Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956)
"As evasive as he was redoubtable, Kenji Mizoguchi has left behind him not only some of the most pictorially exquisite films in the world, but lingering questions about the relationship between his personal life and ideals and these haunting masterpieces. One of the earliest Japanese filmmakers, with a directing career that began in 1923, at the time of his death in 1956 he had made 85 films of which only 30 are extant today. His works from 1952 on made him one of the first Japanese directors to be reckoned with internationally.
After The Life of Oharu won him the International Director's Prize at the 1952 Venice Film Festival, "Mizo" became an idol of the incipient French New Wave. Young critics such as Jacques Rivette adored Mizoguchi for his mastery of mise-en-scene, Jean-Luc Godard eulogized his elegance, metaphysics and instinct as a director. Philippe Sablon admired his scorn for logical exposition and the laws of drama and his preference for a more painterly or musical structure. These qualities in fact emerge in those post-1952 works of Mizoguchi that were winning prizes year after year at Venice - Oharu was followed by Ugetsu in 1953 and Sansho the Bailiff in 1954 - and for the avant-gardist French his films constituted symbols of purity and personalism that rendered Mizoguchi a hero and the haplessly logical, more montage-oriented Akira Kurosawa a villain (Godard unabashedly dismissed Kurosawa as "second-rate")! There were even suggestions by the influential André Bazin that Mizoguchi represented a more authentic Japaneseness, while Kurosawa was quite obviously influenced by the west.
Poverty, Painting, Poetry, Film
Mizoguchi was born in Tokyo in 1898, middle child of a roofer-carpenter of rather distinguished lineage. His father was an erratic, alternately stubborn and kindly dreamer of the type portrayed as the heroine's father in Mizoguchi's 1936 Osaka Elegy. His mother was the daughter of not very successful dealers in Chinese herbal medicine. The family was poor at the outset, but their situation became desperate when Kenji's father tried to make a killing in selling raincoats to the military during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. By the time he had borrowed money, set up a factory and produced the coats, the brief war had ended and the family was forced to move. Since there was not enough food for the entire family, Kenji's older sister Suzu was given up for adoption at the age of 14. Her foster parents sold her a few years later to a geisha house, but she had the rare good fortune of finding a wealthy aristocratic patron who not only redeemed her and provided her with a house and income, but later married her when his wife died. Mizoguchi bitterly resented his father all his life for the treatment of the women in his family (his mother, whom he loved dearly, and who saw to the family's needs throughout his father's caprices, died when he was 17), yet he himself later became fully dependent on his sister without the slightest compunction.
Before completing elementary school Kenji was also sent away to live as an apprentice in cold northern Iwate Prefecture with relatives who owned a pharmacy. There he was able to finish his primary education, and in 1912 he returned to Tokyo hoping to attend middle school. There were an additional two or three adopted children to feed at home, and his father refused permission. Soon after, his father began to suffer from rheumatism, and it was Suzu who came not only to support the whole family but to get Kenji his first job. At 15 he became apprentice to a textile designer of yukata, light summer kimonos.
Evidently it was through this apprenticeship, and another immediately following it in the same work, that Mizoguchi began to develop a love of painting. A year later he entered the Aohashi Western Painting Research Institute run by Seiki Kuroda, the first importer of European oil painting techniques of the French plein-airist school. It is the aesthetics of these early days that marks the shimmering landscapes of Mizoguchi's latest films. But he soon realized, as Akira Kurosawa would many years later, that he would not be able to make a living from painting.
Suzu again aided her brother in finding employment as an illustrator for a progressive newspaper in the southwestern port city of Kobe. He made a relatively good salary for the time, and busied himself with publishing his own poems. He would later claim to be more interested in literature than in painting, and put his own poetry on a par with that of the illustrious Takuboku Ishikawa. Nevertheless, Mizoguchi soon tired of his work in Kobe, and after a year returned to Tokyo because of acute homesickness.
He moved in with his disconcerted sister and showed no signs of seeking employment. But he began to see a teacher of the biwa, Japanese lute, and became acquainted with one of the students, a movie actor from the Nikkatsu company. The impressionable and erratic 20-year-old Mizoguchi soon succumbed to the glamorous lure of the budding film industry, and after visits to the studio fancied that he too could become an actor. This never happened, but he did have his actor friend introduce him to the rising director Osamu Wakayama, and he was hired as an assistant director in 1922.
