Bright Lights Film Journal

The Spirit Moves: The World of Kenji Mizoguchi

The roots of artistry are often sought in autobiography, and for filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, this seems an especially appropriate place to start. Mizoguchi, with Ozu and Kurosawa one of the three undisputed masters from the golden age of Japanese cinema, was born in 1898 in the middle class district of Hongo, in Tokyo. Two events occurred when the future director was seven that may have played a pivotal role in the kinds of films he would make. In the first, his family’s fortunes were reversed when his overly ambitious father lost their money in a failed business scheme, forcing their move to the poorer district of Asakusa. In the second, which resulted from the first, his 14-year-old sister Suzu was put up for adoption and eventually sold to a geisha house. Mizoguchi’s adoration of Suzu and of his mother, who died when he was 17, was balanced by an intense hatred of his father. The senior Mizoguchi’s inability to support his family forced his son, who had already developed an arthritic condition that would plague him throughout his life, to be farmed out to relatives. It was only through the sacrifices of Suzu that he was able to study art, become a painter, and eventually direct films, starting with The Resurrection of Love (1923).

These characters and events from his youth – a sudden rise or fall in class; the oppressive or self-deluded male authority figure; the selfless, self-sacrificing woman who’s ultimately destroyed – became the basis for his greatest works: Osaka Elegy, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, The Life of OharuSansho the Bailiff, and Ugetsu. In these films Mizoguchi brilliantly uses long takes, moving camera, and shimmering tableaux to show the futility of the social and philosophical status quo, particularly as it related to women.

The director’s early work consisted mostly of studio projects over which he had little control but that nevertheless reflected some of his interests. He was a student of both western and Japanese art and literature, making films based on sources as disparate as The Tales of Hoffmann, Eugene O’Neill, and newspaper cartoons of the day. It was not until 1936, with Osaka Elegy, that he came into his own as a director. With this film, he said, “I was able finally to learn to show life as I see it.”

Osaka Elegy established a pattern for many of the later films. Ayako (Isuzu Yamada) is a young telephone operator forced to become her boss’s mistress when her father, an embezzler, is threatened with jail. Through no fault of her own, Ayako spirals continuously downward, finally forced into prostitution to support her family, who revile her even as they accept her money. The film ends with a startling close-up of a defiant Ayako, a device the director would use sparingly in the future. His other masterpiece from this year, Sisters of the Gion, tellingly explores territory that Mizoguchi knew from repeated personal experience: the geisha houses of Kyoto.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) established decisively Mizoguchi’s reputation as a “feminist” director. A Kabuki actor, Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi), falls in love with a servant girl, Otoku (Kakuko Mori), whose extreme sacrifices to make him a great actor are only realized at the end of her life. This film shows the influence (admitted by Mizoguchi) of von Sternberg, particularly in the painterly compositions and chiaroscuro lighting, effects the director had mastered by this time. Chrysanthemums also contains one of Mizoguchi’s most evocative sequences: the dying Otoku, hidden under the stage on which Kikunosuke is acting, praying for his success. The film moves far beyond the masochism implied by a simple plot recital; here and in similar works, a powerful social critique underlies the drama. As in The Life of Oharu and The Crucified Lovers, implacable forces are brought to bear when class strictures are abandoned, and it is usually the women who suffer.

Mizoguchi, the sensitive leftist and “woman’s director,” was also a perfectionist and a tyrant on the set. One story, perhaps apocryphal, says that for the film The Straits of Love and Hate (1938) he forced actor Fumiko Yamaji to rehearse a scene seven hundred times. Kinuyo Tanaka, Mizoguchi’s favorite actress and one of the screen’s greatest, recalled without rancor the director forcing her to read practically an entire library to prepare for a role. Authenticity was one of his fetishes, and his period films were particularly appreciated by Japanese audiences for their historical detail.

