Kenji Mizoguchi

Few directors better understood the power of the cinematic image, and even fewer had intuitive enough a grasp of filmic syntax to consistently uphold its pre-eminence. Kenji Mizoguchi is undoubtedly a member of those elites; one of the medium’s finest artisans and a dexterous master of its basic elements (even today, his expertise in the areas of framing, camera movement and depth-of-field seem breathtakingly innovative). Such technical prowess allows his work to play like an expressive parade: an endless series of compositions that inspire awe with their outstanding beauty. Yet Mizoguchi’s pictorialism is consistently offset by the direction of his narratives – stark, harrowing explorations of man’s inhumanity, with particular vitriol spared for the outmoded patriarchal codes that inhibit the potential of his proto-feminist heroines. His is an oeuvre that doggedly underlines the inequalities embedded within social structures of both past and present, exquisitely elucidating the impact of these injustices upon the individuals so suffocated by them. Whether crafting an impassioned melodrama or an evocative jidaigeki, the director’s commitment to a progressive solution for his subjugated victims is never in doubt. And so it is that Mizoguchi’s art has come to embody the very spirit of a transcendental cinema: eloquent, persuasive pleas against intolerance that resound vociferously across questionable divides in an attempt to forge a better future.

ON THIS PAGE: The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939), Ugetsu (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Yôkihi (1955), Street of Shame (1956)

THE STORY OF THE LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS (1939) – Confession in the Night

Consider one of the director’s most impressive sequences, in which Kiku and Otoku encounter one another for the first time (at least in the filmic world): Mizoguchi documents this pivotal moment with an uninterrupted, five-minute tracking shot that gracefully glides alongside the duo during their impromptu moonlight stroll. He outright refuses to fracture the lucidity of this scene – hence, he avoids cuts and records in long shot, whilst masterfully using blocking to express what cannot be registered in close-up; the ongoing saga of who walks before whom (and in what proximity) substituting for a courting ritual, not to mention a wry critique of the power dynamics within the blossoming relationship. Otoku, despite the wounds that she inflicts upon Kiku’s masculinity, will eventually recede to a position firmly within the latter’s shadow – a position in which she’ll stay (not necessarily against her will) for the remainder of the film.

Full write-up

THE STORY OF THE LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS (1939) – Kiku’s Triumph

SPOILER WARNING: Do not watch this video if you wish to avoid crucial plot details being disclosed.

Mizoguchi’s bittersweet coda undercuts a purportedly triumphant procession with a burgeoning sense of guilt and grief. The forward momentum of this final procession is ruthless, forcing the weak-willed Kiku onward to his preordained destiny as superstar thespian. Meanwhile, the woman that enabled his success pitifully surrenders to her own fate in a murky corner of the universe (archaic social customs prevent her from sharing her lover’s glory). The director conceives Otoku’s sacrifice as an act of transcendence, an ascent into immortal serenity – yet his ever-critical eye recognises the worthlessness of her deed. The film’s unbearable heartache derives its strength from the absurdity of her devotion to a man who didn’t love her enough until it was too late, not to mention her inability to look beyond the total subservience that’s ingrained into both her gender and her class. And what lessons will have been learnt from this, her final abnegation? Kiku’s mechanised bows during this agonising conclusion suggest that, despite the trauma, his own capacity to think outside the social constraints imposed upon him will remain forever curtailed. The triumph, it seems, belongs wholly to the tragedy.

UGETSU (1953) – Ghost of the Lake

An exquisitely-composed harbinger of oncoming doom, from Mizoguchi’s beautiful and haunting Ugetsu.

UGETSU (1953) – Lady Wakasa

A product of the male imagination who ultimately becomes too powerful to be contained by the limitations of fantasy, Mizoguchi’s Lady Wakasa is quite possibly the most compelling female character in a filmography that’s brimming with them. Totally subservient to the patriarchy, yet nonetheless motivated wholly by her own self-fulfilment (her sexuality is used to ensnare men), her eerie presence in Ugetsu’s mystical sub-narrative births all sorts of ambiguities and contradictions that scintillate to this very day. This sequence engrossingly summarises her ephemeral nature: from subservience to eroticism to outright possession.

UGETSU (1953) – Wartime Ethics

SPOILER WARNING: Do not watch this video if you wish to avoid crucial plot details being disclosed.