By 1923 Mizoguchi became a full-fledged director because one of Nikkatsu's oldest directors walked out with the actors of female roles who struck the company in 1922. Apparently no one knew what Mizoguchi was up to, for his first film was a denunciation of economic class differences that was completely foreign to either film or stage at the time. Labeled as a "puro-ide" (proletarian ideology) piece, there was so little left of it when the censors finished that continuity had to be fabricated with biwa music.
Poverty, Painting, Poetry, Film
This film, long since lost along with all but two that Mizoguchi made in his most prolific years before 1930, marks the debut of a director who appeared fully committed to the left as well as to new inspirations and new techniques. Although Mizoguchi later had so many confrontations with police and censors that he became utterly paranoid about authority figures, his commitment to the left would prove shallow. But his commitment to new art would be borne out immediately and consistently throughout his career. Mizoguchi also attacked - whether through inexperience or intention is not known - film conventions in the personage of the narrator. Neglecting the script that was always produced for the off-screen live narrator (karsuben or benshi), the 25-year-old Mizoguchi made flagrant use of intertitles, even for dialogue, and the narrators protested to the company.
Mizoguchi's enthusiasm for novelty was even more pronounced in his 1923 Blood and Soul, which made use of the exaggerated sets, makeup and shadows of German expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which had been released in Japan in 1921. He was also using French and American sources for his stories at this time, launching an Arsene Lupin fad with 813 and the beginnings of his flair for atmospheric settings with Foggy Harbor, based on O'Neill‘s Anna Chrisrie.
In 1923 the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo and the surrounding areas. Mizoguchi rushed into the ruins with a camera crew and filmed all he saw. His documentary footage was sent to America, but he also used the event to produce a feature called In the Ruins before the whole contemporary drama staff of Nikkatsu's Mukojima studios was sent to Kyoto.
In Kyoto Mizoguchi entered his first slump - the fact that in 1953 he could remember few of the films he made in 1924 and 1925 may well be an indication of their poor quality. He spent his free time drinking and frequenting the Gion and Pontocho geisha districts. He had been rebuffed by a geisha in Tokyo and was leading a relatively celibate life until he fell in love with a Kyoto waitress and began living with her in 1925. This relationship lasted only two months before the woman came after him with a razor and slashed his back in a widely publicized jealousy scene. Years later when he first showed his scar to his screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, he admonished, "Yoda, women are terrifying." The raging jealous woman would be part of the realism of Mizoguchi's later films, notably in the 1946 Utamaro and His Five Women, which Yoda wrote using Mizoguchi as the real-life model for Utamaro. Mizoguchi forgave his mistress, however, and quit work to go to Tokyo and find her. They were reconciled, and he lived off her income as a maid in a Japanese inn until an acquaintance warned him he was wasting his life. He returned to Kyoto and pursued his filmmaking with a vitality that had been lacking prior to his encounter with the animal viciousness of a neglected woman. His lost film, the 1926 A Paper Doll's Whisper of Spring, which was set in his native downtown Tokyo and showed the miserable life of the working poor, marks the moment of "my own direction beginning to be set." The mistress he left behind in Tokyo disappeared into prostitution.
Sympathy for the Poor
From his first film Mizoguchi had shown a sympathy for the poor that irked the censors. In 1929, however, he burst into the full-fledged leftist "tendency film" (keiko eiga) fad begun that year with Metropolitan Symphony. Before drastic censorship, this lost film, based on the work of several proletarian writers, contained scenes in which the benevolent rich make pigs of themselves in a slum area where they go to exhort and chastise the unemployed. Summoned by the police, a cowering Mizoguchi begged the company to look after his new wife, a former dancehall girl, but he received only an order to show the poor as more cheerful: this he meekly set about doing. The "tendency" films decrying the living conditions of the poor, however, were squelched almost as soon as the movement began, due to the rise of fascist militarism, and Mizoguchi's last in the genre, the lost 1931 Despite All They Advance would bring him back to the subject matter that was so much a part of his life: the woman who runs away with a man who then deserts her, leaving her with no means of livelihood but prostitution.
