In the last five years of his life, Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956; born 114 years ago next week) made nine films, nearly all of which are considered transcendent masterpieces. Even if he had died earlier, Mizoguchi had earned a place as one of the cinema’s greatest masters of mise-en-scène. We have previously shown Utamaro and His Five Women, made in the immediate aftermath of World War II, but it is important to remember that Mizoguchi had already been directing for a quarter century. He made some four-dozen silent films (almost all of which are lost), including adaptations of Eugene O’Neill and Guy de Maupassant, belying any suggestion of a Japanese artist uncontaminated by Western influences. (In fact, both Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa were even more acutely conscious of what was going on in Hollywood.)
Saikaku ichidai onna (The Life of Oharu), the first of Mizoguchi’s final nine films, is central to his reputation as a feminist. Poverty-stricken as a child, he was witness to his elder sister being sold into the life of a geisha. The siblings lived together after their mother died, and this closeness seems to have had a profound effect on Mizoguchi’s sensitivity to the role of women in Japanese society—not much improved in his day from feudal times—throughout his career. What some Western critics mistake for turgid melodrama is redeemed by the director’s elegant style, replete with long takes and camera movement and enhanced by his exquisite recreation of period ambience through sets and costumes. Mizoguchi, who started as a painter, was a perfectionist and a stern taskmaster toward his crew—as a result, his compositions are like no one else’s in film history.Donald Richie, the great scholar of Japanese cinema and former MoMA curator (who just celebrated his 88th birthday in Tokyo), praised Mizoguchi’s early work for contributing to the obsolescence of the benshi (the live-in-person narrator for Japanese silent films) who explicated what was happening on screen. He also praised Mizoguchi’s “concern for the pictorial image” and “search for cinematic style.” Donald went on to compare Mizoguchi’s work with that of F. W. Murnau, whose The Last Laugh (1924) dispensed completely with the need for written intertitles. According to Richie, “Mizoguchi excelled in the creation of atmosphere, that almost palpable feeling of reality which is the special quality of the well-made film.” The director “wanted a world that was more realistic than life.”
Richie points out the ambivalence of Mizoguchi in Oharu toward traditional Japanese institutions. On the one hand he shows his respect for them, while simultaneously making it clear that these feudal institutions were fully responsible for the troubles of his ill-fated heroine. Mizoguchi’s respect for the past, flavored with his painterliness and literalness, made him seem somewhat old-fashioned to contemporaries. Yet this seeming quaintness has now migrated into timelessness. Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998), the other great creator of Japanese period films (jidaigeki), admired Mizoguchi more than any other Japanese director, but he thought him too austere stylistically to deal with samurai. In Kurosawa’s view (see Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, etc.), quick-cutting rhythms and close-ups were more appropriate to such subject matter than long overhead tracking shots. Donald Richie, to whom we owe our access to the richness of Japanese cinema more than anybody, wrote books on Kurosawa and his great hero, Yasujiro Ozu. While he obviously admires Mizoguchi, he finds something emotionally lacking in his films, perhaps reflected in his reticence and austerity, his tendency to distance his camera and audience.
A brief note on Kinuyo Tanaka (1910–1977), who portrays Oharu and who appeared in Utamaro: She made 15 films with Mizoguchi, and shortly after completing this film she became Japan’s first female director, an appropriate role for the great feminist filmmaker’s favorite muse.