Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) was a foundational figure of the Japanese cinema and one of its uncontestably supreme artists. Mizoguchi remains best known today for his late masterworks of the 1950s and especially The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, haunting visions of feudal Japan tragically shaped by the suffering heroines and inexorable tracking shots often declared the pillars of Mizoguchi’s cinema. Exalted by Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, the slow unspooling of time and space in Mizoguchi’s late films was celebrated as a sublime realization of the stylized realism preached by the spiritual father of the nouvelle vague, André Bazin. With their obsessively detailed attention to period costume, architecture and the traditional Japanese arts and literature from which they drew deep inspiration, Mizoguchi’s late films also branded him, internationally, as the most quintessentially Japanese filmmaker, an epithet still active, although also extended these days to Yasujiro Ozu. While indisputably a pinnacle of Mizoguchi’s cinema, the late films offer, however, only a partial portrait of a filmmaker whose larger career was notably volatile and defined by a mercurial, even impulsive, imagination that frequently pulled him in contradictory directions.
This complete retrospective of Mizoguchi’s extant feature films reveals the different paths pursued throughout his long career which zigzagged between distinct genres and, unlike many of his contemporaries, between different studios, both established major and precariously minor production companies. While most of the silent films directed during Mizoguchi’s prolific first years as a director have been lost, the broad range of their subject and genres—from adaptations of Eugene O’Neil and Tolstoy to Expressionist imitations of Caligari—make clear the broad range of his interests while also contextualizing The 47 Ronin and his other (almost) all male anti-action films made during the Second World War and under the close supervision of government censors. Most importantly, this retrospective offers an especially useful corrective for understanding the central role of women in Mizoguchi’s cinema which is often sweepingly celebrated as proto-feminist, thanks to the outspoken, fiery critique of cruel misogynist patriarchy in such powerful films as Osaka Elegy, Women of the Night and Street of Shame. Without dulling the sharp-edged social critique honed by many of Mizoguchi’s greatest films, the recurrent figure of the suffering woman must also be seen as just one expression of a romantic fatalism which increasingly pervades Mizoguchi’s cinema as a kind of omnipotent gravitational force controlling both the steady downward spiral of his characters and the inexorable movement of his camera whose controlled distance and dispassionate avoidance of close-ups lends a certain coldness to Mizoguchi’s visions of a fallen world.
Writings on Mizoguchi’s cinema have tended to fetishistically recall the same incidents of his life as evidence of his cinema’s autobiographical roots: his father’s failed business venture and the consequent financial ruin of Mizoguchi’s family when he was a young boy, then the sale of his beloved older sister Suzuko to a geisha house which followed not long afterward. Deeper study of Mizoguchi’s life offers equally resonant material: his disastrous love affair with a prostitute which ended when she almost fatally stabbed him in the back, and the sudden descent into madness of his first wife who Mizoguchi commited to an asylum, and then began to live with her younger sister and her young children. While traces of these episodes echo across Mizoguchi’s films, any autobiographical reading of his cinema must also heed the deep imprint left upon the artist’s imagination by Mizoguchi’s birth and upbringing in the Meiji Era, a period of intense social, political and cultural upheaval that marked his country’s rapid transition during this period from a feudalist isolationism to a modern nation-state with increasingly bellicose expansionist ambitions. Indeed, one of the central ideas of Mizoguchi’s cinema lies in his equal interest in contemporary and pre-modern Japan and, moreover his insistence on a clear continuity across the two periods in terms of the atavistically rigid social and sexist hierarchy that his films trace from the Seventeenth century Kyoto of The Life of Oharu to the Thirties Osaka of Naniwa Elegy and the Fifties Tokyo of Street of Shame.
