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Layered Compositions: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Late Period

The late films of Kenji Mizoguchi pair the filmmaker's nuanced politics with calculated geometric patterns and spatial depth.
Kelley Dong
MUBI’s retrospective, Spotlight on Kenji Mizoguchi, is showing in France until May 22, 2020.
Above: Kenji Mizoguchi and Kyōko Kagawa on the set of The Crucified Lovers (1954).
On multiple occasions, Kenji Mizoguchi was said to have compared himself to Vincent van Gogh, even calling the painter his "artistic model" in conversation with actress Kinuyo Tanaka. One has good reason to take Mizoguchi's word for such self-identification, considering his former aspirations to become a painter. On set, he was a notoriously stringent perfectionist and, if displeased at all with the technicalities of a production, rather cruel towards those with whom he worked. (Once, after ordering a house to be built by a lake, he then decided that the shot would look much better should the house be deconstructed and re-built.) What does it mean to refer to Mizoguchi's films as "painterly," as is so often done?
Indeed, the filmmaker wanted to be a painter in his youth, and was an ardent student of the craft: In Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi and the 1930s, Donald Kirihara writes that Mizoguchi even "wept before the Mona Lisa." His mise-en-scène might share the same emotive goals as van Gogh; one could certainly argue that both artists sought to excavate a universal beauty in the wretchedness of suffering. But his films, however, do not adhere to the same methods of abstraction and instead consist of calculated geometry across wide planes. With regards to compositional logic, he may share more in common with the paintings of Diego Velázquez, whose "layered compositions" present a three-dimensional space in which the subjects of the foreground and background are in a continual encounter with one another.
Above: Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas (1656), detail
Above: The Woman of Rumor (1954)
The late period of Kenji Mizoguchi, loosely defined as his films from the 1950s, pairs the layered composition with his holistic but decidedly feminist view of women's subjugation by patriarchal authority. Within these later films, Mizoguchi conceives of misogyny as a tiered structure, wherein women's experiences—as well as the choices resulting from these experiences—vary based on their proximity to capital (and the security gained by acquiring it). In The Woman of Rumor (1954), an educated young woman, Yukiko (Yoshiko Kuga), returns to her mother Hatsuko's (Kinuyo Tanaka) geisha house and confronts the guilt that her relative comfort was funded by the labor of vulnerable women. (The sour irony is that, to our knowledge, she never previously denied being their beneficiary.) One of Mizoguchi's three films in 1954—the other two being Sansho the Baliff and The Crucified Lovers—The Woman of Rumor begins with Yukiko's return, and on that first night follows as she stands far from the geishas, unable to mask her disgust as they escort hordes of drunk businessmen through the halls. But soon even this patronizing perspective becomes punctured by the daily disturbances that accompany such dangerous work, which lead Yukiko further away from her initial hostilities and towards the possibility of one day managing the property herself.
What Yukiko, who generally believes her mother to be an uncaring madame, does not know is that Hatsuko is also being exploited by lecherous men who prey upon her meager earnings. To make matters much worse, one of the men (Tomoemon Otani as a doctor with ulterior motives) also becomes Yukiko's lover. That everyone in the house is somehow roped into a transactional relation of some sort (whether with a madame or master of the house, a patron or lover) is made manifest by the film's criss-crossing choreography. Inside Hatsuko's geisha house, segmented by shelves and tables, narrowed with a seemingly infinite layout of striped rectangles, figures pass by with only the occasional intersection. Surrounded by blocks, the women find themselves in a maze where anyone lured by the promise of power (which for the women in his films, also implies protection against patriarchal authority) and weakened by poverty might become lost.
The vastness of the film's infrastructure, indicated by diagonal lines drawn across the frame that stretch its dimensions beyond the aspect ratio, imbues these small gestures with a loneliness that persists even when the scene is fully occupied by a crowd. One shape stands out among the film's many splendors: An X made up of two lines formed by the floor and the table, with geishas eating dinner (one of Mizoguchi's signatures, women's private and communal pleasures) on both sides in the foreground. A square doorway in the background composes a tiny frame-within-a-frame—the estate, from this vantage point, looks like it might grow and expand forever. From the far right, a man walks in and speaks to the madame, his face obscured. That interaction between owner and patron occurs far away from the geishas, who Mizoguchi places at the forefront of our attention so that we may only notice the man's entrance when they do: One by one, the women glance up, stretching their necks to get a better look. They hurriedly put their wigs on, then usher the man down that endless hall, signalling that break time is over: Though all workers in the house come from a separate point, they each end up following a path towards the same bleak, repeating end.
