Don’t miss Mizoguchi: 10-film retrospective at Doc

By Hildy Johnson

This fall, campus movie fans have the rare opportunity to get an in-depth look at one of the most revered artists in the history of film. On Wednesday nights through December 1, Doc Films is presenting a 10-film retrospective of the works of the great Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956).

Who was Mizoguchi? Ask hardcore film types and they’ll get a beatific, faraway look in their eyes. A few will all but light up the incense sticks, drop to their knees, and start moaning that they’re “not worthy.”

But ask most normal people—even the most well-educated and culturally savvy ones—and you’re likely to get a blank stare. The writer Philip Lopate once claimed that when he mentioned Mizoguchi, a friend misheard the name as “Ms. Gucci” and thought he was referring to a fashion designer.

Certainly, among his fellow filmmakers, few directors have been more ardently admired. Jean-Luc Godard felt that Mizoguchi was “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers; or, quite simply, one of the greatest filmmakers.” Akira Kurosawa said of Mizoguchi, “Of all Japanese directors, I have the greatest respect for him.” And Orson Welles opined that Mizoguchi “can’t be praised enough, really.”

Mizoguchi was also adored by the critics. For an unprecedented three years in a row (1952-54), he won the top film prize at the Venice Film Festival (for Life of Oharu, Ugetsu, and Sansho the Bailiff). Film scholar Robin Wood wrote, “If the cinema has yet produced a Shakespeare, its Shakespeare is Mizoguchi…There are no more beautiful compositions anywhere in the cinema.” And critic’s polls, such as the one conducted by Sight and Sound magazine, routinely name works like Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and Story of the Late Chrysanthemums as among the greatest films of all time.

On Seinfeld, Mizoguchi was used as the ultimate signifier for snob appeal, when Elaine, frustrated by Jerry’s lowbrow tastes, chastises him because he missed “the Mizoguchi retrospective at Lincoln Center.”

Yet Mizoguchi, who was active as a film director for over 30 years and made approximately 86 films, is considerably less well-known than his compatriots Kurosawa and Ozu, at least among Western audiences.

Why is this? It’s not that his works are especially difficult or inaccessible to Western audiences. On the contrary, the dramatic power and psychological acuity of his narratives give his films broad appeal. But unlike Kurosawa, who died in 1998 at age 88, Mizoguchi died at a comparatively young 58, at the height of his powers. He was just becoming known to Western audiences, and, in fact, some of his most important works were not released in the U.S. until decades after his death.

Mizoguchi has also had bad luck with distribution. He made about a dozen films that are widely considered to be masterpieces, and perhaps a dozen more that critics have deemed to be valuable and important. Yet, shockingly, only three of his works are available on DVD in the U.S., and two of those are British imports. In film format, only three titles are available from U.S. distributors. Most of the films for the Doc series came from foreign archives and distributors.

As those who attend the series will discover, Mizoguchi’s cinematic style is not quite like anyone else’s. For the most part, he eschewed close-ups in favor of long-distance camera shots. He is noted for his stunningly beautiful compositions and his fluid, graceful camerawork. He preferred to shoot each sequence with a single shot, breaking up scenes not with cuts but with tracking, panning, and crane shots.

Many critics divide Mizoguchi’s work into two types: His naturalistic social protest films, most of which were made in the early part of his career, and his more lyrical historical films, which came later. Though politically he remained on the left, to some extent the social concerns of the earlier films gave way to more spiritual themes later on, reflecting Mizoguchi’s conversion to Buddhism late in life.

One concern that remained a constant in Mizoguchi’s work—some might say an obsession—is the condition of women. A recurring theme is the selfishness of men, and the self-sacrifice of women. His films searingly, unforgettably document the oppression of women in Japanese society, both within the family and outside of it. Many of his most powerful films center on the experiences of geishas and prostitutes. For Mizoguchi, these themes have deep autobiographical roots. His family was often desperately poor, and as a child, he saw his adored older sister, Suzu, sold to a geisha house. After economic circumstances forced Mizoguchi to drop out of school at the age of 14, he went to live with Suzu, and she supported him during the early part of his career.

If you’re new to Mizoguchi and are wondering which of the films in the Doc series you should see, the not-to-be-missed category includes Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and my personal favorite, Sansho the Bailiff (1954), all of which are considered to be among his greatest masterpieces.

If those films appeal to you, you’ll probably also want to experience two of his great prewar films, Osaka Elegy (1936) and Sisters of the Gion (1936). While the critical consensus is that Mizoguchi made his greatest films in the 1950s, there is a school of thought that says he never equaled his 1930s works. Fans of historical films and the action genre would probably enjoy the four-hour samurai epic The 47 Ronin (1941), although they should be warned that the film places a somewhat unexpected emphasis on contemplation and emotion rather than action.

More advanced connoisseurs may want to check out his experimental early talkie, Hometown (1930), which stars the famous tenor Yoshie Fujiwara; his powerful final film Street of Shame (1956), which takes place in a brothel in postwar Tokyo; and My Love Has Been Burning (1949), his film about the 19th century feminist Eiko Kageyama, which has a fascinatingly modern take on sexual politics.

But whatever you decide, if you care about film at all, you owe it to yourself to acquaint yourself with this remarkable artist. And then, the next time someone mentions the name Mizoguchi, you too will get a beatific, faraway look in your eyes.