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AN INTRO TO MIZOGUCHI
Mizoguchi Kenji was born in Tokyo in 1898, the middle child in a family of modest means. The abrupt ending of the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese war, dashing his father’s attempts to sell raincoats to the army, precipitated a desperate financial crisis which forced his older sister Suzu to be given up for adoption then sold to a geisha house. Though she was fortunately “rescued” and later married by a wealthy patron, the event, along with the death when he was 17 of the mother he idolised, had a huge impact on Mizoguchi’s life and future career as a director- a principal theme of his films being the oppression and suffering of women.
Having left school at 13 for a pharmacy apprenticeship, Mizoguchi was then found work designing kimonos and began to study art and western painting, before in turn becoming a newspaper illustrator at Kobe. In 1922, after a period of unemployment and rather inconsiderate dependence on Suzu (despite his films’ feminist credentials, he was often self-centred in his relationships with women, including his regular actress Tanaka Kinuyo), he was hired as an actor, then as assistant director, at the Nikkatsu company. The next year, he directed the first of over eighty films, the majority of which, from the 1920’s and 30’s, are now lost. In the mid 20s he was briefly suspended by the studio after being scandalously slashed with a razor by a prostitute girlfriend. Familiar with the milieu, prostitutes were regular (sympathetically depicted) protagonists in Mizoguchi’s films.
Long established in Japan through pre-war masterpieces such as “Sisters of the Gion”, “Osaka Elegy” (both 1936), Straits of Love and Hate (1937, notable for the scarcity of close-ups, which at the time he said he hated) and the dazzling spatial exploration “Story of the Late Chrysanthemums” (1939), Mizoguchi’s films first found international acclaim in 1952. Following the huge unexpected success of Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” at Venice the previous year, which acted as a spur to the driven Mizoguchi, “The Life of Oharu”, a harrowing but typically beautiful film concerning a court lady’s downfall to ageing prostitute, was awarded the festival’s international prize, a feat matched by Silver Lions for his next two entries. From “Oharu” onwards, his career and enthusiasm now revitalised, Mizoguchi achieved in the space of just four years an unequalled succession of sublime masterpieces, including “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953), “Sansho the Bailiff”, “Chikamatsu Monogatari” (both 1954), “Yang Kwei Fei” and “Tales of the Taira Clan” (both 1955). The last two, with their shimmering jewel-like costumes, are remarkable ventures into colour.
By the time of his early death from leukemia in 1956, Mizoguchi’s films were widely revered, in particular by young French critics like Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, for their superlative mise-en-scene; lovely painterly compositions, elegant long takes and serene, fluid camerawork (most notably that of Miyagawa Kazuo) projecting a political stance- albeit often within “jidai-geki” period dramas- on behalf of downtrodden women. Although it is true that many Mizoguchi women have noble unselfish qualities and are undone by partriarchal society, they are certainly not all shrinking violets, passive, idealised and accepting of their fate. “The Love of Sumako the Actress”(1947) and “My Love has been Burning” (1949) are centred on strong independent women, while in “Osaka Elegy” we have a memorable image of determined defiance, in “The Life of Oharu” Tanaka Kinuyo hisses like a cat, in "The Woman of Rumour (1954), the daughter of a brothel mistress puts fickle male opportunism firmly in its place and in “Street of Shame” (Mizoguchi’s final film, 1956) the ever forthright Kyo Machiko delivers a withering blast at her hypocritical father. As a great tragedian, suicides are a common feature of Mizoguchi films: these occur for a variety of reasons and should not be viewed as essentially defeatist or a sign of Conservatism. As his regular screenwriter Yoda Yoshikata, who was tortured for his political beliefs in the 1930s. has pointed out, while self-centred for his own career, Mizoguchi was also consistently against social injustice.
A fan of Shinpa melodrama, Mizoguchi’s films often reveal his interest in theatre. The melodramatic plots of many of his films are balanced by their extreme refinement; heightened emotions observed at a discreet distance. Indeed they often involve observers peeping. In Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, the theatrical and cinematic aspects are intriguingly mixed, the theatre scenes shot from a variety of angles and with much faster editing than the rest of a film notable for its long takes.
Many fine Mizoguchi films remain relatively neglected. “The Water Magician” (1933) is a silent film whose charm rises above the seemingly contrived later court scenes involving a young judge and his beloved benefactress in the dock. The disdainfully imperious Samurai epic “The Loyal 47 Ronin” (1941) was an intended military propaganda piece which prefers to examine space, patience and codes of honour to violent action and excitement.. " Portrait of Madame Yuki" (1950)‘s elliptical development with events often viewed by servants may be emotionally distancing but few films have matched its beguiling mysterious beauty. “Miss Oyu” (1951) is a neglected little gem, again both lovely and tragic, with an ending somewhat reminiscent of Murnau’s silent masterpiece “Sunrise”. “The Woman of Rumour” is a grower whose emerging qualities and honest strength warm the cockles and “Tales of the Taira Clan” is a gorgeously vivid and unusually upbeat historical drama. If “Ugetsu Monogatari”, an engrossing admonition against vain male ambition and erotic temptation- replete with rapturous idyll at the mansion of eerie Lady Wakasa- is perhaps still his most renowned work, Mizoguchi’s qualities and themes are fused at an exquisite, poignant peak in “Sansho the Bailiff”.