Mizoguchi was notorious as a tyrannical martinet who tirelessly pushed actors, screenwriters, set designers and cinematographers alike to realize the ever-shifting images and ideas driving his films. Indeed, the naturalist performance which remains one of the keys of Mizoguchi’s cinema was legendarily derived from his uncompromising striving for the flickering essence of each scene, gesture and line of dialogue and his ability to ask a performer to repeat a line endlessly until it came out just right. Equally perfectionist was his insistence that his sets be built with an unprecedented historical and architectural fidelity—using exact blueprints and filled not with props but with genuine antiques. Mizoguchi nevertheless inspired an incredible loyalty among his principal collaborators, chief among them the great cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda and actress Kinuyo Tanaka who was Mizoguchi’s main star for a full seventeen years. Indeed, for the emotional depth and power of the films they made together, Kinuyo-Mizoguchi stand as one of the great actress-director couples, together with Dietrich-Von Sternberg, Vitti-Antonioni, Hara-Ozu.
Co-presented with the Japan Foundation. Special thanks: Aliza Ma—Museum of the Moving Image, New York; Kanako Shirasaki—the Japan Foundation, New York; National Film Centre, Tokyo; the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Kadokawa Pictures, Nikkatsu Studios and Shochiku Company Limited—Japan.
Read a version of the recent talk on Mizoguchi given by David Bordwell, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison at the Museum of the Moving Image.
Film descriptions by Haden Guest and David Pendleton
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Masayuki Mori, Kinuyo Tanaka, Machiko Kyo
Japan 1953, 35mm, b/w, 96 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Not only does Ugetsu remain Mizoguchi’s best-known work in this country, it was instrumental (with Rashomon) in introducing Japanese cinema to American audiences. The film is an excellent entryway into the master’s films, with its parallel stories of women confounded by social mores and the greed and ambition of the men they love. Just as the screenplay adds a bit of Guy de Maupassant to the source material (a collection of stories by Ueda Akinari published in 1771), so the film introduces a note of the fantastic into its tales of lives cast into turmoil by civil war in 16th-century Japan. Print courtesy of Janus Films
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With With Shigeru Kido, Sueko Ito, Shiro Kato, Kentaro Kawamata
Japan 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 45 min. Japanese titles with English subtitles
A commission from the Ministry of Education for an educational film about rural youth, Mizoguchi’s earliest extant feature observes the tensions that erupt among a group of village children when two privileged youth return from Tokyo where they have been studying in a private school. Song of Home offers a very different approach to the rigid Japanese caste system explored in so many of Mizoguchi’s later films, here by focusing upon the difficult decisions faced by a young village boy when forced to choose between schooling in Tokyo and upholding his family tradition as a farmer. Stylistically Song of Home is also strikingly different from Mizoguchi’s iconic films, most notably for its use of Soviet-style montage and extreme close-ups and the total absence of the long-takes of expressionist camera movement that would become one of the director’s signatures. Print courtesy of National Film Center, Japan
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Isuzu Yamada, Yoko Umemura
Japan 1936, 35mm, b/w, 96 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Mizoguchi’s first-hand knowledge of Kyoto’s legendary Gion district, which he regularly patronized during his many years in the city, is apparent in Sisters of the Gion’s scrupulous, almost documentary, attention to the nuanced details which reveal the stark reality of the modern-day geisha’s grueling work and life. Izumu Yamada bristles with steely determination as a outspokenly modern geisha who views the world through a jaundiced and always questioning eye yet still struggles desperately to help her beloved sister avoid the same pattern of abuse and degradation which Mizoguchi’s angry and sobering film makes clear is the lot of too many Japanese women. Mizoguchi’s only work to win the coveted Kinema Junpo Best Film of the Year Award, Sisters of the Gion ignited a fierce debate about the place of the geisha within modern Japan. An early expression of Mizoguchi’s expressive camera, here extended tracking shots are used to poetically reveal women’s ultimate marginality in a world always drifting away from them.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Isuzu Yamada, Komako Hara
