Kenji Mizoguchi – cinema’s unknown master

Yesterday, I went to the Pacific Cinematheque to watch a movie. For the past couple of weeks, I have been watching the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. It is written in the program guide that Michelangelo Antonioni is Italy’s greatest filmmaker. But for me, after watching half a dozen of his films, I wasn’t moved by most of his work. The only movies that I liked that Antonioni made were “The Passenger” and “Beyond the Clouds”. The latter one was actually partially directed by Wim Wenders. The story went that Antonioni had a stroke a third into the production of “Beyond the Clouds”. That’s when Wim Wenders stepped in. Most of the people who saw the film did not like it and thought that Wim Wenders fucked it up.

Beyond the Clouds (1995)

Beyond the Clouds (1995)

I personally liked the film because of where the film emotionally took me. There’s a scene in the movie shot inside an old church in France that inspired me so much with my writing that after the movie I didn’t stay to watch the double bill. You see, I’m currently writing a script set in 1850 Philippines and seeing that scene was like seeing how my movie would look. During my writing, I have been mostly hampered by the logistics of my script since I’m also going to direct, produce and DP the film. I keep thinking HOW CAN I do it, especially the story being set in the 1850’s. But after seeing that scene, it occurred to me that it is possible to film my movie today. I also realized that the key to why Antonioni is considered a great filmmaker is because he just writes what’s inside him. I should also do the same and not worry about being bogged down by how stories are told today.

The Passenger (1975)

The Passenger (1975)

I also realize that maybe the reason that I didn’t like most of Antonioni’s films is because they were all shot in black and white. I look at Antonioni’s films having similar themes to Wong Kar Wai. I think that the stories Antonioni tell are best told in color. The difference between watching black and white and color is that with black and white the viewer focuses more on the actors and the composition. The backgrounds are merely viewed in lines and shapes.  While in color, the viewer would notice the background in relation to the actors. I think Antonioni’s films are so related to the environment they are set in, that the environment is a character unto itself. I also think that Antonioni wasn’t fortunate to find a regular cinematographer to collaborate with unlike Wong Kar Wai who partnered with Christopher Doyle or even Ingmar Bregman who partnered with Sven Nykvist.

By now you would be wondering why the title of this blog is “Kenji Mizoguchi – cinema’s unknown master” since for the most part until now I have been talking about Michelangelo Antonioni. Well last night I came to the cinematheque not expecting anything about Kenji Mizoguchi’s films. Frankly, I haven’t heard of Kenji Mizoguchi being one of Japan’s great filmmakers. The only great Japanese filmmakers that I know are Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Anyway I arrived at the theatre 15 minutes late. But it didn’t matter because I was immediately absorbed by the film’s story. After the film I was like, “What the fuck? What did I just experience? That was fucking awesome!” It was like discovering a great work of art for the very first time. The movie just blew me away. Naturally, I stayed to watch the 2nd film. Again I had the same reaction as the first film. But this time as I was watching the movie I can’t help feel like I am in the presence of greatness, the feeling that you get when you see or have an experience with a person that is great like watching Muhammad Ali in “Rumble in the Jungle” or Michael Jordan playing in the NBA finals. You get the idea. Who is Kenji Mizoguchi? Well here’s a profile that was written on the Pacific Cinematheque program guide, I’ll also include the synopsis of the two movies that I saw.




kenji-mizoguchiOne of cinema’s towering talents, and arguably the greatest master of the classic Japanese film (although, to be sure, Ozu and Kurosawa each have their many champions), Kenji Mizoguchi died, of leukemia, fifty years ago this month, on August 24, 1956, at the age of 58. To commemorate the occasion, Pacific Cinémathèque is presenting newly struck 35mm prints of six of the director’s finest works.

“If cinema has yet produced a Shakespeare,” the critic Robin Wood has written, “its Shakespeare is Mizoguchi.” Such comparisons have been not uncommon, such is Mizoguchi’s stature and influence: Mizoguchi is “a restless genius, driving himself like a Picasso or Beethoven to innovate and extend his art” (Peter Grilli); Mizoguchi is “like Bach, Titian, and Shakespeare … the greatest in his art” (Jean Douchet); “To paraphrase Peter Brook about Shakespeare, I would say: One speaks about the world of Ozu, of Kurosawa, of Naruse; one does not speak about the world of Mizoguchi because Mizoguchi is the world” (Michel Ciment).

Even without the effusive analogies, there is virtual unanimity amongst film critics, historians, and scholars that Mizoguchi is responsible for some of the most ravishingly beautiful films ever made. His are “some of the most pictorially exquisite films in the world” (Audie Bock); “there are no more beautiful compositions anywhere in cinema” (Wood); “few directors have created so many memorable images” (Peter Scarlet).

