Though Yoshida Yoshishige’s Woman of the Lake is not part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, it definitely feels like it should be as you watch it. It’s has a very specific 1960s tone and aesthetic of the great classics of that time period. I decided to list Three Reasons to check it out, because it seems like an under-seen film. Not many people have rated it on IMDb, but that’s precisely where it was recommended to me a while back. So I’d like to thank the IMDb users for their great advice.
Brief plot synopsis: Woman of the Lake (original Japanese title: Onna no mizûmi) is the story of Mizuki Miyako (Okada Mariko) a beautiful woman having an affair. Her needy lover takes nude pictures of her to comfort himself when he can’t be with her. Unfortunately, the sexy snapshots end up in the hands of a creepy stalker, who also happens to be in love with Mizuki. At this point they try to do everything to get the pictures back and avoid that Mr. Miyako finds out about any of it.
Reason I: The Sensuous Sixties Aesthetic
The 1960s hold a special mystique for me. Something I’m not quite sure how to put into words. A mix of nostalgia for a time period I never got to live in and a deep sense of admiration and longing for a time where films looked incredibly beautiful. The sixties are my favorite decade of cinema, because black & white never looked this good, especially in art house pictures. There’s just something about the way people looked (the hair, the makeup, the clothes), the light, the immaculate quality of the picture, the design of the cars and furniture and the architecture.
I should probably write an entire article on why I love the sixties, but for now I’ll just focus on the sexiness. Again, it’s difficult to put into words really, but something about these films exudes sex. The restrictions on nudity and sex were still strong in that time period, which was a real challenge for filmmakers who were trying to tell specific stories that were precisely about that. In some way this restraint only made the stories sexier. Through restraint filmmakers sometimes achieved far more powerful statements than films in the 1970s where there were no more rules and everyone was finally free to do whatever.
The tone and atmosphere of these films gives off something palpable, something weird, like there was something in the air that wasn’t visible, yet it was there. I can hear it loud and clear, but I can’t say what it is. Woman of the Lake feels a lot like a Michelangelo Antonioni film in a lot of ways, especially something like L’Avventura (1960) or L’Eclisse (1962). It’s not just the similar aesthetic and the minimalist look, but it’s an emotion, something specific of the time period. Something I think only people living in that decade could fully understand or explain.
Reason II: A Stunning Use of Light
One of the first things I noticed while watching this film is how beautiful everything looks. Again, this is what I love about the 60s, but in this film in particular there’s a deliberate use of light and darkness, shadows and pure sunlight. It’s quite astounding. It is not only used as a tool to make the actors look great, but also to convey emotions, to put the viewer in a certain mood without needing dialogue to explain what’s going on. It’s subtle and that’s what makes it all the more effective and powerful.
In this sense, I have to once again mention Antonioni, and I’m sure director Yoshida Yoshishige was a fan. One of the things Antonioni was great at was his manipulation of how the viewer perceived space and time. In Woman of the Lake, the deliberate pacing and passing of time is used to create something of a dream aesthetic. The use of light is key in this sense. It’s also fascinating how light is used to naturally transition from one scene to the next. In this sense the ending is fantastic achievement and one of the film’s most inventive and innovative shots.
Reason III: Okada Mariko
My third reason is the leading lady of this piece: Okada Mariko. I am surprised that I haven’t seen her in more films, but I am glad to have seen her in this one and I see she has worked with Yoshida on Eros Plus Massacre (1969) another film I plan to check out soon. Not only is she incredibly beautiful, and she needs to be for the purposes of this story and to keep the shallow viewer (i.e. me) entertained, but she’s also a very gifted actress. I hate to bring up Antonioni again, but she does look like someone he would have cast.
She has something special about her, something unspoken, something inherently sexual. It’s even referenced in the film at some point, how there’s something “off” about her face. What I like about Okada is the way she makes every little gesture feel so effortless. She moves with elegance, grace and class and is just so wholly ease in her role. She inhabits and fully understands the character. She is the character. I must say I’m quite charmed and a bit infatuated by her “talents”. Definitely look forward to see more of her work.
Those are my five reasons. What are yours?