Daily | Mizoguchi @ MOMI

Kenji Mizoguchi

Kenji Mizoguchi

“In some danger of being overlooked in the press of history that reveres Yasujiro Ozu’s rigorous constancy and Akira Kurosawa’s noble pulp, Kenji Mizoguchi is a more difficult master magician to love and a harder legend to sell,” begins Michael Atkinson in the Voice. “We like our auteurs set in idiosyncratic bronze, and the more consistently they cast stylistic shadows, the more they are lionized by successive generations of cinephiles. Mizoguchi’s 33-year career, reaching from the silent era to the rise of global popularity of Japanese cinema in the postwar years, with 1956’s Street of Shame, had a subtler, more nuanced trajectory, guided only by his tastefulness, flamboyance-free humanism, and belief in the expressive force of the moving camera and the resonance of deep compositions.”

“Ranking” is the first word in Mike Hale‘s overview of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Mizoguchi retrospective in the New York Times, and indeed, it’s common impulse among critics when addressing Japanese cinema. “The big three of the Japanese golden age are traditionally acknowledged to be Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, born within 12 years of one another around the turn of the 20th century…. So where does Mizoguchi rank? After watching and rewatching a number of his films, I’m moving him up to No. 2—behind Kurosawa, whose sheer kineticism in films like Seven Samurai and High and Low wins out, but ahead of Ozu, whose exquisiteness is matched by the sameness of his output. Mizoguchi rivals Kurosawa as a director of action and Ozu as a director of domestic drama (not to mention the equally worthy Kon Ichikawa as a depictor of the horrors of war). Mizoguchi’s technique—unobtrusively dramatic compositions, elegant camera movements and a seeming ability to make any kind of shot dazzling—is unmatched. Ugetsu is a shattering experience, among the greatest movies ever made.”



And this winner of the Silver Lion in Venice in 1953 opens the first retrospective in New York in nearly twenty years. From tonight through June 8, MOMI will screen all thirty surviving films (Mizoguchi made over eighty between 1923 and 1956). “It’s unlikely there is a more important show in town,” writes Tony Pipolo for Artforum:

Mizoguchi’s reputation as a woman’s director did not rest only on strong female performances in his films, but on his privileging women and their plights in pre, 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.

In 2006, a retrospective hit Chicago and Jonathan Rosenbaum argued in the Reader that Mizoguchi “is not only the greatest of all Japanese filmmakers but arguably the director who made more masterpieces than any other film artist in the history of movies.” He especially recommended the film that opened the series, “a 1952 masterpiece that belatedly launched Mizoguchi’s international reputation at the age of 54 when it won a prize at the Venice film festival, the year after Kurosawa’s Rashomon was similarly honored. Loosely based on a novel by Ibara Saikaku that interweaves stories about several women living in late-17th- and early-18th-century feudal Japan, Life of Oharu recounts the persecutions of a single woman, which makes this seem at times like a hyperbolic hard-luck story. But as a profoundly materialist look at the mistreatment of women by men—not to mention an unflinching and often sarcastic look at the roles played by class and money in the world—the film’s close to definitive.”

“It is always salutary to revisit Mizoguchi,” wrote Adrian Martin in De Filmkrant last year. “What The Loyal 47 Ronin [1941] taught me, on re-seeing it, was that form is not only an aesthetic issue in cinema: form can also be a very rich, full allegory for the entire social order depicted. When Mizo makes a staggering composition out of a sea of bowed backs; when the spatial tension of a frame or a tracking movement points out the unbearable split between private and public; or when the ‘polite distance’ of a camera position, in the face of moments of violence and death, shows us the incredible complexity of maintaining any ‘code of honor’ … then form morphs into formality.”

Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, each from 1936, reveal the filmmaker at his most polemical,” writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. “The great Isuzu Yamada stars in both movies: In Elegy she’s a switchboard operator who defiantly becomes her boss’s mistress to support her family; in Gion, she’s a cynical geisha trying, and spectacularly failing, to improve her status. The bluntness with which Mizoguchi attacks the powers that be (‘Why do there even have to be such things as geisha?’ Yamada screams in Gion’s stunning direct-address climax) is counterbalanced by his expert filmmaking, which favors, here as elsewhere, extended takes and deep-focus long shots that lend a meditative air to the righteous belligerence.”