Japan 1935, 35mm, b/w, 78 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Among Mizoguchi’s earliest sound films was this partial adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de suif” (also the inspiration for John Ford’s Stagecoach) which centers around the arresting figure of Oyuki, a spirited small town geisha traveling with one of her kind, and brought together by fate and strange fortune in a stagecoach with an uppity aristocratic family and a shopkeeper and his wife. By its title alone the film (whose literal Japanese title is Oyuki, “the Virgin Mary”) makes clear Mizoguchi’s deep sympathy for the geisha as an emblem of the working class and a lens through which to observe the hypocrisy and venality of the Japanese bourgeoisie. Isuzu Yamada, best known for her work with Kurosawa—and especially her mesmerizing Lady Macbeth in Throne of Blood—brings a tender vulnerability to the young geisha who remains a gentle innocent in the callous, mercenary world described by Mizoguchi’s film. An important stylistic milestone for Mizoguchi, Oyuki the Virgin finds the young director experimenting with longer shots and complexly expressionist deep focus mise-en-scene which clearly shows the influence of Von Sternberg who Mizoguchi had recently met during the American director’s 1936 visit to Japan.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Machiko Kyo, Aiko Mimasu, Ayako Wakao
Japan 1956, 35mm, b/w, 87 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Released just months before his premature death by leukemia, Mizoguchi’s final film interweaves portraits of five prostitutes working in “Dreamland,” a brothel in Tokyo’s notorious and then historic Yoshiwara red-light district. Street of Shame is unsparing and forcefully direct in its refusal to romanticize the life or figure of the prostitute by unflinchingly revealing the full sordid dimensions of her tawdry, tattered world. Released after months of extended debate about an anti-prostitution law which is even discussed within the film, Street of Shame is claimed to have given the final impetus to the ban’s final establishment. Yoshikata Yoda, feeling unsatisfied with his last script about prostitutes, Women of the Night, declined his last chance to work with Mizoguchi who turned to Masashige Narusawa (Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, Tales of the Taira Clan).
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Minosuke Bando, Kinuyo Tanaka, Kotaro Bando
Japan 1946, 35mm, b/w, 95 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Yoshikata Yoda would later admit basing his vision of legendary 17th Century artist Kitagawa Utamaro on Mizoguchi, channeling into his mesmerizing portrait the filmmaker’s reverential worship of the gentle sex, and his troubled, often tumultuous relationship with women, and geisha in particular. Among Mizoguchi’s most erotic works, Utamaro and His Five Women brings a raw sensuality into its masterful study of the creative process which makes vivid both the unbridled elation and darkest frustrations which buoyed and unsettled the famed master of the bijin-ga, ukiyo-e woodblock portraits of beautiful women. Despite the great scrutiny given to period films by the US Occupational Force, who were determined to dampen any nationalist imagery or ideals in the cinema, Mizoguchi was given carte blanche for his ambitious and richly detailed recreation of Utamaro’s world. Print courtesy of Janus Films
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa
Japan 1954, 35mm, b/w, 124 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Sansho the Bailiff is both one of Mizoguchi’s most accessible works and one of his most sublime, a highpoint among postwar Japan’s jidai-geki films set in the medieval past. The narrative impassively follows two families caught up in sweeping cycles of rise and fall, betrayal and resignation, as Mizoguchi’s tracking shots both entrance with their majesty and shock with surprise. “Perhaps more than anything, this is a film about memory, and a film in which forgetting is the original sin. Working with master cameraman Kazuo Miyagawa (who also shot Rashomon and Floating Weeds), Mizoguchi creates an aestheticized world and a cosmic order which exists beyond the characters (and often in opposition to the suffering they undergo).” — Tom Gunning (Print courtesy of Janus Films)
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Yoshie Fujiwara, Fujiko Hamaguchi, Shizue Natsukawa
Japan 1930, 35mm, b/w, 75 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Mizoguchi’s first foray into sound was a first as well for the Japanese cinema, comparable to The Jazz Singer as a historic and technological milestone while similarly compensating for its part-talkie limitations by offering a series of over-determined song numbers which emerge as the emotional heart of the film. Hometown justified its technological gambit with a melodramatic story of a singer’s Mephistophean pact with fame, tested by the devotion of a loyal woman standing by his side. Casting popular tenor Yoshie Fujiwara in the main role was a costly gamble by Nikkatsu studio which offered clear evidence of Mizoguchi’s privileged stature within the Japanese film industry.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Shotaro Hanayagi, Kokichi Takada, Gonjuro Kawarazaki
