Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mizoguchi Kenji (Great Auteur Directors 2)

Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), was with Ozu Yasujiro and Kurosawa Akira one of the three greatest Japanese directors of all time. For some obscure reason, however, both in Japan and abroad he now seems to be less popular than those other two directors. Only 7 of his films are available in the Criterion series, against 20 by Ozu and 26 by Kurosawa (although I regard the sometimes rather bombastic Kurosawa definitely as a lesser director than Mizoguchi). And in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of the best movies of all time, Ozu came in at third position with Tokyo Monogatari, but Mizoguchi had only a shared 50th place. Let's hope this is a temporary dip, for Mizoguchi deserves better.

In the 1950s, Mizoguchi was the idol of the French New Wave, because his moving-camera, long-shot long-take technique exemplified the aesthetic that the young Cahiers du cinéma critics were championing (and which they also found in films by, for example, Jean Renoir and Max Ophüls). Rivette adored him for the mastery of his mise-en-scene, Godard eulogized his elegance, metaphysics and instinct as a director and called him “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers, or quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.” To this day, Mizoguchi remains the apogee of Japanese film to the French, while Kurosawa retains a greater appeal for the "action and ethics"-oriented audiences of Britain and the United States.

[Mizoguchi Kenji (Photo Wikipedia)]

Mizoguchi Kenji was born into a wealthy family, but his father's ambitious business ventures failed and the family fell into poverty. His mother died and his elder sister was obliged to enter a geisha house to support the family. Her earnings paid for Mizoguchi's education. In 1920 Mizoguchi joined Nikkatsu as an actor; three years later he became a full-fledged director. Between 1923 and his relatively early death in 1956, he made 85 films, of which however only 30 are extent today. The condition of the prints of some of the pre-war films is also rather bad. It were the films Mizoguchi made in the 1950s, especially the triad of The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, that made him one of the first Japanese directors to be reckoned with internationally, winning prizes year after year at the Venice Film Festival.

One of the first Mizoguchi films that has come down to us, is The Water Magician (Taki no Shiraito, 1933), a silent film that was in fact his 48th film! It is a melodrama about "Taki of the White Threads," a carnival performer whose spectacular displays using water fountains have made her famous. She falls in love with a poor student, Kin-san (working as a rickshaw puller), and agrees to put him through college in Tokyo, sending him regularly money by letter, but after her savings run out they loose contact. Now penniless herself, she is driven to murder an usurer who wants to make her his sex slave. She is arrested and put on trial for her crime, and who is her judge but the student she has put through college! He has to give her the death sentence... (after which he himself commits suicide).

This type of story (based on a play by Izumi Kyoka, who in turn loosely derived it from a classical Chinese story) is typical for Mizoguchi, for his favorite subject were women, and then especially "all-suffering women" (paired with typically "weak men"). These women are like "mothers" to the transgressing men, in the sense that they are full of compassion; we could also make the comparison with the Kannon, a compassionate Bodhisattva who was feminized in Japan and extremely popular.

Mizoguchi's prewar films were often about the plight of women trapped in impossible situations. After WWII, this would change into the more general liberal-humanist topic about the liberation of women. In all cases, Mizoguchi expressed his deep sympathy for women victimized by an oppressive, patriarchal society. That does not mean he was a "proto-feminist" in the sense that he fought for change - he was too conservative for that. In fact he has been criticized as misogynistic and sadistic, because his stoic heroines just seem to undergo a series endurance tests - evidence from his personal life is also often brought up, how as a young man he depended on his geisha sister, how he bullied his actresses, etc. But I don't believe these criticisms are correct. From the films speaks a real empathy with his suffering heroines, who always emerge from their ordeal with their dignity and moral superiority intact.

After The Water Magician, in the 1930s Mizoguchi continued making great films as Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (see below); he also made somewhat lesser but still interesting films as Oyuki the Virgin (Maria no Oyuki, 1935), based on Boule de Suif by Maupassant, or the melodrama The Straits of Love and Hate (Aienkyo, 1937). But in the war years his subject matter was curtailed by censorship to films set in the world of the traditional performance arts (geidomono) or nationalistic, historical films. An successful example of the first category is The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (see below); in the other group fits The Loyal 47 Ronin (Genroku Chushingura, 1941) a slow and hieratic work that didn't have Mizoguchi's own interest, but that strangely enough still manages to find some viewers in the West.

Immediately after the war, under the influence of the American occupation authorities, Mizoguchi made some pro-democracy films (such as Utamaro and His Five Women in which the artist is made into a proto-democrat; or the indictment of forced prostitution after the war in Women of the Night, a film about "pan-pan girls"), after which comes his slew of great films in the 1950s (see below). He also made two unusual spectacle movies, Yokihi about the story of Yang Kweifei, the concubine of a Chinese emperor, and a period film, New Tales of the Taira Clan. Both works are colorful but static, as this was not really Mizoguchi's element. As was already clear from his Chushingura, he was a director of women and not of samurai.