By 1932 Mizoguchi had reluctantly become involved in making a piece of militarist propaganda, The Dawn of Manchukuo and Mongolia. Such works are a great disappointment to those who would like to see him as the champion of the left, but his so-called proletarian films themselves reveal a political ambiguity rather than a commitment. Questioned on why he went into the "tendency" genre he said it was simply because he was a full-blooded Tokyoite and therefore a lover of novelty, but there may also have been considerable influence from his own poverty-stricken past and his association with leftist writers and theater people in Kobe and Osaka. Mizoguchi's remarks were always flippant, bragging or whining, but no matter what his "tendency" motivation was, his forays into proletarianism laid the groundwork for a more fully developed, far more poignant social realism in his great mid-1930s works about oppressed women.
Mizoguchi falls within the strong tradition of "feminists" in Japanese film, literature and drama. However, this English loan word has nuances in Japan that differ considerably from its western usage. Aside from its predictable meaning, "proponent of women's rights, equality or liberation," it has a second, more popular usage: "a man who is indulgent toward women; a worshiper of women."
In this respect Mizoguchi's feminine portraits reveal inherent contradictions, as does the Japanese use of the word "feminist" and the director's attitude toward the women in his own life. His hatred for his father is hardly vindicated by his behavior toward Suzu, who continued to give him money until well after he had become a director at Nikkatsu. He neglected his Kyoto mistress, protected her from the police after she tried to murder him, quit work to look for her, lived off her when he found her and finally abandoned her to prostitution. He went through complex machinations to secure his wife, who was still married to someone else, and proceeded to neglect her. She in turn refused to cook for him at unusual hours, allowed him not a penny of his own salary, and was occasionally dragged around by the hair by Mizoguchi during bursts of sadistic vengeance. When she went insane in 1941 due to "hereditary syphilis" in Mizoguchi's words, he had her institutionalized for the rest of her life. After the Pacific War, he took his wife's widowed sister and her two daughters into his home out of pity. He lived with his sister-in-law as a wife, but proposed marriage to his leading actress, Kinuyo Tanaka, around 1947. She refused him and from 1953 on would have nothing further to do with him because he tried to prevent her from directing her first film. In short, Mizoguchi was unusual in the extent to which he suffered at the hands of women. He hated women; he was contemptuous of women. On the other hand, when he fell in love, it was with the sincerity of a little boy. All of the admiration, exploitation, fear and pity concerning women shown in his life would find expression in his films.
In the mid-1930s Mizoguchi reached a peak of what has been dubbed social realism through his deepening portrayals of women on the screen. The two types of heroines he developed during this period would reappear in slightly varying incarnations throughout his films to the end of his life. His reason for selecting the social and psychological position of women as the prevailing theme of his work may be seen as a logical progression from the concerns of his late 1920s to the early 1930s "tendency" films, for he had long thought that after Communism solved the class problem, what would remain would be the problem of male-female relationships. Nevertheless, the story content of his films shows not a positive call for active revolution on the part of women, but a bleak condemnation to the status quo. What his two types of heroine have in common is a singular pathos - the fate of the long-suffering ideal woman is as grim as that of the spiteful rebel. It has been suggested that Mizoguchi himself was too deeply implicated in the psycho-social system that ensured the oppression of women to be able to cast them as revolutionaries, and that his life work consisted rather of the "purification of a national resentment" regarding women's tragic role.
Mizoguchi's ideal woman is the one who can love. This love consists, however. of a selfless devotion to a man in the traditional Japanese sense. She becomes the spiritual guide, the moral and often financial support for a husband, lover, brother or son. In Mizoguchi's own life the model is his older sister Suzu, but a generous lacing of his uncomplaining mother may well be part of this saintly ideal. The women who embody Mizoguchi's ideal often live in a time too far in the past to be role models for today, a quirk of which Mizoguchi seems to have been aware. He once said of himself that he portrayed "what should not be possible as if it should be possible", a statement that most aptly describes the virtues of his period heroines. Mizoguchi's ideal postwar women show the same self-sacrificing characteristics, but they move yet farther into the past while developing a spiritual power to transcend their physical suffering.