In some quarters, Ugetsu appears to have developed a reputation as some sort of exotic ghost story. This is neither consistent with Mizoguchi’s concerns as a filmmaker, nor the action that takes place within the film itself. Ugetsu remains resonant due to its condemnation of unruly bellicism and its powerful examination of man’s precarious ownership of his humanity. Nowhere is this better highlighted than in the following sequence, where Miyagi, the film’s most kindly character, becomes a casualty of war; a war that strips humans down to their most animalistic tendencies, restricted to the primal concerns of food and sex (a rape can be heard off-screen at the beginning). The director’s resplendent deep-focus photography is the star of this show: as the dying Miyagi desperately struggles forth for the sake of her son in the foreground, the background sees her murderers bickering over mere scraps of food. With startling empathy, Mizoguchi argues that our fallen heroine isn’t the only victim of blind militarism in this scene – her mindless tormentors, slaves to a wartime ethos that demands heroism and breeds cowardice, unwittingly suffer the consequences of such misguided ideologies. Still, it’s the innocents who hurt most of all, and so it stands that the most disturbing element of the director’s “ghost story” is not the presence of otherworldly phantoms, but the piercing screams of a newly-orphaned child, crying out for his slain mother. Grounded entirely in human emotions, Mizoguchi’s brand of film horror here proves itself to be the most spine-chilling of all.

SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954) – Mercy

The film’s key lesson:

Without mercy, man is like a beast… even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.

SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954) – Inhumanity

Mizoguchi’s reputation as one of the greatest of all directors is founded upon his use of the long takes and long shots that allow him to craft the complex, intricate compositions that so powerfully imprint themselves upon the memory. This sequence from “Sansho the Bailiff” doesn’t dispel the myth of the serene and stately Japanese master, but it offers an alternative outlook. Taking his audience completely by surprise, Mizoguchi accelerates the velocity of his cutting rate and variegates his shot-making in order to deliver a swift, disorienting blow to the head. Disfigured trees, a ghostly mist, screeching flutes and screaming children all add to the harrowing effect as the director plays with perspective and framing, heightening the urgency of the drama at hand. Typically, he never loses sight of the tragedy unfolding before our eyes: the savage familial separation enacted on-screen is searing in its horror, and the inhumanity of its perpetrators astounding – particularly given that the sequence occurs so soon after the revelation of the film’s core tenet (see previous video). As a final sucker-punch, Mizoguchi closes with the death of an innocent, the kindly servant Ubatake, whose prior naivete (“Priestess, are you sure they are reliable?”) haunts the viewer long after her body has surrendered to the water. “Without mercy, man is like a beast…”

SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954) – Self-sacrifice

SPOILER WARNING: Do not watch this video if you wish to avoid crucial plot details being disclosed.

Self-sacrifice, particularly female self-sacrifice, is a recurrent theme in Mizoguchi’s oeuvre. His explorations of abnegation and servitude within an unyielding patriarchy have produced a vast array of memorable and sympathetic heroines, and Sansho the Bailiff’s Anju – with her extraordinary benevolence – belongs firmly within this lineage. Following her father’s early demise, it is she who serves as the film’s most significant proponent of “mercy”, and her role as a weaver in the eponymous antagonist’s barbarous labour camp maintains a decidedly figurative purpose: her life’s goal is to unify the remnants of her broken family. Her suicide scene, which allows her brother to escape their virtual prison, is filmed with the utmost respect by a director who mourns the supposed necessity of the act whilst venerating the character’s ascendence into a spiritual realm (note the explicit link that’s drawn between Anju’s death and the Buddhist iconography that will come to safeguard her brother).

SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954) – Finale

SPOILER WARNING: Do not watch this video if you wish to avoid crucial plot details being disclosed.

Surely the most devastating of all cinema’s tear-jerking finales, Sansho the Bailiff’s conclusion takes the film full circle. A family is reunited, and ‘mercy’ is reaffirmed – both, problematically. Mother and son meet again, but father and sister have succumbed to the hands of fate (or is that society?) – the same hands that have caused the mother’s total degradation. Tamaki is now a blind and decrepit figure on the beach, barely croaking out the film’s key refrain and scarcely recognisable to us. Meanwhile, her painful dialogue betrays a history of abuse and exploitation, made all the more powerful because she stubbornly clings on to hope (and therefore, lives in oblivion). In this context, Mizoguchi’s ultimate endorsement of his core tenet is earth-shattering: just what has ‘mercy’ accomplished for those on-screen? Death, despair and humiliation have been its by-products, yet the director – like Tamaki –  is defiant in his optimism. In the face of such atrocity, his commitment to compassion is as humbling as it is astounding. As he orchestrates his narrative’s final crescendo, the overwhelming melodrama before us forces his camera’s gaze to turn away from the action and toward an indifferent image on the horizon. The director is all too aware that even this most significant of filmic events is effectively but a small speck in the grand scheme of humanity and its many, many travails. “Isn’t life torture?”