During the 1940s, Mizoguchi was forced to make films that suited the government’s propaganda needs. He moved into uncharacteristic samurai territory with works like The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin (1942), Miyamoto Musashi (1944), and The Famous Sword (1945). Many of these were popular enough for the director to reprise them later, as in Tales of the Taira Clan (1955). But even in nationalist works he refused to abandon his concern – one might say obsession – with the oppression of women. Films like Victory of Women (1946) and Women of the Night (1948) work as both bracing polemics and emotionally wrenching dramas.

International recognition came with The Life of Oharu (1952), a period piece that won numerous awards in Europe and Japan. Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the daughter of a samurai at Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. After falling in love with a lower-class man, she is forced into exile and he is killed. From this point her life becomes a dizzying nightmare of decline almost without parallel in cinema, as she tries to kill herself, becomes a rich man’s mistress, then a courtesan, then a maid, and finally a pauper and a decrepit whore. Mizoguchi locates his heroine in a chaos of social and historical forces, culminating in her breathtaking attempt, recorded by a swiftly moving camera, to reclaim the son she bore as mistress of a nobleman, and who has become wealthy and powerful himself.

Mizoguchi’s films from the late 1940s to the last, Street of Shame, in 1955, comprise a body of work unmatched in world cinema, remarkable for the perfection of mise-en-scene, the ravishing pictorialism, the social criticism (alternately subtle, as in the 1951 Miss Oyu, and fiercely direct, as in Sansho the Bailiff), and the sometimes overwhelming emotional intensity.

In the persistent desire to compartmentalize, critics have somewhat glibly divided up the three greats of classic Japanese cinema, with Kurosawa designated as the emotional director, Ozu as the contemplative, and Mizoguchi somewhere in between. But works like Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) have an emotional power pulls the director out of the pack. His strategies for achieving this are subtle and surprising. Whereas Kurosawa creates audience involvement through montage and liberal use of close-ups, Mizoguchi avoids both but manages to create an even stronger mood through lighting, camera placement and movement, and unusual manipulations of the actors within the frame. One thinks of his characters walking slowly, methodically, like puppets controlled by a force offscreen, as in Miss Oyu, where these delicate movements reflect the halting, complex relationships of the lethal triangle at the film’s center. In moments of crisis, Mizoguchi’s characters crouch, hide their faces, lie on the ground, with the camera usually at a discreet distance, as if the feelings they’re experiencing are too intense to be recorded.

In the famous final scene from Sansho the Bailiff, for example, a young man who’s been sold into slavery is finally reunited on a beach with his mother, who was raped, crippled, and abandoned. Mizoguchi ends this devastating encounter with a crane shot that rises far above the small, huddled pair, and we see only the beach in enormous long shot, with a tiny human figure working in the lower left part of the frame. The tragedies his characters experience (they are inevitably tragedies – a Mizoguchi comedy is surely unimaginable) are determined by fate and irredeemable human nature, unresolvable within the limits of the narrative and hence of the filmic frame. This is what the director is telling us by calling attention to a shot that dwarfs, even eradicates, his characters within it.

Mizoguchi’s ability to wring intense emotions from the smallest gestures is evident throughout Ugetsu, but particularly when the boy – whose mother was raped and killed – goes to her grave and puts a bowl of rice on it, the action punctuated by a simple bow, after which the camera cranes up and away. This scene works because of Mizoguchi’s refusal to sentimentalize it, or any of the tragic events that preceded it. Even the potter Genjuro’s doomed affair with the ghost Lady Wakasa is recorded with an almost detached air, the camera’s restless surveys of the ghostly mansion and Genjuro’s erotic entrapment presented with a simplicity that belies the power of his emotions.

Mizoguchi died in 1956, only a few years after achieving worldwide fame, while preparing another indictment of male supremacy and the merchant class to be called Osaka Story. In Ugetsu, the erring husband is guided by the spirit of his dead wife, whose sad but inspiring voice he hears as he creates his pottery. Mizoguchi’s voice has the same kind of spiritual resonance, and like the woman in Ugetsu, it has transcended his death.