Title: 瀧の白糸 (Taki no Shiroito)
English Title: The Water Magician
Release Date: 1933 (Japan)
Directed by: Mizoguchi Kenji
Starring: Irie Takako, Okada Tokihiko
There are not a great number of pre-war, Japanese silent films which have survived to this day. Furthermore, I imagine that one would be hard pressed to find easily accessible copies of the ones that do still exist. I was lucky enough to find this excellent Mizoguchi Kenji film through the Japan Foundation Library in Tokyo and write my essay about it.
Although titled a “silent” film, there is music throughout the movie. Furthermore, a distinguishing characteristic of Japanese silent films was the benshi. A benshi was a narrator who spoke during the movie, giving explanations, as well as voicing lines of some of the actors and actresses.
The movie gets its title from the profession of one of the main characters – she performs tricks, somewhat akin to magic, with bursts of shooting water on stage. This might be a bit difficult to visualize not being accustomed to such an act, thus it might help to think of someone juggling, to music, while also using stylized movements.
The story of The Water Magician is simple, yet profound. The woman performer, known as Shiroito, falls in love with a man who has had the misfortune of having to drop out of school after his parents died due to lack of money. Shiroito, who is completely taken by the man, Kin’ya, offers to pay for him to go back to school.
After some years of funding his education – he is studying to become a judge – Shiroito and her friends, the other performers, fall on hard times. Shiroito’s friends, who are in even more dire straits than she, repeatedly ask for money, or sometimes just outright take it from her. Eventually Shiroito is left with nothing and is forced to borrow money from a loan shark. Immediately after borrowing the money, she is robbed by masked men, later discovered to be none other than the troupe boss. Feeling that she now has no way to support Kin’ya, whom she has longed so dearly to meet again, she goes back to the loan shark, supposedly to explain what has just happened. Instead, he mistakes her intentions and tries to attack her. In the hustle, she accidently stabs him. Making matters worse, she runs off with more of the loan shark’s money.
Now charged with murder, Shiroito is brought before the judge, who is none other than Kin’ya. Only now, in these circumstances, does she receive the grace of seeing the one she so longed to see. Kin’ya is torn and mistakenly afraid that the money he received to support his education came from this murder. Taking the action he sees to be just for the role of a judge, he condemns Shiroito to death. Consequently, she bites off her tongue. The next day, the torn Kin’ya kills himself.
Shiroito in The Water Magician is a perfect example of a courageously loyal, just, and kind person who, because she is a woman, faces repeated hardships and sufferings, usually at the hands of men. Despite her sufferings, things do not turn out better for her, as she is eventually sentenced to death. The love and the sense of justice that she maintains to the end, make the story all the more tragic, and the audience feels the plight of this woman, up against all obstacles that her society throws at her.
Itself influenced by an Izumi Kyoka play, The Water Magician shares elements with many later movies, some of which were doubtlessly influenced by Mizoguchi’s film. One that comes to mind would be Villion’s Wife.