Sansho the Bailiff’s refined yet detailed narrative concerns the cruel misfortune befalling an exiled feudal governor’s wife and children. Here, the director’s ideal of self-sacrificing womanhood, as represented by his mother and sister, is clearly apparent in the characters of Anju and Tamaki. There are also alternative models of fatherhood: Mizo despised his father, and Sansho is a slave-master to be rebelled against. Within a contemplative frame of delicately nuanced lighting and lyrical, translucent silvery cinematography, water and ravishing landscapes are imbued with a sense of aching longing and overwhelming emotional resonance. In one scene, a few ripples are charged with fathomless depths of feeling. The immensely touching ending, its final crane and panning shots a model of unobtrusive technique, is rightly famed for conveying a universe beyond the confines of its story.
In “Sansho the Bailiff”, the director’s demanding (sometimes petulant and tryrannical) perfectionism- he would repeatedly return the scripts of the ever loyal Yoda with the words “no good” – reaps its richest rewards. Though Mizoguchi is still to receive due recognition in Britain and America, it was once again voted (along with Ugetsu Monogatari), among the top 60 films in Sight and Sound’s latest poll of international critics. It is, alone, enough to mark him as one of the very greatest masters and justify his proclaimed status as “the Shakespeare” of cinema.
A Samurai father and son, back from defeating pirates, rather than getting their just reward, are given the brush off by an imperial court (one of 2 rival courts) and corrupt oppressive monks. I am in a minority in rating this among Mizoguchi’s very finest. From the opening crane shot leading us into the thick of a crowd scene, i love its historical colour as well as its rich colours, the costumes, the court intrigue, the charming courtship of the daring protagonist and the daughter of his father’s loyal noble friend, the forest torchlit procession. The whole experience ripples through me with, let’s say a sense of resplendent satisfaction. As an adoptee i also appreciate the handling of the issue of identity confusion, with the young hero unsure if he is the son of the Samurai who raised him, the Emperor, or (heaven forbid) a lecherous monk. Not all Mizoguchi women are self-sacrificing paragons; there’s a mix, with some redoubtable characters too. Here the mother is selfish and greedy, interested more in social advancement than family. The male lead is more dynamic and admirable and the film more upbeat than usual for Mizoguchi, implicitly supporting the democratic changes in post-war Japan following the tyranny of the militarist-imperialist government. The ending could be taken to suggest a brighter future for 50s Japan, as well as the verge of extraordinary change in Taira’s time.
Sansho the Bailiff
It was voted top film in a major poll of mubi users, 2011-12
“The eye of a painter and the soul of a poet” (Macmillan Encyclopedia).
“The Japanese director i admire the most” (Kurosawa Akira)
“Now that Mizoguchi is gone, there are very few directors who can see the past clearly and realistically” (Kurosawa Akira)
“You can compare only what is comparable and that which aims high enough. Mizoguchi, alone, imposes a feeling of a unique world and language, is answerable only to himself…” (Jacques Rivette)
“To prefer Kurosawa to Mizoguchi is to be totally blind, but to love Mizoguchi alone and not Kurosawa is to have only one eye.” (André Bazin)
“One of cinema’s very greatest masters” (Geoff Andrew, Directors A-Z)
“For some he became the supreme filmmaker, the cinematic Shakespeare, realising to its fullest the potential of film as an art form” (Robin Wood)
“The greatest movie i have ever seen” (Robin Wood on Sansho the Bailiff)
“No praise is too high for him” (Orson Welles)
“In Mizoguchi’s cinema, everything is beautiful: the landscapes are breathtaking; the faces are photogenically eloquent; the camera movements are fluid and complex; the black and white (more precisely, black and silver) cinematography is subtle and dense of texture; the compositions are so precise it’s as if space itself were being cut along a dotted line… One of the greatest practitioners of pure mise-en-scene the cinema has ever known and the master of the heroically sustained long take.” (Gilbert Adair)
“This Mizoguchi fellow was really something special” (1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)
“A director for all seasons, whom Kurosawa, much better known in the West, freely acknowledged was his master. I cannot tell you how important Mizoguchi was to my film-going experience. He made me realise what the art of cinema could achieve. And his films will live with vibrant life for as long as anyone watches other than Hollywood movies.” (Derek Malcolm, A Century of Films)
One of the “exalted figures who soar above the earth… such an artist can convey the lines of the poetic design of being. He is capable of going beyond the limitations of coherent logic, and conveying the deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life” (Andrei Tarkovsky)
“the same style prevails and it is the most masterly I have come across” (Satyajit Ray, on different cameraman in Mizoguchi films, but the consistency of the director’s recognisable style)
“I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.” (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker critic)
