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Osaka Elegy Sisters of the Gion Street of Shame

Americans hear so many media reports about Japanese business, education, and other matters that you'd expect information about this important Asian country to be at a premium. Japanese movies offer a prime source of insight into the culture that produced them, but few pictures from Japan's bustling studios arrive in American theaters anymore.

Happily, some video companies are filling this gap. One is Chicago's enterprising Home Vision Cinema, currently distributing a number of classics by Kenji Mizoguchi, who ranks with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu as one of his nation's greatest screen artists.

Adding to the timeliness of Mizoguchi's work is his fascination with stories about women, which is especially striking when one remembers that he died in the mid-1950s, well before the modern feminist movement began. Two fine examples are Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, both made in 1936 to protest the exploitation of women by "geisha" prostitution - and by other social institutions, including families that allow and even encourage daughters to use their sexuality for gain.

His final film, the 1956 drama Street of Shame, carries this concern into a full-fledged expos of organized prostitution, telling the intertwined stories of five women trapped in the brothel system because of personal or household debts. This movie has been cited as an impetus behind the abolition of such places in 1957, a year after its release.

Mizoguchi is also praised for his delicate filmmaking style, portraying what might have been tragic or distasteful subjects through fluid, graceful images that invite us to ponder the complex relationships between people, the environments they live in, and the cultural traditions that shape their behaviors and beliefs. He made almost 90 movies during his 35-year career, and these three offer a moving journey through some of his art's most sensitive and compassionate dimensions. (Not rated; Home Vision Cinema)

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