His best films are:

1. Naniwa Elegy (Naniwa ereji, 1936)
Mizoguchi's first work with script writer Yoda Yoshikata, who would become one of his fixed collaborators. Naniwa, by the way, is the traditional name for Osaka. A young switchboard operator of a pharmaceutical company, a modern woman (played by Yamada Isuzu), is ruined when she is coaxed into an affair with her married boss in order to pay off her father's debts and finance the education of her ungrateful brother. When her employer tires of her, she has no recourse but prostitution, especially when a scheme to cheat the boss' friend out of his money backfires and lands her in police custody. Her weak fiancé stands helplessly by. Filmed in a modern style, with an open ending: a close-up of the face of the protagonist as a big question mark. This was the film in which Mizoguchi found his true direction. Also an invaluable document of Japanese urban life in the mid-thirties, with documentary-like shots of flashing neon lights, cafés, department stores, subway stations and other modern urban spaces (with Miki Minoru's deep-focus photography). The reality of the location is emphasized by the use of Osaka dialect. But the 1930s were a conservative period in Japan and the film's progressive take on the social pressures faced by independent and modern Japanese women made it controversial. 

2. Sisters of the Gion (Gion no kyodai, 1936)
After Osaka's modernity, Sisters of the Gion takes a realistic look at the glamorous world of traditional geisha in Kyoto's decorous Gion district. Mizoguchi sets up an interesting contrast between a strict and traditional elder sister (Umemura Yoko) who remains faithful to her patron even after he has gone broke, and a defiant, younger one (Yamada Isuzu) who is modern and opportunistic - she goes from man to man for money, regarding being a geisha as purely "business." Although the director's sentiments seem to go to the elder sister, the end of the film leaves her in fact condemned. Scripted by Yoda from an original story by Mizoguchi; remade 17 years later by Mizoguchi as Gion Festival Music (Gionbayashi) - another very fine film - in which it was updated to the postwar situation and the harshness was replaced by humor. Sisters of the Gion is Mizoguchi's best prewar film.

3. Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Zangiku monogatari, 1939)
The tragedy of a woman in the feudalistic and snobbish world of the Kabuki theater, but at the same time an almost "sacramental" depiction of the family system. A kabuki actor injures the dignity of his family by falling in love with the family maid, Otoku. He in fact owes his career to her tireless devotion, she sacrifices herself for her lover's success, even at the expense of her health. But his theatrical family will only allow him to continue his career if he gives up seeing the maid. He complies, and while he holds a festive parade as the new star actor of the company, Otoku dies a lonely death. Melodrama filmed in a refined way. In these ultra-nationalistic times, Mizoguchi sought shelter from censorship by making films about Japanese traditions (geidomono), a safe topic. It is also a traditional theme, that at the basis of every man's success, lies the devotion of a woman. But Mizoguchi does give a twist to this theme, for he shows that only a moron can rejoice in success built on the destruction of someone who shines with innate goodness. In other words, any happiness the male protagonist might feel over his success, is utterly out of place.

4. Women of the Night (Yoru no Onnatachi, 1948)
Another film set in Osaka, but here a very different city from the vibrantly modern one in Osaka Elegy: we are now among the rubble and devastation of bombed-out, postwar occupation-era Osaka. It is also a world apart from Sisters of the Gion: we meet a group of women forced into prostitution by the hardship of the immediate postwar years ("panpan girls"). The film contains many superb scenes as well as a message of sympathy for the panpan girls. Helped to bring about a ban on street prostitution (although only in the late 1950s). Filmed on location with a gritty neo-realist approach by Mizoguchi. His second film with Tanaka Kinuyo, who would become closely associated with the director both on screen and off.

5. Portrait of Madame Yuki (Yuki fujin ezu, 1950)
Set in the resort of Atami, this film is about an affluent heiress (Kogure Michiyo), married to a vulgar, oppressive, womanizing and spendthrift husband. She is in love with an earnest young scholar (Uehara Ken), but remains physically drawn to her brutish husband - her body-mind split finally ends in tragedy. This is also because her lover is too passive to make even the slightest effort to help her by breaking the cycle - in fact, he is just as worthless as her husband. Beautiful portrait of a proud and delicate woman threatened by the insensitivity around her. This film, with Lady Musashino and Miss Oyu, is often treated as "lesser" Mizoguchi, as a creative slump, but I don't agree. All three are very fine films. Take only the cinematography in Portrait of Madame Yuki, as the scene of the mist-covered, reed-filled lake into which the female protagonist is about to throw herself at the end.
P.S. The next year Mizoguchi would treat similar material in Lady Musashino (Musashino Fujin, 1951), based on a novel by Oka Shohei. Here Tanaka Kinuyo is a disillusioned young wife, trapped in a loveless marriage to her translator husband (Mori Masayuki), living in the western Tokyo suburbs; she eventually becomes entangled in a destructive affair with her cousin, who (again) is too weak to support her love. 

