Utamaro and His Five Women opens to a languid tracking shot of a formal procession of men and women performing a near static, ceremonial dance. The setting is the Tokugawa Era of late eighteenth century Japan, and the impassive courtship is a reflection of the rigid class structure and behavioral code instilled during their feudal rule. A young apprentice artist from the official Kano Art School named Seinosuke (Kotaro Bando) decides to amuse his mentor by purchasing some inexpensive wood block print artwork of Edo’s famous courtesans at a nearby market square, and is insulted to find the artist, Utamaro’s (Minosuke Bando) scathing indictment of the prestigious art school, commenting that the school’s pervasive trait of using unnatural colors depict their women as freaks. Seinosuke sets off to find Utamaro against the wishes of his fiancée, Kano’s daughter, Yukie (Eiko Ohara). A robust, former courtesan named Oshin (Kiniko Shiratao) decides to warn Utamaro, comically rationalizing that he has not yet had the time to paint one of his flattering portraits of her. However, upon hearing that a courtesan renowned for her flawless skin, Takasode (Toshiko Iizuka), is about to be tattooed by a local artist, Utamaro leaves home in order to study her form, and Seinosuke encounters him at the pleasure quarters. Agreeing on a painting challenge instead, Seinosuke quickly finds himself outmatched by the talented Utamaro when the master decides to improve on the novice’s work. Later in the evening, Utamaro comes to the aid of the tattoo artist when he is unable to create a portrait worthy of Takasode’s beauty. After witnessing Utamaro’s great skill, a humbled Seinosuke decides to abandon his privileged life and Yukie in order to study under Utamaro. But soon, Utamaro’s house is thrown into crisis when his model, Okita (Kinuyo Tanaka) learns that her lover has eloped with Takasode, and the embittered Okita decides to retaliate by seducing the impressionable Seinosuke. Left without inspiration and constantly quarreling with the tenacious Okita, his friends take him to watch a feudal lord’s bizarre daily ritual of sending a chorus of young women to swim in the ocean to retrieve an object. Utamaro becomes captivated by the winner, Oran (Hiroko Kawasaki), and asks her to become his new model.
Inspired by the life and work of the wood block print artist, Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806), who revolutionized the medium by capturing human emotion into his artwork, Utamaro and His Five Women is a fascinating study of a man’s dedication to his art and adherence to self-expression in a time of rigid conformity. Filmed in 1946, Utamaro and His Five Women presents the curious dichotomy of postwar Japanese cinema by providing a Western-influenced perspective on the subversion of social class and artistic freedom, while simultaneously alluding to the creative control and cultural suppression imposed on Japanese artists during the American occupation. An intriguing analogy is presented by screenwriter, Yoshikata Yoda, in revealing that Utamaro’s aesthetic perfectionism, personal indulgence, and emotional distance were modeled after Kenji Mizoguchi. As Utamaro finds solace in the ideas of his unrealized paintings amidst the chaos of his environment, Mizoguchi, too, perseveres through his imposed artistic limitations in Utamaro and His Five Women, his only film during this period of uncertainty. For Mizoguchi, what results from this creative exile is an inexhaustible resolve and unparalleled technical maturity that would continue until his untimely death in 1956.
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