In all of these paragon portayals, the vision of society remains the same. The dramatic form is tragic, and spiritual success brings death and worldly defeat. The other side of the paragon is the rebel. She is often a prostitute or geisha or similar social outcast, and most often a contemporary woman. She resents the abuses of fathers, employers, and men who buy her and leave her, and attempts to lash back. But her solitary, proud, spiteful opposition does nothing to change the system, and in fact she usually subscribes to its corrupt values, using seduction, deceit and financial exploitation as her methods for revenge. She has nothing spiritual with which to replace the consuming love relationship, and in rejecting it she condemns herself to a life of self-seeking bitterness. She often appears with a meek woman counterpart who underscores the unviability of either stance in the modern world.
Mizoguchi at Work
During the course of his long career Mizoguchi formulated a style peculiarly his own and an authoritarian perfectionism that both terrorized and rewarded his staff. He bounced from company to company and back and forth between Tokyo and Kyoto looking for total artistic control. When a company forced him to make something he hated, such as the 1938 military propaganda film Song of the Camp, he would leave. When he had a project he wanted to do, such as The Life of Oharu, which was planned in 1949, and the company would not accept it, he would leave. In this way he worked with seven different production companies in his lifetime, often following the relocation of his friends, producer Masaichi Nagata, who became president of the Daiei company, for which Mizoguchi made most of his late films, and Matsutaro Kawaguchi, an elementary school friend who over the years would provide scripts, original stories and a place to work when he became a studio head.
A crucial aspect of Mizoguchi's creativity was his close relationship with scriptwriters, notably Yoshikata Yoda, who was responsible for virtually all of his extant masterpieces from the 1936 Osaka Elegy on. Together they would forge out the eloquently literary scripts that drew on such a wide variety of sources. Yoda has written about Mizoguchi with deep affection, close to adoration, and the character that emerges is both a petulant child and a visionary genius. "He never told me anything concrete about the scenario. He simply said "This is no good." Mizoguchi would rant, rave, insult and reject until he got what he wanted from Yoda, which was a synesthetic essence of humanity: "... you must put the odor of the human body into images ... describe for me the implacable, the egoistic, the sensual, the cruel ... there are nothing but disgusting people in this world." Yoda's first script for Osaka Elegy was returned to him more than ten times for revision, but when the film was completed he felt elation and appreciation for Mizoguchi's strictness. Later in his career the director would take to writing out his criticisms of the script in letters, leaving an enlightening record of a visual perfectionist who constantly guided Yoda's dialogue away from banality, sentimentality and commentary on the action and toward a language of poetry, drama and, above all, emotion. Yet Mizoguchi's perfectionism regarding dialogue characterization, a perfectionism that carried over into art direction, acting and cinematography, created problems with the very emotion it sought to create.
Mizoguchi's famous "one-scene, one-shot" technique was facilitated largely through his demand for completely detailed sets. He began employing the long take as early as 1930 in the lost Mistress of a Foreigner, supposedly influenced by King Vidor's 1929 Hallelujah, and the theories of his friend psychologist Kojiro Naito,”but the mark of Joseph von Sternberg's moving camera technique is unmistakable in films such as the 1937 Straits of Love and Hate, which plagiarizes the hero's entry into the smoky, crowded bar in the 1928 Docks of New York. The long-take style became fully established as Mizoguchi's own, however, through his association with art director Hiroshi Mizutani who worked with him for 20 years beginning from the lost 1933 Gion Festival.
Through his art directors and other period specialists summoned to consult on his films, Mizoguchi developed the overwhelming atmosphere of his films. His passion for "exact size replica," which became an important element of his films beginning with the 1941-42 The Loyal 47 Ronin, assumed an intensity that nearly dwarfs the human dramas taking place in these marvelous environmental constructions.
As with his scripts, never once did the director give a specific order for his sets, but relied totally on his art director to create a full atmosphere appropriate to the delivery of the actors’ lines. His method was to demand the complete performance of a particular scene, and in order not to interrupt the emotional continuity, he would follow the actors relentlessly with the camera. While he never gave instructions to actors either - a method Kurosawa later claimed "is the only way to train them properly" - he would demand acting that broke the barriers of the frame. Cutting and composing the frame were the staff's responsibilities, and a drama played with attention paid to the width of the frame was no good. This centrifugal force applied to the edges of the frame would be a rallying cry of the French New Wave, and Mizoguchi's long-take, moving camera one of the models for development of their hand-held camera techniques.