6. Miss Oyu (Oyu-sama, 1951)
Loosely based on the novel Ashikari (The Reed Cutter) by Tanizaki Junichiro. Oyu (Tanaka Kinuyo) is a young widow who falls in love with Shinnosuke, the man introduced (via a formal miai marriage arrangement) as the prospective partner for her younger sister Shizu. Oyu herself can not remarry as in the traditional family system it is her task to solely devote herself to the upbringing of her young son, who will become the head of the deceased husband's family. Shizu not only notices that her sister has lost her heart to her husband-to-be, but also that her feelings are reciprocated. So she plans to go ahead with the marriage and have that serve as a façade for an otherwise socially impossible affair. The result is an interesting clandestine ménage à trois - Shizu even foregoes consummating her marriage to Shinnosuke so that he can remain pure for Oyu. This was Mizoguchi's first collaboration with cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo, known for his elegant long takes. Particularly lovely is the first scene of the introductory meeting between prospective bride and groom in a Japanese-style garden. A gentle, bittersweet film.

7. The Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna, 1952)
Loosely based on a classical novel by 17th c. author Iharu Saikaku. The atypical period film chronicles the inexorable decline of a court lady (Tanaka Kinuyo in one of her best roles) who falls in love with a man below her station (the man is dutifully executed for his trespass; the court lady is banished from Kyoto) and finally ends up as a cheap harlot, via being the concubine of a lord (solely to produce a baby), a geisha, and the wife of a fan maker. In this way, Tanaka Kinuyo (then aged 42) plays a variety of ages across the decades, in a relentless downward move through the social strata, rendering a grueling depiction of a woman at the mercy of patriarchalism. Finally, Oharu becomes a mendicant Buddhist nun, traveling the countryside, begging like a pilgrim in order to do penance for her "sins." Of course, the truth is that she was sinned against. Imbued with a sad beauty. Contains sublime examples of Mizoguchi's fluid tracking shots and his signature one-scene one-take style. This distinguished film became Mizoguchi's international breakthrough when it won the International prize at the Venice Film Festival.

8. Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953)
Adapted from stories by Ueda Akinari and Maupassant. One of the most perfect movies in the history of Japanese cinema, an exquisite blending of the otherworldly and the real. Set during the civil wars of the 16th century, a potter (Mori Masayuki) leaves wife and child behind to go to the city to sell his wares. There he falls in love with a beautiful, mysterious woman (Kyo Machiko) who later turns out to be the ghost of a princess. She had never tasted love in her life and therefore must now seduce and destroy men. When at long last he manages to free himself from this beautiful, but malevolent spirit (who wants to take him back to the land of the dead), the potter returns home where he is relieved to find his wife (Tanaka Kinuyo) waiting for him, with his small son. She fixes him a warm meal and mends his clothes, but the next morning the potter discovers that in fact she has been dead for some time - she is also a ghost. The difference is that she has become a benevolent ancestral spirit who watches over her husband and her son. Despite the supernatural elements, this is not a horror film: it is eerie rather than frightening, with a strong spiritual dimension. The meeting with the mysterious lady and the potter's subsequent seduction is shown in a dreamlike sequence which is one of the highlights of world cinema.

9. Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, 1954)
Based on a short story by Mori Ogai, which itself goes back to a medieval legend, this heartbreaking film is an expression of human resilience in the face of evil. An eleven-century family is broken up by politics - the father, a governor who disobeyed the ruling feudal lord, dies in exile. The wife (Tanaka Kinuyo) and her two children are left to fend for themselves and eventually fall prey to slave traders. The son is finally reunited with the mother through the self-sacrifice of his sister (she commits suicide so that he can escape). One of cinema's greatest masterpieces, with gorgeous photography and elegant camerawork. As is his wont, Mizoguchi keeps his camera distant and his takes long, resulting in a contemplative style. Venice Film Festival San Marco Silver Lion. With this and previous films, Mizoguchi raised the genre of the historical film to a high level of historic validity and universality.

10. Street of Shame (Akasen Chitai, 1956)
Street of Shame is a sensitive yet unvarnished tale of a brothel called "Dreamland" in Tokyo's Yoshiwara red-light district, and a group of five women whose dreams are constantly being shattered by the socioeconomic realities surrounding them in a male-oriented world. The film became Mizoguchi's swan song (he died this same year at age 58 of leukemia); it contains excellent character portrayals, of the cynical hooker Mickey or the aging Yumeko who is shattered when her son rejects her because of her profession. Made while the National Diet of Japan was debating an anti-prostitution law (which was finally passed shortly after the film’s release). Akasen Chitai however takes an equivocal position: in the society of that time, there is no work for the women outside of prostitution; moreover, marriage is presented as a form of slavery. Fine performances by Kyo Machiko, Wakao Ayako, and Kogure Michiko. Awarded with a Special Mention at the 17th Venice Film Festival.

About Mizoguchi: Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Oxford / New York, 2008).
References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal
Japanese Film Index