(Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Ono, a handsome young student in Tokyo, is a weasel. He doesn’t mean to be; he wants to be a nice guy, but his gutlessness gets in the way. Trapped between two women who want to marry him, each with competing claims to his fidelity, Ono acts as decisively as an anorexic at an all-you-can-eat buffet who wants to taste, but rues the consequences. Sayoko has long assumed that Ono would eventually marry her. Her father, Professor Inoue, found Ono as a young orphan living on the streets, took him in, and educated him. Ever since Ono moved to Tokyo to work on his degree, the Professor and his daughter have planned their move to the capital city so they can be near Ono and facilitate the marriage. The film opens with the Professor and Sayoko packing their belonging for their long planned move.
What they don’t know is Ono, in order to earn money, began tutoring the beautiful and rich Fujio. They have an easy, flirtatious relationship and, though she was promised to someone else, Fujio sets her sights squarely on the young scholar. Her beauty and wealth are enough to woo Ono away from his childhood sweetheart Sayoko.
This is where things get sticky because Mizoguchi never clarifies Ono’s true feelings. Does he love Sayoko, but see the practical reasons for marrying a rich woman with connections? Or is he not really in love with either? He behaves like a man unable to make decisions who waffles under direct questioning and is easily manipulated. His inaction suggests that Ono doesn’t really love either woman, but they are the two who have chosen him and he doesn’t want to make waves by declining either. This would be fine if there were only one, but since there are two he has to make a decision, something anathema to his nature.
He spends much of the movie avoiding direct questions from Sayoko, her father, Fujio, or her brother. In the long run his indecision intensifies feelings of betrayal and jealousy, leading to a heartbreaking scene at the home of the rejected lover (rejected via a third party, of course).
Poppies is one of those movies that sneak up on you. The first couple of acts are interesting, but not what one would call genius. It’s only when characters confront one another in the last act that we understand how cleverly Mizoguchi buildings almost imperceptible tension.
This is one of Mizoguchi’s earlier movies, before his self-acknowledged classics of 1936. Though some of the technique is rough (and the print is in desperate need of restorative love) we see the beginning of a great director. We also experience a touching and rich movie that is well worth experiencing. I have lately been discovering that many once hard to find movies are available to watch online. Poppies can be seen here thanks to magyarvid, who has posted a treasure trove of hard to find movies.