By the time Mizoguchi were taking Ugetsu to the Venice Film Festival in 1953, the director's life had passed through a stounding metamorphoses of faith. The man who made leftist tendency films in 1931 and lost his younger brother in 1938 to the militarists' suppression of Communism became a member of the Cabinet Film Committee in 1940 and published statements on the role of film in promoting the nationalistic spirit. The man who traveled to China in 1943 for the purpose of making an army propaganda film, who attempted to carry a sword and demanded to be treated as a general, in the same year the war ended became head of the Shochiku studio's first labor union which he inaugurated with the opening speech, "From now on I will give the orders. I expect you to be prepared to receive them." By 1946 he was devising arguments to persuade the U.S. Occupation authorities to let him make a period film, which was forbidden as a glorification of feudal values. He was successful; his film portrayed the late eighteenth-century woodblock printmaker Utamaro as an artist of the people, a libertarian democrat who despised the samurai class and the police oppressors. The author of the original story was outraged at Mizoguchi's betrayal of the purely erotic, libertine spirit in his work's faithfulness to Utamaro's time.
An analysis of Mizoguchi's political behavior shows simply that he never understood politics. He used his various positions of political authority to make the films he wanted to make, and if blame is to be cast, it must fall upon those who were foolish enough to grant authority to a political innocent. His direction was set well before the war and never changed: he wanted to make "real" period films true to the spirit of particular eras, as he said in a speech offending many in 1949, and he wanted to make films about women, especially prostitutes. He succeeded in doing both in the postwar era, but not without opposition.
Though his political views may have lacked sophistication and commitment, Mizoguchi's late films are suffused with a view of life that transcends politics. Even his ambivalent view of women and their oppression becomes acceptable because all is cast in an aestheticism bespeaking the ephemeral quality of human suffering. The heroines of Mizoguchi's films of the 1950s all rush headlong into destruction or death, but the beauty of his presentation of their tragedies takes the viewer beyond, to the Zen garden of Ugetsu, to the voice of the guardian spirit of Princess Yang Kwei Fei, to the quiet ripples in the lake where Anju has drowned herself in Sansho the Bailiff, to the smiles on the lovers‘ faces as they ride to their crucifixion in A Story from Chikamatsu. In 1953 Mizoguchi took a votive image of the thirteenth century Buddhist saint Nichiren with him to Venice. He prayed to win, swearing he could not return to Japan unless he did. He had become, in his own inimitable capricious fashion, a follower of the Nichiren sect, as his detested father had done after the trauma of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Mizoguchi's discovery of the Japanese faith that would give him personal solace coincided with his portrayal of his first transcending woman, Oharu, who unsuccessfully seeks refuge from men and the bitter world in a Buddhist nunnery, and in the end becomes a solitary, sutra-chanting itinerant nun. It coincided also with his debut as an international director, for his late, pictorially exquisite, contemplative tragedies were those that made him the New Wave darling. It also may well have coincided with the onset of the leukemia that would take his life in the midst of rewriting the script for his first postwar comedy, Osaka Monogarari, in 1956. In 1954 with A Story from Chikamatsu, Mizoguchi ceased to be a demon of perfectionism, the picture was finished in 28 days. A lover of novelty, worshiper and hater of women, inventor of authentic period films and fully played emotion in a distanced, lyrical long take, whimsical in politics and love, Mizoguchi died a devout Buddhist." 