YÔKIHI (1955) – Plum Blossoms

Mizoguchi’s debut colour feature follows on from his sensational run of successes in the early 1950s – and in terms of narrative and character development, its considerably less polished than those prior masterworks. Still, if he was nervous about this first venture into the polychromatic then he needn’t have worried – Yôkihi boasts a number of sequences that are worthy of standing alongside the best that the director has to offer. This scene, taking place amongst plum blossoms in an artificial wonderland, marries Mizoguchi’s beguiling lyricism with delicately opaque characterisations to forge an indelible portrait of loneliness.

YÔKIHI (1955) – Lotus Pool

Perhaps the most sensual scene that Mizoguchi ever filmed. With a perfect colour palette, Machiko Kyô’s bare body and a pool of steaming water, he deftly alludes to the undercurrents of eroticism that pulsate beneath the drama on-screen.

YÔKIHI (1955) – Festival of Lanterns

Even narratives that were outright flawed couldn’t prevent Mizoguchi from crafting moments of awe-inspiring wonder. Yôkihi, a film preoccupied with the restrictions faced by its characters, achieves temporary bliss with a sequence that’s concerned entirely with the notion of movement. Under artificial stars, our prospective lovers escape into the night; the memory of their palatial abode’s stultifying decorum swiftly extinguished by the jubilance in the outside world. Following a trivial process of self-discovery and a brief flirtation with alcohol, the pair enact one of the most moving expressions of mutual desire in screen history. Kwei-fei dances, the Emperor plays guitar, and as their respective performances coalesce somewhere within a stratosphere of ecstasy, the viewer is left with a definitive understanding of freedom and its manifold virtues.

STREET OF SHAME (1956) – Shattered Dreams

Mizoguchi’s final film (yet another masterpiece) examines the role of prostitution in contemporary Japan with both breadth and depth. The director uses the aging Yumeko’s forays outside of the stifling “akasen” to explore the viability of a tainted woman’s prospects in wider society, as well as to comment upon the cruel reality that is the passing of time. In this affecting sequence, Yumeko’s entire life is rendered obsolete by the insensitivity of youth; her investments in her son’s future backfiring spectacularly as he feigns moral superiority in order to sever their crucial bond. Although Mizoguchi spends much of the film arguing the necessity of an Anti-Prostitution Bill, here he pauses to consider its negative implications: what will become of women like Yumeko in the new Japan? The indelible image of a discarded mother unable to give chase after her uncaring son (and therefore, her dreams and her future) demands a considerate response to the dilemma.

STREET OF SHAME (1956) – The New Japan

In this fascinating sequence, Mizoguchi cogently scrutinises the changing dynamics of postwar Japan. Alluding to his nation’s increasing Westernisation (note the music that opens the clip, and the reference to a sexualised Hollywood icon that closes it), the director unravels the traditional reverence of the family unit – thereby allowing a daughter to rebel against, and then outright decry her father with a scintillating burst of female solidarity. An old and haggard patriarchy is little match for such emotionally-liberated women – and yet Mizoguchi is careful to recognise the limitations of her freedom: the central reunion being intercut by a scene that reinforces Mickey’s possession by another, equally irrelevant patriarch. Our heroine may have emancipated herself from one oppressive system, but she remains firmly (and, the director appears to suggest, perhaps even wilfully) entrenched within another. There remains a whole lot more rebuilding work to be done in Mizoguchi’s conception of the new Japan.

STREET OF SHAME (1956) – Mizoguchi’s Gaze

SPOILER WARNING: Do not watch this video if you wish to avoid crucial plot details being disclosed.

Street of Shame’s searing finale, in which the national cycle of female exploitation ruthlessly consumes its next victim. The radical feminism of the director’s earlier features (Sisters of the Gion, Osaka Elegy) strangulates his efforts here, denying his protagonists the spiritual release that was so available in the acclaimed jidaigekis that immediately preceded them, and insisting upon a tangible resolution to their respective (and collective) plights. The very last image, in which Mizoguchi assumes the male gaze and implants himself into the drama in a bid to win his own redemption (the director was a well known frequenter of red light districts) turned out to be the final shot of his career – a career that concluded by passionately reasserting its commitment to women with all guns blazing.


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