Japan 1939, 35mm, b/w, 143 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Mizoguchi’s fabled about the doomed love between a Kabuki actor and a young servant girl willing to sacrifice everything for the young man’s career is often cited as a milestone in his career, the work in which his mature style finds its first full flowering. One of the great films about the stage, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums painstakingly renders the grinding schedule and hardships endured by the actor while lyrically paralleling them with the roles the ennobled maid is forced to play. A luminous theatricality is cast on both on- and off-stage scenes by the film’s beautifully rendered Von Sternberg-style chiaroscuro lighting and painterly shadows.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Takako Irie, Tokihiko Okada
Japan 1933, 16mm, b/w, silent, 75 min. Benshi soundtrack with English subtitles
Considered by many as the most accomplished of Mizoguchi’s extant silent films, White Threads of the Waterfall offers his earliest exploration of the suffering heroine as emblem of tragic fatalism, here in the figure of a talented and ravishingly beautiful “water artist” who sacrifices her youth and career for the man she loves. Based on the stage version of a popular shinpa novel by Kyoka Izumi whose melodramatic imagination and frequently cutting depiction of Meiji-era Japan exerted a huge influence on Mizoguchi, White Threads of the Waterfall was the favorite film of the legendary benshi Midori Sawato (1925-87) who used the film to pass her art on to a new generation of katsuben.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Kinuyo Tanaka, Toshiro Mifune
Japan 1952, 35mm, b/w, 136 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Mizoguchi’s personal favorite of all his films, The Life of Oharu is in many ways a summary work, the crystallization of his vision of woman martyred by social injustice and the Meiji-era as the dark caldron of the repressive, misogynistic and feudalist spirits that linger, atavistically, in his contemporary films. Kinuyo Tanaka reveals her incredible range in her depiction of a courtesan’s vertiginous fall from grace, a trajectory whose gleaming sharp edge revealingly eviscerates the seedy underbelly of Meiji social institutions and mores. The expressive camera movement so celebrated in Mizoguchi’s cinema is given a sublime showcase by The Life of Oharu, with almost operatically soaring movements comparable to the films of Ophuls and Murnau. By garnering the Grand Prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival The Life of Oharu brought Mizoguchi to international attention and, by coming the year after Rashomon captured the same honors, helped propel Japanese cinema onto the world stage.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Chojuro Kawarasaki, Kinuyo Tanaka, Kigoro Ikushima
Japan 1944, 16mm, b/w, 55 min. Japanese with English subtitles
For his follow-up to The 47 Ronin Mizoguchi offered another adaptation of Japanese military legend that subtly, and stylishly, avoided the bellicose patriotism encouraged by government-pressured film studios. While centered around the eponymous swordsman, ronin and philosopher of war, Miyamoto Musashi carefully limits and contains its laconic action sequences, especially the climatic duels, to instead emphasize Musashi’s temperate side—revealed though his patient teaching of a vengeful young disciple, and his intimate rapport with the lush Japanese country side and forests. Among the few Mizoguchi’s films in which women appear only in minor, secondary roles Miyamoto Musashi is among the director’s most rarely screened works.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Kinuyo Tanaka, Tomie Tsunoda, Sanae Takasugi
Japan 1948, 35mm, b/w, 75 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Osaka’s Shinsekai district, the seedy headquarters of the yakuza underworld, comes alive in Mizoguchi’s searing indictment of prostitution as a stark injustice to woman and an emblem of a dark malaise at the heart of postwar Japan. For its stylistic rawness and anger Women of the Night is distinguished from Mizoguchi’s other collaborations with screenwriter Yoshitaka Yoda, most especially for its hard-edged use of Osaka street dialect, scenes of savage violence, and the Italian neo-realist inspired war-scarred locations that mirror the deep instability of social institutions described so powerfully by the film’s dark melodrama of victimized women.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Fumiko Yamaji, Masao Shimizu
Japan 1937, 35mm, b/w, 108 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Long unavailable in any form, Straits of Love and Hate is one of Mizoguchi’s key Thirties’ films, among the first to offer the theater as a critical expression of the performative, sexist and constricting roles enforced by Japanese society and almost vengefully upon women. In his third collaboration with Yoshitaka Yoda, Mizoguchi loosely adapted Tolstoy’s Resurrection, a recurrent source of Japanese silent films, into a story of a servant girl whose life is upturned by her doomed love for a spineless young man. Breaking from other similarly patterned Mizoguchi films, the heroine of Straits of Love and Hate openly rebels against the downfall that she nevertheless cannot prevent, lashing out at the men and society who have taken such cruel advantage of her.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Isuzu Yamada, Seiichi Takegawa, Chiyoko Okura