“Mizoguchi’s focus on, and obvious compassion for, the most downtrodden of his nation’s women has led to his often being labeled a feminist filmmaker, although this brand of feminism is evident in Japan’s strong tradition of female-centered art and literature,” wrote Michael Koresky in 2008. “It’s been noted that two such artistic influences on Mizoguchi were the writings on prostitution by famed novelist Kafu Nagai (1879–1959), which he greatly admired, and the ‘social tendency film’ (realist, politically minded works), popular in the twenties, when Mizoguchi was coming into his own as a filmmaker. And though Mizoguchi was never identified nor, indeed, identified himself as a political filmmaker (‘In the realm of social ideas, his films connected with the fashionable thinking of every period,’ writes scholar Donald Kirihara), his work, specifically his stories of women’s struggles, nevertheless had great social impact.”

The occasion of that piece was Criterion’s release of the Eclipse box set Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women, and reviewing it for the NYT, Dave Kehr wrote: “All of his major creative phases are covered: the romantic, Expressionist-tinged work of the silent and early sound periods; the politically engaged work of the postwar period, influenced by Italian neo-realism; and the final creative surge of the 1950s, in which a distanced, contemplative tone conveys an infinite solicitude for human suffering, balanced by a sense of its insignificance in the cosmic order.”

Film Comment‘s dipped into its archives and posted Tom Allen‘s piece on a retrospective that ran at Japan House in 1981. Besides arguing that Mizoguchi was the Japanese John Ford, he wrote of A Woman of Rumor (1954) that it’s “almost his only bittersweet movie. The personal motifs and tastes are all here. The increasingly supple long-shot, long-take camerawork. A geisha house not quite a brothel. Scenes of national music and theatre. Barbaric, grousing, new-breed businessmen. Ravishing ensemble scenes of women in their boudoirs. A female Mizoguchi icon ([Kinuyo] Tanaka) destroying herself for a greedy, worthless, manipulative man. And—the difference—there is Yoshiko Kuga as the daughter, who grows from suicide attempts over a jilting man and disgust with her mother’s work to a woman who discovers her self-worth and the communal support of women working together in a cultural institution. The film is a revelatory glimmer of hope in a career cut short by leukemia four films and seven downtrodden heroines later.”

Update, 5/3: “There’s no way to say this without sounding derivative, but I consider Mizoguchi to be not just the greatest Japanese director but one of the handful of the greatest filmmakers ever,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “He’s one of the most furious and fiercely critical political filmmakers of all time, in any country. He delves deeply into Japan’s cultural and political history in order to highlight grievous and still-unredressed injustices, and he also peers closely at his contemporary Japan and sees its moral horrors above all. His look at tradition is avid, thorough, and harsh; he can’t take his eyes off the wreckage that its wonders give rise to.”

'The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums'

‘The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums’

Update, 5/5: “Mizoguchi’s two-and-a-half-hour drama The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, from 1939, is one of the cinema’s great outpourings of imaginative energy,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “The movie’s quasi-operatic crescendo owes as much to Mizoguchi’s exalted style as to his dramatic sense. In long takes of up to six minutes, he choreographs the actors in unison with the camera, which glides, pivots, and plunges to pursue characters to their emotional breaking point. His painterly framings have a teeming simplicity, with action spilling in from the margins and up from the background, entangling the characters in a web of conflicting forces.”

Updates, 5/7: More on Chrysanthemums at the L, where Jordan Cronk writes that “this heartrending romantic tragedy concerning the contradictions that challenge familial and matrimonial harmony exemplifies many of the formal and thematic interests for which its creator would eventually become known.”

“The attempt to rank geniuses like Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, and the third great Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu, is actually profoundly silly,” argues Ian Buruma, writing for the New York Review of Books. “It is a miracle that three artists of their caliber worked more or less at the same time. And there were others, notably Mikio Naruse, who made the period from the early 1930s till the mid 1960s a golden age of Japanese cinema…. Mizoguchi, like other Japanese artists and writers of his era, was also strongly influenced by European Romanticism. He regarded himself as a Buddhist, but the Virgin Mary pops up in his imagery too, not always to the best effect…. Where Mizoguchi was a true Romantic was in his passion for his art. For this, no sacrifice, from himself and those who worked with him, was too great.”

Update, 5/12: Via Adrian Martin: Chika Kinoshita‘s 2007 dissertation, “Mise-en-scene of Desire: The Films of Kenji Mizoguchi.”

Update, 5/14: “Everybody grants that Mizoguchi makes magnificent images,” writes David Bordwell in an entry based on a talk he recently delivered at MOMI. “He has gone down in history as a pictorialist. But his pictorialism is of a peculiar kind…. It’s not surprising that Mizoguchi relies on the image; in his youth he studied painting (interestingly, Western-style painting at that)…. Most movie scenes consist of a story situation mapped onto the space; the style follows, emphasizes, or shapes the story’s presentation. Suppose, Mizoguchi seems to ask, that we start with an image and ask it to become a drama…. Instead of an image that is a vehicle for the story, the story is gradually born out of the changing image.”

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