Above: "Heartvine" ("Aoi") chapter from The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari)
Above: Street of Shame (1956)
Formally, The Woman of Rumor sets the stage for another variation on the formula, Mizoguchi's final film Street of Shame, which takes place within a geisha house known as Dreamland in the red-light district of Yoshiwara. Filmed and released before the passing of the Anti-Prostitution (or Prostitution Prevention) Bill—which was passed after the film's release—Street of Shame does not directly come out against the bill so much as assert that the criminalization of sex work without the provision of rehabilitative measures for sex workers does little to ensure their safety. That sentiment, one also advocated by leaders of the Red Light District Employees Union (later called the Tokyo Women Employees Alliance), is appropriated by the master of Dreamland, who argues that he and the madame are like social workers for the geishas, who receive no help from the government. (For context, in her essay "The Prostitutes' Union and the Impact of the 1956 Anti-Prostitution Law in Japan," scholar Shiga-Fujime Yuki points out that Japanese women in post-war Japan were subject to more layoffs and the truncated wages of temporary employment, and often did not meet qualifications for unemployment assistance, therefore making sex work a more stable employment opportunity for many impoverished women.)
The geishas of the film are joined by occupation but differentiated by the reasonings behind their decision to stay at Dreamland, a logic that is, to some degree, shaped by a generational divide. The older women—Yorie (Hiroko Machida), Hanae (Michiyo Kogure), and Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu)—possess a more traditional obligation to earn money for their families (or, in Yorie's case, to earn enough to finally marry and start a family) that makes working at Dreamland a noble endurance of suffering. The two younger women speak little of their plight, choosing to flaunt the little agency they have gained by working independently of any family at all. The entrepreneurial Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) lends out money with high interest, and runaway Miki (Machiko Kyō) meanwhile borrows money and leaves all her purchases on a hefty tab with no intention of repayment. The radio blares on, reporting on the bill and its opponents; but the women are too busy working and gathering their earnings to worry about what lies ahead.
It would be remiss not to mention Mizoguchi's interest in traditional Japanese art in conjunction with his passion for Western art, which served as another reference from which Mizoguchi learned to collapse interior and exterior space into a single shot. The ease with which barriers and walls are made transparent with just the slight movement or slanted angle of the camera—which allows for characters to peek in and out of rooms—recalls fukinuki-yatai ("blown-off roofs"), a technique seen in painted scrolls that offers a bird's-eye view which, much like the layered compositions, maps out character relations within a narrative through the manipulation of three-dimensionality. (A more literal usage of this technique would be Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, while Mizoguchi's deployment demonstrates a far more conceptual understanding of the form.)
In the shot above, we can infer that based on the room dividers and sliding doors, there are three to four rooms that overlap and merge into one corridor. The woman farthest from the master of the house is the maid, seated alone. Her position in Dreamland is less visible to the public (though marked by shame and financial instability nonetheless), and this isolated placement sets up Street of Shame's renowned ending: A much younger maid (Yasuko Kawakami) is hired as a geisha; and in one of the film's few close-ups, we see her terrified face looking out into the street, trembling as she invites passersby inside. The ending, again, is not an easy endorsement of the bill that it ironically helped to pass, and we can deduce this based on framing alone. That the maid, who belongs to a class of characters earlier seen in the background, has reached a point of need where she must reluctantly enter the foreground (fully exposed by a close-up) is a jarring shift in placement, confirming a cycle of choice and circumstance—within which women climb up and down the ladder, with an even more destitute person trailing beneath—that cannot be broken down by simply banning the practice.