Japan 1936, 35mm, b/w, 90 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Mizoguchi’s first collaboration with screenwriter Yoshitaka Yoda was a harshly realist critique of Thirties’ Japan as a soullessly capitalist society where human and mercantile values are savagely equated, and everything is ultimately reduced to a form of moneyed transaction. Mizoguchi would later claim his own despised father to be the inspiration for the miserly old man whose selfishness causes the ruination of his family and the degradation of his daughters. Mizoguchi and Yoda’s devastating indictment of Japanese patriarchy remained controversial and, in fact, was banned in 1940 by the Japanese military government.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Isuzu Yamada, Daijiro Natsukawa
Japan 1935, 35mm, b/w, silent, 87 min. Benshi soundtrack with English subtitles
The year before his artistic and critical breakthrough with Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy, Mizoguchi embraced radically different stylistic means to explore the world of the fallen woman that would emerge as the central realm his cinema. The Downfall of Osen uses a sophisticated flashback structure to tell its story of a young woman pulled out of the criminal underworld by a love that, ironically, destroys her. The great Isuzu Yamada gives a soulful world-weariness to Osen as she recounts her sad fate and offers her memories with a wistful melancholic fondness for those few moments of fleeting happiness she savored long ago.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Michiyo Kogure, Ayako Wakao
Japan 1953, 35mm, b/w, 84 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Closely focused on the apprenticeship and coming of age of a teenage geisha in post-war Kyoto, Mizoguchi’s lesser known late masterwork offers a more lyrical and sympathetic vision of Japan’s ritualized “floating world” as a fragile safe haven where unmarried women can find a degree of freedom, and even dignity, not possible in the outside world. Yet, although A Geisha’s young heroine struggles to define geishadom in her own terms, Mizoguchi’s heart-rendering story makes clear the difficult struggle for geisha, and Japanese women in general, to achieve stability in a mercenary and machismo world.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Ichiro Tsukida, Kuniko Miyake, Daijiro Natsukawa
Japan 1935, 16mm, b/w, 72 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Mizoguchi was given his one of his biggest budgets to date for his adaptation of an early novel by Natsume Soseki, the story of a aristocratic woman whose careful plans for life and love are suddenly derailed by her unexpected love for her young English tutor. Using the woman’s troubled affair as a means to detail and critique the isolated social rituals and milieu of the privileged, Poppy builds suspense around the lover’s duplicitous role-playing. While Mizoguchi’s lavish spending on Poppy’s set design and costumes brought a sharp realism to its evocation of the Meiji-era upper class, it did nothing to help the film find the audience so desperate sought by the failing, and soon after failed, Daiichi studio.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Michiyo Kogure, Yoshiko Kuga, Ken Uehara
Japan 1950, 35mm, b/w, 88 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Mizoguchi’s oeuvre took an unexpected turn with this psycho-sexually charged portrait of an upper-class woman fully aware that her strange, unalterable attraction to a man she openly despises will lead to the tragic ending announced from the film’s very beginning. Hinting at the unearthly, supernatural forces that emerge in Ugetsu and Mizoguchi’s other works made after he converted to Buddhism, the destructive amour fou at the dark heart of Portrait of Madame Yuki takes on an almost religious tone as a kind of extreme passion willingly suffered for causes that remain always obscure. The role of an innocent servant girl as observer to her beloved employee’s recklessly impulsive erotic life opens a new sexually charged voyeuristic dimension to Mizoguchi’s cinema which points towards the work of New Wave directors such as Yoshida and Oshima.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Kinuyo Tanaka, Nobuko Otowa, Yuji Hori
Japan 1951, 35mm, b/w, 95 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Mizoguchi’s adaptation uses Junichiro Tanizaki’s tormented novel about repression and forbidden love as yet another means to explore the hypocrisy and incestuous isolation of the postwar Japanese upper-class family, here refracted through the steamy glass of two sisters’ love for the same man. The tortured soul of the older, widowed sister is poignantly captured by Kinuyo Tanaka in this rarely screened late film. Miss Oyu is formally quite extraordinary, with Mizoguchi carefully choreographing the lines of the frustrated long triangle as its stretches and recedes, often in march with the characters’ gaze at one another, across the film’s ritualized and succinctly described interior spaces.