Mizoguchi was born in Tokyo in 1898, and began making films in 1922. During the course of his 34-year career he directed more than ninety features, of which only some thirty survive today. His much-belated international discovery came near the end of his career, when three of his greatest masterpieces, The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), screened — and won major awards — in successive years at the Venice Film Festival.

Mizoguchi’s films are renowned not only for their painterly beauty but for their poetic humanism. The visual hallmarks of Mizoguchi’s celebrated style include the breathtakingly elegant use of fluid camera movement and of long-take sequence shots (in which spatial and temporal continuity is uninterrupted by editing); a fondness for long shots (“I hate close-ups,” Mizoguchi one said); and a stunning sense of composition. Mizoguchi is often cited, with the likes of Renoir, Murnau, Welles and Ophüls, as one of the cinema’s great masters of mise-en-scène aesthetics, and his long takes and mobile camera exerted a profound influence on the French New Wave.

Mizoguchi’s central thematic interests, intrinsically linked to his visual style, can be catalogued — “the interplay of art and life, distance and identification, the transience of life, vanity of human ambition, transcendence through love after death” (James Quandt) — but the key concern of his art has been the social condition of women, in both feudal and modern Japan. In film after film, Mizoguchi’s protagonists were complex, capable women struggling to cope in a society that subjugated or exploited them; often, his heroines were prostitutes. His compassion for women, and his angry critique of the society that oppressed them, had Mizoguchi long considered one of world’s cinema leading “feminist” directors. Although his exaltation of female self-sacrifice may no longer seem “feminist” in the contemporary sense, Mizoguchi’s work remains remarkable for its profound empathy with women and their plight, and he indisputably ranks as a great director of actresses — perhaps “cinema’s greatest ever director of women” (Rod McShane, Time Out).

David Thomson, in his acclaimed Biographical Dictionary of Film (first published in 1975 and most recently updated in 2002), argues passionately that Mizoguchi’s art must be seen on the big screen: “Mizoguchi worked with scale, space, and movement, and movement on a TV set is like a fish moving across a tank, whereas movement on a real screen is that of a great fish passing us in the water. So the greatness of Mizoguchi is no easier to discover now than it was in 1975. And this is a greatest that could one day soon be lost. By 2010 will it be possible to see these films on the screen they deserve?”

(Ugetsu Monogatari)

Japan 1953.
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi.
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo, Mitsuko Mito, Sakae Ozawa

A work of unsurpassed lyricism and emotional power, Ugetsu is considered by many to be Mizoguchi’s masterpiece, and is frequently cited as one of the greatest films ever made. During the feudal wars of the 16th century, an ambitious village potter abandons his devoted wife for the wealth of the city and the illicit pleasures of a ghost woman. Only too late does he realize that nothing he has gained is worth the love he has forsaken. Ugetsu is simultaneously realistic, allegorical, and supernatural, and has a structure based on classical Noh drama; its magnificent use of elaborate, panoramic, long-take sequence shots attests to Mizoguchi’s status (with Renoir, Ophüls, Welles, and Murnau) as one of the cinema’s most accomplished practitioners of mise-en-scène aesthetics. Although Mizoguchi’s characteristic concern for the plight of women is also very much in evidence, the film represents something of a retreat from the radical feminism of his earlier works to a more resigned acceptance of the human lot — a change occasioned, some suggest, by the director’s conversion to Buddhism. “Stylistic perfection … One of the most beautiful films of all time” (Sadoul, Dictionary of Films). B&W, 35mm, in Japanese with English subtitles. 96 mins.

sansho the bailif

Sansho the Bailiff
(Sansho dayu)

Japan 1954.
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi.
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, Eitaro Shindo, Masao Shimizu

A stunning period piece that sets humanism and democratic ideals on a collision course with cruelty and barbarism, Sansho the Bailiff was the third Mizoguchi work in a row to win a major prize at Venice (after The Life of Oharu and Ugetsu), and ranks as “one of the director’s most awesome achievements” (Bloomsbury Foreign Film Guide). In 11th century Japan, a liberal-minded provincial governor is forced into exile by enemies who cannot abide his politics. When his wife and children set out to join him, they find themselves horribly victimized by slave traders. Sumptuously shot by Ugetsu and Rashomon cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and based on an ancient Japanese folk tale, Sansho offers “a timeless, humanist statement of injustice and suffering. The long takes, lingering long shots and the weaving camera create an elegiac mood and a deep involvement in the unfolding tale, making it often unbearably moving and yet never sentimental … [A] sublime work” (Bloomsbury). “A film that is both impassioned and elegiac, dynamic in its sense of the social struggle and the moral options, yet also achingly remote in its fragile beauty. The result is even more remarkable than it sounds” (Tony Rayns). B&W, 35mm, in Japanese with English subtitles. 125 mins. 

If you get to come across on one of his films, please do watch it. I highly recommend it.

*originally posted on my old blog on Aug. 15, 2006