Above: The Crucified Lovers (1954)
Above: Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955)
Kenji Mizoguchi's late films are not always decorated with dense ensembles and furnished rooms; however, even in the exceptions to the generally applicable rule, the visual framework and its overarching logic still stand. The Crucified Lovers (1954) and Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955) are two tales of unconventional love—the former, between the scroll-maker Mohei and Osan (Kyōko Kagawa), the wife of his master; the latter, between Emperor Xuan Zong (Masayuki Mori) and the maid-turned-concubine Yang Kwei-fei (Machiko Kyō), whose corrupt family exploits her royal status. These period romances both involve a love that breaks through class hierarchy, and taking into account the judgment that the lovers face (in the case of the seventeenth century in The Crucified Lovers, adultery is a crime punishable by death) in public, the films connect true honesty and transparent revelation between lovers to the privacy of empty space.
The moment Osan finally expresses the nature of her love for Mohei, which can no longer be contained by the titles of "master" and "servant," they are on a boat in pitch black waters, unchained from the dock of respectability, a temporal and spatial point of no return. The first meeting between Xuan Zong and Yang Kwei-fei likewise unfolds into love once totally separated from the masks of their classes. Yang Kwei-fei boldly takes the emperor's lute and plays a song; he weeps when he recognizes that she, unlike everyone else in the kingdom, treats him like she would anyone else. These scenes are marked by solid swathes of color (black waters, red walls) that envelop the lovers like a thick fog. The suspended realm is also where gender becomes more apparent as a political construct subject to legal double standards: Osan's sleazy husband may violate their maid while those who know fear his retaliations, while Osan is ruthlessly pursued by the state for even the possibility that Mohei might be her lover. Therefore, when she embraces Mohei and affirms her feelings, the danger of that choice hangs heavy in the air. Yang Kwei-fei is forbidden from speaking about politics as a woman (if charged, she would be killed); and yet when she chooses to speak openly to her beloved husband, Xuan Zong is so constrained by the court that he cannot protect her from the consequences. When Yang Kwei-fei then decides to sacrifice herself to a mob so that the emperor may live, Mizoguchi suggests that there was very little freedom afforded to the princess in the court to begin with, and all that she really had to her name was her own courage.
In scenes of crowds and large spaces, the camera is placed even further away, guided across expanses until it eventually finds its subjects—camera movement as a tool for the aforementioned collapsing, or layering, to define the parameters of both front and behind and then draw the eyes of the viewer to the subject of utmost importance. Refusing to forsake their love, Mohei and Osan are captured by guards and led to their execution. First, we see the very front of the procession as it pushes through the people, at a high angle with the rooftops in view, as if we too were only spectators. Then, a slight but still breathtaking motion in a medium tracking shot: As the horse carrying the lovers nears, the camera pans across (so subtle so as to induce a rotating or rolling effect) to capture Osan's flicker of a smile, then, as she turns away from the lens, Mohei's smile in return. (It only lasts a few seconds, but even a woman from afar exclaims, "I have never seen the madame look so joyful.") The horizontal movement invokes the unraveling of a scroll, the revealing of a secret. A happier, but just as impressive, instance can also be seen in Princess Yang Kwei-fei. The emperor and his new wife have put on disguises to enjoy a night on the town, holding hands and giggling with skewers in hand. As in the previous film, Mizoguchi starts from afar and then slides closer in. This time, the camera approaches from above in the far left as the couple enters from the right, moving with them until they've arrived at the center of the frame, and their destination: a food stand. (As a more contemporary example, a similar movement occurs in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, when Frank Sheeran and Russell Buffalino reunite in prison, a fraternal pull into intimacy.)
Returning to Velázquez, one might recall Élie Faure's commentary on the painter's late career, as quoted in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965): "[...] past the age of fifty, [he] no longer painted specific objects. He drifted around things like the air, like twilight, catching unawares in the shimmering shadows the nuances of color that he transformed into the invisible core of his silent symphony.” For Kenji Mizoguchi, who passed away at the age of 58, the specificity of oppression narratives was in fact multiplied with all its nuances, led by the hope that the accumulation could give way to a universality that would then inspire the building of new laws. As Alain Badiou writes of The Crucified Lovers, "The lovers are in conflict with social law, but in the unity of their smile another possible society is being heralded. [...] We understand that every exception, every event, is also a promise for everyone."


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