Directed byKenji Mizoguchi. With Kinuyo Tanaka, Ichiro Sugai, Mitsuko Mito
Japan 1949, 35mm, b/w, 96 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Loosely based on the life of Furuka Eiko, one of the few important female activists of the Meiji period “People’s Rights” movement, My Love Burns is considered the final work in Mizoguchi’s so-called “woman’s liberation trilogy” formed by Victory of Women and The Love of Sumako, the Actress. The film’s grappling with the stakes and possibilities of democracy in postwar Japan make obvious its origins as an assignment forced upon Mizoguchi by the US occupation government. And yet, My Love Burns remains an important work for signaling the ratcheting up of the emotional charge and intensity of Mizoguchi’s postwar films and for its flashes of sudden optimism that Japanese women may one day forge a more just place for themselves. The mark of Kaneto Shindo, who had earlier apprenticed in art direction for Mizoguchi, as co-screenwriter is apparent in the film’s brutal yet expressive violence.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Chojuro Kawarasaki, Yoshizaburo Arashi, Utaemon Ichikawa
Japan 1941, 35mm, b/w, 241 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Among Mizoguchi’s most enigmatic and formally brilliant films, The 47 Ronin is an austere and bracing adaptation of the legendary—and, for the Japanese military government, talismanic—tale of the retainers to an 18th century lord who patiently wait for years to avenge a impetuous breach in protocol that forces their master to commit seppuku and transforms them into drifting ronin destined to die by their own swords after their final task is done. Despite the obvious pressures placed on the myth of bushido, or the samurai code, during the war years, Mizoguchi’s contribution to the chusingura (as the long tradition of retelling the ronin’s tale is known) is notably sober and restrained, with Mizoguchi largely avoiding violence or battle scenes to focus instead on the ronin’s extreme patience, using the epic length of the film’s three-and-a-half hours to make real the tense waiting time which the group endures in order to fulfill their duty. With its careful avoidance of close-ups and its precision choreography action within Mizoguchi’s meticulously accurate period sets, The 47 Ronin radically abstracts the imperturbable warriors as figures held at bay by the film’s rigorous long shots. A box office failure in Japan, where its first part was released shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ideology of Mizoguchi’s brilliant formalist distillation of the ronins’ tale is still the subject of active debate.
Please note: there will be a 10 - 15 minute intermission between Parts I and II.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Kinuyo Tanaka, Masayuki Mori, Yukiko Todoroki
Japan 1951, 35mm, b/w, 88 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Mizoguchi offered a unflattering portrait of postwar Japan as a festering den of immorality and deceit in this dark melodrama about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a burnt out university professor and lecherous womanizer. Kinuyo Tanaka burns with a growing anger as the eponymous The Lady of Musashino who observes the corrosive decay of her relationship mirrored in her extended family and the incestuous love triangles that gradually emerge. Each sordid twist of Mizoguchi and Yoda’s, fascinating narrative cries out with anger against the moral depravity of a shell-shocked and disoriented society.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyoko Kagawa
Japan 1954, 16mm, b/w, 102 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Treated like chattel by her wealthy, loutish merchant husband, a young woman from an impoverished family falls in love with one of his apprentices, and their desperate affair provides a fascinating contrast with the similarly ill-fated lovers in Mizoguchi’s subsequent work, Princess Yang Kwei Fei. Where that film presents a seemingly Buddhist detachment towards the impermanence of human happiness, The Crucified Lovers maintains an intensity that has been compared to film noir. The film remains one of Mizoguchi’s lesser-known masterpieces in this country, but following its presentation at Cannes, The Crucified Lovers was immediately championed by such French observers as Jean-Luc Godard and Georges Sadoul.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Ichijiro Oya, Raizo Ichikawa
Japan 1955, 16mm, color, 108 min. Japanese with English subtitles