- Akasen chitai (1956) ... aka Street of Shame
- Shin heike monogatari (1955) ... aka Taira Clan Saga
- Yôkihi (1955) ... aka Princess Yang Kwei-fei
- Chikamatsu monogatari (1954) ... aka The Crucified Lovers
- Uwasa no onna (1954) ... aka The Woman in the Rumor
- Sanshô dayu (1954) ... aka Sansho the Bailiff
- Gion bayashi (1953) ... aka A Geisha
- Ugetsu monogatari (1953) ... aka Ugetsu
- Saikaku ichidai onna (1952) ... aka The Life of Oharu
- Musashino fujin (1951) ... aka The Lady of Musashino
- Oyu-sama (1951) ... aka Miss Oyu
- Yuki fujin ezu (1950) ... aka Portrait of Madame Yuki
- Waga koi wa moenu (1949) ... aka Flame of My Love
- Yoru no onnatachi (1948) ... aka Women of the Night
- Joyu Sumako no koi (1947)
- Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna (1946) ... aka Utamaro and His Five Women
- Josei no shôri (1946)
- Hisshôka (1945) ... aka Victory Song
- Meitô bijomaru (1945)
- Miyamoto Musashi (1944)
- Danjuro sandai (1944)
- Genroku Chushingura (1941) ... aka The 47 Ronin
- Geido ichidai otoko (1941)
- Naniwa onna (1940) ... aka A Woman of Osaka
- Zangiku monogatari (1939) ... aka The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum
- Aa kokyo (1938)
- Roei no uta (1938)
- Aien kyo (1937) ... aka The Straits of Love and Hate
- Gion no shimai (1936) ... aka Sisters of the Gion
- Naniwa erejî (1936) ... aka Osaka Elegy
- Gubijinsô (1935) ... aka Poppies
- Ojo Okichi (1935)
- Maria no Oyuki (1935)
- Orizuru Osen (1935) ... aka The Downfall of Osen
- Aizo toge (1934) ... aka The Pass of Love and Hate
- Jinpu-ren (1934)
- Gion matsuri (1933)
- Taki no shiraito (1933)
- Manmo kenkoku no reimei (1932) ... aka The Dawn of Mongolia
- Toki no ujigami (1932)
- Shikamo karera wa yuku (1931) ... aka Despite All They Advance
- Tôjin Okichi (1930)
- Fujiwara Yoshie no furusato (1930) ... aka Home Village
- Tokai kokyogaku (1929)
- Tôkyô kôshinkyoku (1929)
- Asahi wa kagayaku (1929)
- Nihon bashi (1929)
- Musume kawaiya (1928)
- Hito no isshô - Kuma to tora saikai no maki: Dai sampen (1928)
- Hito no isshô - Ukiyo wa tsurai ne no maki: Dai nihen (1928)
- Hito no isshô - Jinsei banji kane no maki: Dai ippen (1928) ... aka The Life of Man
- Jihi shincho (1927)
- Kôon (1927)
- Kane (1926)
- Kaikoku danji (1926) ... aka Children of the Sea
- Kyôren no onna shishô (1926)
- Shin onoga tsumi (1926)
- Kaminingyo haru no sasayaki (1926)
- Dôka-ô (1926)
- Nogi taisho to Kumasan (1925)
- Ningen (1925)
- Shôhin eiga-shu: Machi no sketch (1925)
- Furusato no uta (1925)
- Akai yuhi ni terasarete (1925)
- Shirayuri wa nageku (1925)
- Daichi wa hohoemu Daiippen (1925) ... aka Smiling Earth
- Gakuso o idete (1925)
- Uchen-Puchan (1925)
- A, a tokumukan kanto (1925)
- Kyokubadan no joô (1924)
- Kanraku no onna (1924)
- Koi o tatsu ono (1924) ... aka The axe that interrupted love
- Samidare zoshi (1924)
- Itô junsa no shi (1924)
- Shichimenchô no yukue (1924)
- Jin kyo (1924)
- Josei wa tsuyoshi (1924)
- Gendai no jo-o (1924)
- Akatsuki no shi (1924)
- Kanashiki hakuchi (1924) ... aka Song of the Sad Idiot
- Toge no uta (1923) ... aka Song of the Pass
- Chi to rei (1923)
- Yoru (1923)
- Haikyo no naka (1923)
- Kiri no minato (1923)
- 813 (1923) ... aka The Adventures of Arsene Lupin
- Haizan no uta wa kanashi (1923)
- Joen no chimata (1923)
- Seishun no yumeji (1923) ... aka The Dream Path of Youth
- Kokyo (1923)
- Ai ni yomigaeru hi (1923)