
, aka Yang Kwei Fei)
  tells the Chinese legend referred to in
  its title...

THE FILM OPENS TOWARDS THE END OF THE LIFE OF THE FORMER EMPEROR Hsüan-tsung (Masayuki Mori) who, having been usurped by his son, is held in captivity. But Yokihi then goes back to some years before, at a time when the Emperor Hsüan-tsung reigns alone, following the untimely death of his beloved wife, the late Empress Wu-hui.

Devoting his life to the composition of music, he continues to mourn his wife and cannot look at another woman but admires beauty in the statue of the Bodhisattva that was given to him by the Silla Kingdom of Korea. The Emperor wishes to be left alone, but there are those close to the Court who seek advancement and an improvement of their status if they can produce a young woman from within their family who could win the heart of the Emperor.

When General An Lu-shan (So Yamamura) arrives back in Chang'an he hears Yang Yu-huan (Machiko Kyo), a young kitchen maid, singing. He sees that she is very beautiful and realises that she could be the key to the Yang family's advancement.

Despite her own misgivings she is cleaned up, dressed in finery and presented to the highly-respected Mother Abbess at the convent on Mount Li, who has the ear of the Emperor. And when she captures the heart of Hsüan-tsung she quickly acknowledges that — even as imperial concubine and with her new name of Kuei-fei — she will be as much a tool for her family as she was when working in the kitchens.

Yokihi is a tale of political intrigue and rival dynasties in the court of the Emperor, where ambitions are ruthless and jealousies dangerous — even Kuei-fei's cousin Kuo-chung (Sakae Ozawa) has the job of Premier Li Lin-fu (Tatsuya Ishiguro) firmly in his sights. Many have ulterior motives, concubines can be killed for merely involving themselves in affairs of state and it seems nobody is safe.

Kuei-fei makes the Emperor very happy, but eventually all ills are blamed on the Yang family and an army marches on the capital — an action that ultimately has tragic consequences.

Sumptuously filmed in vibrant colour, Yokihi is the most ancient of Mizoguchi's costume dramas, yet its central themes — of passion, sorrow and the conflict between love and power — remain timeless. A fabulous period romance that tugs at the heartstrings, Yokihi is as compelling today as it was when it was first filmed in 1955.

Produced by Masaichi Nagata and Run Run Shaw, Yokihi also features Eitaro Shindo as Kao Li-his; Haruko Sugimura as Princess Yen-chun; Isao Yamagata as Yang Hsien; Yoki Minamida as Hung-tao and Bontaro Miyake as Chin Hsuan-li.

The Screenplay is by Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda and Masashige Narusawa; Cinematography by Kohei Sugiyama; Art Direction by Hiroshi Mizutani; Historical Research by Lu Shi-hou; Sound by Kunio Hashimoto; and Music by Fumio Hyasaka.

The Masters of Cinema Series is proud to present Akasen Chitai and Yokihi, two films by Mizoguchi that are appearing for the first time on DVD in the UK. Release date is 26 May (2008).

RRP £24.99 | Running Time 86/92 Minutes | Catalogue No EKA50036 | Barcode 5060000500363 | Certificate 12 | Format B&W/Colour | Director Kenji Mizoguchi.

Special Features: 2-disc special edition containing new transfers of both films | New and improved English subtitles | Full length Akasen Chitai audio commentary and a video discussion about Yokihi by acclaimed Japanese film expert/critic, festival programmer and filmmaker Tony Rayns | Original theatrical trailers | 64-page booklet featuring writing by Keiko I McDonald (author of Mizoguchi), Mark Le Fanu (author of Mizoguchi and Japan), Masako Nakagawa (author of The Yang Kuei-fei Legend in Japanese Literature), ninth- century poetry (A Song of Unending Sorrow), by Po Chü-I and rare production stills.

"A fabulous period romance that tugs at the heartstrings, Yokihi is as compelling today as it was when it was first filmed in 1955" — MotorBar