This historical epic remains overshadowed by Mizoguchi’s other late films. While many of those are masterpieces of female suffering, Tales of the Taira Clan is a samurai film, which follows the rise of a warrior during a 12th-century power struggle between the imperial court and a powerful monastic order. In fact, Mizoguchi imbues the young man’s struggle with something of the emotional power of his great melodramas. The film’s burnished colors exist in ironic contrast to the depiction of medieval Kyoto as a brutal and frenzied place. More recently, critics have pointed to the film’s portrait of a Japan striving to turn from chaos, elitism and corruption to peace and democracy.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Kinuyo Tanaka, Michiko Kuwano, Mitsuko Miura
Japan 1946, 35mm, b/w, 84 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Mizoguchi’s most politically outspoken film is clearly branded as a product of the US occupation by its insistent, ardent call for democratic reform and, most especially, for the empowerment of women. Mizoguchi’s only work with Ozu screenwriter Kogo Noda, Victory of Women features Kinuyo Tanaka as the embodiment of the possible new order, a lawyer fighting doggedly for a more just legal system and trying to rid Japan of its draconian penal system.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, So Yamamura
Japan 1955, 35mm, color, 98 min. Japanese with English subtitles
This fascinating co-production between the Japanese studio Daiei and the Shaw Brothers, the fabled producers based in Hong Kong, had its origins in Daiei’s hope for a bigger international audience and the Shaw Brothers’ hopes of benefitting from the cultural cachet of Mizoguchi’s name. Yet upon its completion, Princess Yang Kwei-fei was considered a failure, with the Chinese setting alienating Mizoguchi’s followers in Japan and abroad, and the film’s emphasis on poetry over spectacle disappointing the Shaw Brothers. While it falls short of the sublimity of much of Mizoguchi’s previous work, Princess Yang Kwei-fei has nevertheless come to be championed by critics and audiences for its exquisitely moving tale of the ill-fated love affair between the 8th century emperor Xuanzong and the beautiful serving girl he makes his concubine.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Isuzu Yamada, Shotaro Hanayagi, Ichijiro Oya
Japan 1945, 35mm, b/w, 65 min. Japanese with English subtitles
A fascinating propaganda piece made at the very end of the Second World War, The Famous Sword Bijomaru is a supernatural fantasy about swordsmiths whose devotion to the Emperor gives a magical gleam and power to their weapons. The high point of Mizoguchi’s short film is an extended sword fight between the vengeful spirit of an aristocratic woman and the samurai who betrayed her.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Kinuyo Tanaka, So Yamamura
Japan 1947, 16mm, b/w, 95 min. Japanese with English subtitles
In response to the call by the US Occupation heads for films exploring democratic ideals, Mizoguchi offered a spirited bio-pic of the pioneering actress Sumako Matsui, famous for her championing of Western style acting techniques and the scandalous love affair that troubled her career. The trio of Mizoguchi, Tanaka and Yoda once again sculpted the figure of a fascinating and strong-willed woman struggling to make her voice heard yet pulled by dark fate and doomed love. The Love of Sumako, the Actress nevertheless sounds a note of cautious optimism, by declaring a certain victory won by the determined actresses whose modern approach to acting Tanaka literally and so powerfully embodies.
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. With Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiko Kuga, Tomoemon Otani
Japan 1954, 35mm, b/w, 83 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Released the same year as both Sansho and Crucified Lovers, the lesser known Woman of the Rumor uses melodrama with equal power and invention, once again starring Kinuyo Tanaka who is simply dazzling as a Kyoto madame trying to bring up her daughter who falls for a young doctor who is also her mother’s lover. Mizoguchi brilliantly intertwines the perspectives of mother and daughter to make vividly real the quotidian rhythms of the modern-day geisha house. Mizoguchi’s passionate and famously obsessive attention to architecture and set design is expressed in the intricate and expressive okiya, or boarding house for geisha, where much of the film takes place.