“One of the director’s most awesome achievements” (Bloomsbury Foreign Film Guide, on Sansho the Bailiff)
“An emotional impact that has seldom been equalled” (Bloomsbury Foreign film Guide on Ugetsu Monogatari)
“He has no superior at the unfolding of narrative by way of camera movement and he was a great director of actresses… he is supreme in the realisation of internal states in external views” (David Thomson, Biographical Dictionary of Film)"
“Mizoguchi’s cinema is dynamic and obsessively fluid: his tracking and crane shots have a naturalism that one rarely encounters elsewhere… Form and content are indivisible” (Adrian Turner, quoted in John Kobal’s Top 100 Movies)
" He loads the air with sumptuousness. Every image adds to the richness. His flowing camera continually finds unexpected levels and perspectives." (Eric Rhode, A History of the Cinema)
“His absolute mastery of decor, the long take, and the moving camera make Mizoguchi one of the great mise-en-scene directors of the international cinema” (David Cook, A History of Narrative Film)
“He omits a note so pure that the slightest variation becomes expressive” (Philippe Demonsablon)
“Kenji Mizoguchi is to the cinema what Bach is to music, Cervantes is to literature, Shakespeare is to the theatre, Titian is to painting: the very greatest” (Jean Douchet)
“With Mizoguchi, form and idea, atmosphere and feeling are indivisible… his films are assembled out of images of breathtaking exactness…a world which irresistibly captures and enfolds the spectator” (David Robinson, The Times)
“What he conserves becomes in his hands an inexhaustible resource. …Let every young filmmaker take any late Mizoguchi film and watch… we could do worse than to treat this oeuvre as an Academy for the Study of Staging” (David Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light, 2005)
“The master among masters in the Japanese film world…to talk about this man is at the same time to talk about the path upon which the Japanese film has progressed” (Sato Tadao)
“The three-clawed fiend” (faithful scriptwriter Yoda Yoshikata)
“This man they call Mizoguchi is an idiot” (Mizoguchi himself)
Figures Traced in Light- David Bordwell (superb chapter on Mizoguchi, concentrating on his mastery of staging)
Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema- Sato Tadao
Mizoguchi and Japan- Mark Le Fanu
Kenji Mizoguchi- Noel Simsolo (in French)
Women in Mizoguchi Films- Frieda Freiberg
Mizoguchi- Keiko McDonald
Souvenirs de Mizoguchi – Yoda Yoshikata (translation in French)
Mizoguchi: The Man and his Art- Yoda Yoshitaka (Japanese)
Kenji Mizoguchi- Max Tessler (French)
Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi in the 1930s- Donald Kirihara
Japanese Film Directors- Audie Bock (long chapter on Mizo)
Mizoguchi the Master- Gerald O’Grady (ed)
Kenji Mizoguchi- Michel Mesnil (French)
Mizoguchi: De la revolte aux songes- Daniel Serceau
Kenji Mizoguchi- Dario Tomasi
David Bordwell: Mizoguchi: Secrets of the Exquisite Image
David Bordwell: Mizoguchi the Inexhaustible
Donato Totaro: Kenji Mizoguchi the Master
Mark le Fanu: The Lessons of Sansho
Alex Jacoby’s Kenji Mizoguchi at Senses of Cinema site, also in Sight & Sound .
some older back catalogue:
“Mizoguchi Issue” of Cinéma (Paris), no. 6, 1955.
Richie, Donald, and Joseph Anderson, “Kenji Mizoguchi,” in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1955.
Godard, Jean-Luc, “L’Art de Kenji Mizoguchi,” in Arts (Paris), no. 656, 1958.
“Mizoguchi Issue” of Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1958.
“Mizoguchi Issue” of Ecran (Paris), February-March 1958.
Mizoguchi, Kenji, “Mes films,” in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1959.
“Dossier Mizoguchi” in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), August-September 1964.
Yoda, Yoshikata, “The Density of Mizoguchi’s Scripts,” in Cinema (Los Angeles), Spring 1971.
Wood, Robin, “The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Gatherer,” in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1973.
Coleman, John, in New Statesman (London), 20 February 1976.
Cohen, R., “Mizoguchi and Modernism,” in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1978.
Bokanowski, H., “L’Espace de Mizoguchi,” in Cinématographe (Paris), November 1978.
Andrew, Dudley, and Tadao Sato, “On Kenji Mizoguchi,” in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), Spring 1980.
Gauthier, G., in Image et Son (Paris), April 1980.
Gourdon, G., in Cinématographe (Paris), April 1980.
Tobin, Yann, in Positif (Paris), November 1980.
Ehrlich, L. C., “The Name of the Child: Cinema as Social Critique,” in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), no. 2, 1990.
Burdeau, Emmanuel, and others, “Mizoguchi Encore,” in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 504, July-August 1996.
Lopate, Philip, “A Master Who Could Create Poems for the Eyes,” in The New York Times , 15 September 1996.
Macnab, Geoffrey, in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 8, no. 12, December 1998.
This list has a companion: Directors round Mizoguchi
Peeping as well as women of the night: here, the touchingly tentative ending in Street of Shame, and Mizo’s final shot.
Mizoguchi still needs promoting. Hopefully the Directors Cup, in which he reached the final, helped a bit. In this list i’ve put the films into some sort of preferential order, though I would recommend them all, with some reservations for the lowest ranked. Sadly, most Mizo films are lost and i still have some existing ones to see.Read less