The Long View

Kenji Mizoguchi, Sansho the Bailiff, 1954, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 124 minutes. Right: Kenji Mizoguchi, Ugetsu, 1953, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 96 minutes.

ONE OF THE GIANTS of Japanese cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi achieved international renown following awards at the Venice Film Festival three years straight for his masterpieces The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Unfortunately, despite unprecedented access to international DVDs, many of his earlier films are little known. All the more indispensable is the Museum of the Moving Image’s month-long Mizoguchi retrospective in which all thirty surviving films—of the more than eighty he made between 1923 and 1956—will be screened, most in 35 mm, a few in 16 mm. It’s unlikely there is a more important show in town.

Mizoguchi’s reputation as a woman’s director rested not only on strong female performances in his films but on his privileging women and their plights in pre- and postwar and even feudal Japan in a majority of his narratives. By contrast, his male characters, with few exceptions, are generally unsympathetic, including the radical leader allegedly championing women’s rights in My Love Has Been Burning (1949). As plot descriptions confirm, even Mizoguchi’s lost films manifest these hallmarks. While he initially followed the shimpa tradition—a form of melodrama that often depicted self-sacrificing women ruined by social circumstances and weak-willed men—the intense pathos of his approach and the visual style he perfected elevated the genre, especially in his later films, to high tragedy. If so many of his women are geishas or street prostitutes, it is largely because he felt those conditions symbolized the subjugation of women in Japanese society.

Some Japanese critics believed that this preoccupation reflected an “archaic psychology,” out of touch with the modern world. But while Mizoguchi’s attraction to period pieces might support such a critique, his tendency to confer saintlike status on all women, including concubines and geishas, is beyond social realism. For example, though the protagonist of Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955)—set in the eighth century and one of Mizoguchi’s two films in color—is the Emperor’s great love, she is sacrificed to appease “the people.” At the end of A Geisha (1953), an older geisha assumes the role of “patron” for her young protégée to keep her “pure.” As film historian Tadao Sato suggests, this obsession of Mizoguchi’s work may have autobiographical roots: His sister was a geisha forbidden to marry the aristocratic patron to whom she bore four children, but by remaining his concubine was able to support the young Kenji and their parents.

Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy (both 1936) depict spirited young women trying to manipulate conditions to their advantage, only to end up destroyed by callous men (the former) or ousted from the family that their sacrifices have sustained (the latter). In both films a vivid social reality is always just beyond the frame, a quality more feverishly insistent in Women of the Night (1948), in which an in-your-face grittiness—not unlike Italian Neorealist films of the time—matches the urgency provoked by postwar conditions and government efforts to curb the increase of prostitution and venereal disease brought on by desperate women, having lost their men and security, forced to the streets during the American occupation. The film’s rougher style contrasts with the more subdued, prewar Sisters of the Gion, the very title of which implies a social containment now out of control. Though message-driven, Women of the Night transcends the sheer propaganda that marred The Sword (1945) and Victory of Women (1946), made near the end of and after the war. Shortly after the release of Mizoguchi’s last film, Street of Shame (1956)—a detailed study of half a dozen women working in a brothel called “Dreamland”—a law banning prostitution was finally passed.

Kenji Mizoguchi, Sisters of the Gion, 1936, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 96 minutes.

Though Mizoguchi’s style favors long shots and camera movements over close-ups and shot-countershot (in contrast, for example, to Ozu’s use of the latter within immobile compositions), the films just discussed use more medium shots and medium close-ups than is usually noted. The extended tracking shots in Oharu and Sansho, by contrast, are sublime complements to the grander, epic arcs of their narratives, highlighting the choreography of body gestures and character movements inspired by Mizoguchi’s deployment of such Japanese traditions as noh and bunraku theater. The glacial pace of the opening tracks in Oharu, bestowing dignity on the protagonist and compassion for the tortured trajectory of her life, are poignantly echoed in one of the final tracks, barely permitting her a fleeting glimpse of the child she bore as a concubine, now heir to an imperial clan.

At their most evocative, Mizoguchi’s camera movements embody a profound perspective on the world. Carving figural coherences out of a space that extends beyond the frame, they impose meaning and value on the actions of his characters, linking them to a wider compass, and etching them indelibly on an historical canvas freighted with consequence. Even before Oharu and Sansho, there are exquisite examples in The Forty-Seven Ronin (aka Chushingura). Following the credits of Part I of the saga (1941), the camera moves slowly from left to right across what seems a deserted courtyard of the Shogun’s palace, pauses on a heated exchange between the Shogun and another man, then suddenly reverts to a rapid, near-reckless track back, disrupting the composure of the scene, in response to the actions provoked by an impulsive attack by Lord Asano on the Shogun. This act results in Asano’s hara-kiri, the collapse of his house and vassals, the humiliation of his wife, and ultimately—in Part II (1942)—the deaths of the forty-seven samurai who avenge their lord only to suffer the same fate. While the first track is from an omniscient perspective, the second is propelled by a human gesture causing deadly, irreversible effects. Together, they speak to Mizoguchi’s view of history, in which the emotions and psychological reactions aroused by a desire for justice and revenge are ultimately consumed by the established order.

While Mizoguchi’s style appealed to auteur critics in the West, reacting against Eisensteinian montage in favor of deep-focus long takes, he insisted that his compositions and editing were motivated by respect for the actor: The shot-countershot method tended to insulate actors and the characters they portrayed, he claimed, while long shots allowed them to convincingly interact within an integrated, minimally edited space—thereby facilitating a more palpable social context for the story.

Among the series’ highlights: a lecture by film scholar David Bordwell preceding the screening of Sansho the Bailiff (May 3), and the print of the silent film Cascading White Threads (1933) comes with a benshi narration (May 10 and 11).

“Mizoguchi” runs May 2–June 8, 2014 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.