“We live in a fishbowl, and people love to talk.”
– Sisters of the Gion
Famously, Mizoguchi’s camera is a spy: peeking in behind bars and curtains and doorways (framing shots diagrammatically on left or right), watching unobserved, waiting, as characters eat and drink and shuffle in and out, for the action to happen. In this, it’s like so many Mizoguchi characters peering into private spaces.
Ozu has pillow shots, but Mizoguchi punctuates his plots, as Rossellini does, with interludes of characters watching—waiting in cars (Sisters of the Gion) or subways (Women of the Night) or trains (Madame Suki, contemporary with Stromboli, with which it nearly shares an ending)—though Mizoguchi will occasionally show us what they’re watching—if it’s nature passing by. From a director whose cinematography can seem security-cam objective, these sudden passes into subjectivity and movement are glimpses of the great, fluid Romantic he was too; they’re the moments of respite, for character and viewer both, from the tragedies humans inflict on themselves back in civilization. Following Lang’s Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Mizoguchi cuts a car ride to Hell, with out-the-window ellipses, swift as axe-blows, like these:
So to distinguish between two types of watching and waiting in Mizoguchi: one that intrudes on personal space, and one that provides it, or at least allows an escape from a public arena of humiliation. And it’s always an arena: camera back, open floor, surrounding walls, spaces precisely delineated, all to give the impression of a self-enclosed contraption. Mizoguchi watches his cages from afar as the characters do in each other and then themselves. Entrapment is always his key theme—and style. Witness the world boxed in in Sisters of the Gion:
But whereas the Kobayashi Masaki of Samurai Rebellion and Harakiri uses the grids of Japanese architecture to trap his characters in an oppressive order, Mizoguchi is never oppressive. Characters pass to and from the planes (foreground and background no longer are distinct), and in and out of the frames—and frame—freely as full-bodied presences in an otherwise flattened world. In the early films, a shot composed exactly so will give way as the camera pans to another scene in an adjoining room; one space, as in Gertrud, tends to give way to another. In The Downfall of Osen (forget the pans):
Mizoguchi’s key theme, and style, is humiliation: there is no private space, and as in Kafka, characters are always being watched and used even in their most private moments (a prostitute is just a girl who turns a private act into a public one). The camera spies in from neighboring room. Or action off-screen (perhaps character on-screen watches on, as in Sisters). Or characters come and go and hide. Or tracking shots invade. Always invasion. In The Water Magician (1933), Mizoguchi reserves his tracking shots for a single, central scene in which a prostitute kills the man who’s exploited her. A bravura sequence: a gliding, proto-Steadicam trails behind her as she walks up to the house, into it, through the rooms, to his, where he’s just awaking at the noise, and kills him (one shot). What’s evoked? Elation, mostly, at the sudden burst of movement, the open freedom of passing through so many barriers, physical and otherwise. But also paranoia: as the girl stalks the man, the camera stalks her, and he becomes a victim in his bed. There’s no private space. It’s constantly transgressed. Like actresses, Mizoguchi heroines play their parts for the men around them if the men don’t force the role on them first. And are looked in on by people they can’t see.
“A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow,” writes Arendt. “While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense. The only efficient way to guarantee the darkness of what needs to be hidden against the light of publicity is private property, a privately owned place to hide in.” But what is hidden, in so many Mizoguchi films, is not the actors—the victims of the plot-line—but all the people watching them.
Mizoguchi’s most formally dare-all gobsmackers, Story of the Late Chrysanthemums and The 47 Ronin and The Love of Sumako the Actress, are explicit with the theater parallel, as real life and plays alternate as if the one was just a condition of the other: people are puppets (and treat each other as such), their actions rituals, but without these prerequisites, we’d never see the beauty of a dance (they’d make a fun quadruple bill with Renoir’s French Cancan). More explicit is Osaka Elegy (above), which unnecessarily cross-cuts between a puppet play and the drama in the wings, where the characters are telling stories (lies) to protect themselves, or to win favors with a girl to be exploited later. “Don’t make a scene,” a man says to his wife who’s just caught him with a prostitute, and Mizoguchi cuts to the stage.
Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion are full of such moments when characters stage scenes to get their way. Inevitably, Mizoguchi will show them in a nearly empty room, from outside. Civilization is a stage (for money-hagglers). The girls of Elegy and Sisters get their way, Stanwycks of Japan, only to find that they’ve compromised themselves in the eyes of everyone they know. In Sisters, the girls are as ashamed of themselves as everyone else; Elegy, an anticipation of Viridiana, ends with a girl who’s sacrificed herself for her family, only for them to deny her, walking in the about the first close-up of the movie. Whether she's ashamed or proud or knows herself, the point—and it’s the point that ends almost all of Mizoguchi’s films, which tend to close in some mid-scene movement—is only that everyone’ll keep living life as they have to.
Special thanks to Masters of Cinema and Eclipse, for the DVD releases of last year, and Thomas Elsaesser, for opening doors.