The film is set in Yoshiwara, the red-light district of Tokyo, in the nineteenth century. It depicts a love triangle between a high-class prostitute, a Russian naval officer and a rickshaw man.
The period of exile between Max Ophuls’ departure from Germany after the rise of Hitler and his flight to America after the fall of France remains the most neglected portion of his career. Of the nine films he directed, mainly in France, during those seven years, only one (La Signora di Tutti ) is at all well known; one (On a Vole un Homme ) is lost; and opportunities to see the remainder are largely confined to the occasional touring retrospective. The neglect of Yoshiwara (1937) is therefore not unique. It is neither the most perfect of Ophuls’ prewar French films (a title which would probably be claimed by the rather academic brilliance of Sans Lendemain ) nor the most complex (I would choose Werther , a masterly perversion of Goethe’s novel which substantially improves on the self-indulgent romanticism of its literary source). But it is certainly the most underrated, not least by Ophuls himself, who dismissed it in interviews’; while most of those critics who have not ignored it have despised it.
Typically the French line has been kinder than the Anglo-American: Lorenzo Codelli’s account in Positif is the only really enthusiastic (albeit brief) recent discussion of the film that I have come across. Claude Beylie quotes several favourable extracts from the French reviewers of 1937; while acknowledging that “today’s” audiences (today being 1963) find it dated, he extends qualified praise to Ophuls’ efforts to imbue a “grotesque” scenario with “a kind of half-decorative, half-sentimental poetry”. Richard Roud, on the other hand, finds it “grotesque” without qualification, while Susan White, in her book-length study of the director’s work, relegates it to a footnote, condemns it for “pasteboard Japonism”, and describes it as “a dime-store Mizoguchi”.
Yoshiwara certainly looks more like a Mizoguchi than almost any other European film I could name, and its premise–a woman descends into prostitution for the sake of a male friend or relative–is identical to that of The Downfall of Osen (1934). If Ophuls in 1937 could hardly have been familiar with an oeuvre which was to remain almost unknown in the West until the fifties, the recurrence in Yoshiwara of common Japanese plot motifs suggests at least a reasonable acquaintance with certain fundamental assumptions of Japanese culture. As for “pasteboard Japonism”, art directors Leon and Andre Barsacq were both distinguished professionals whose careers between them encompassed such richly atmospheric and meticulously detailed films as L’Argent (1928, Marcel L’Herbier), La Marseillaise (1938, Jean Renoir) and Les Enfants du Paradis (1945, Marcel Carne). If their sets for Yoshiwara look a little fake, then it may be wisest to ascribe that to budgetary considerations. On the other hand, it may have been a deliberate stylistic choice, in which case one may, as Lorenzo Codelli does, admire the Sternbergian qualities of “an Orient made of cardboard and mysterious shadows.” Certainly to dismiss it for lack of realism is beside the point, and while I think that Ophuls’ Japan is a rather more complex and plausible society than most Western representations of the Orient, I am no more concerned with its historical verisimilitude than I would be with that of his Vienna, Anno 1900, in an account of La Ronde (1950).
2.71GB | 1h 31m | 1920×1080 | mkv