A Closer Look at a Japanese Master
Along with “Rashomon” and “Gate of Hell,” Kenji Mizoguchi’s exquisite ghost story “Ugetsu” opened the Japanese cinema to the Western Hemisphere in the early ‘50s beyond such emigre settlements as Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.
Indeed, between 1952 and 1954, three Mizoguchi films--"The Life of Oharu,” “Ugetsu” and “Sansho the Bailiff"--won top awards at the Venice Film Festival. Today, they remain the best known of Mizoguchi’s 85 films, only 30 of which survive.
Mizoguchi himself ranks with Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa as Japan’s greatest directors, but his visually superb films have been little-seen in Los Angeles since the ‘70s. That will change beginning Saturday, when the UCLA Film Archive launches “The Art of Kenji Mizoguchi,” a three-week retrospective of 20 films screening in UCLA’s Melnitz Theater. A look at this collection shows why Mizoguchi, who died in 1956 at 58, is considered one of the all-time great filmmakers.
The plight of women, with their traditional lower status to men, is a classic theme in the Asian cinema, and women are a favorite symbol of both martyrdom and the capacity for endurance. Their stories can be the stuff of soap opera or, as in the case of Mizoguchi, the inspiration for sublime art.
Mizoguchi, who became a director in 1923, had a tempestuous personal life, spending much of his time in brothels and in the company of geisha. He was so often ignoble and contradictory in his dealings with the women closest to him that critic Tadao Sato has even suggested that a guilt complex fueled his compassion for the women he depicted in such often cruel circumstances on the screen.
Yet in the words of the series program, he was able to perfect “emotional intensity at a distance,” preferring long shots to close-ups and sustained, fluid sequences to brief scenes and rapid cutting. (The most famous image from all his films is a scene of a picnic on the grass from “Ugetsu” that is viewed from a considerable distance.) Mizoguchi once said that prolonging a scene as long as possible yielded “the most precise and specific expression for intense psychological moments.”
Obviously, in order to achieve this effect, he had to work with talented actresses--and actors, too--and had to be able to inspire them to awesome heights. In this regard, it is impossible to discuss him apart from Kinuyo Tanaka (1910-77), who, along with Lillian Gish, China’s Ruan Ling-yu and France’s Falconetti, are arguably the most eloquent actresses ever to face a camera in their ability to express a transcendent spirituality.
Significantly, Tanaka, a tiny woman of deceptively fragile appearance and seemingly endless range, appeared in all three of those Venice prize-winners, all of which were period pictures. In “Ugetsu,” she is the potter’s wife whose husband forsakes her for Machiko Kyo’s beguilingly beautiful ghost. In “Sansho the Bailiff,” she is an aristocratic lady kidnapped and imprisoned, so brutally treated that she no longer recognizes the son when, years later, he finally manages to rescue her. Most important, in “The Life of Oharu,” she portrays a sheltered lady-in-waiting gradually but remorselessly descending to streetwalking. One of Mizoguchi’s most important works, this 1952 film remains unforgettable for Tanaka’s quiet assertion of human dignity in the face of the most desperate of circumstances.
The series’ program sums up the director and his films in a nutshell: “In Mizoguchi’s world, women and men walk the knife-edge of beauty and pain.”
Mizoguchi films certainly have strong feminist appeal, but film historian Audie Bock cautions that his fascination with downtrodden women does not “necessarily imply a political concern with the improvement of women’s status in society. The fascination becomes an end in itself.”
Interestingly, Mizoguchi, apparently a sterner taskmaster on the set than even William Wyler, had a turbulent off-screen relationship with Tanaka, who refused his proposal of marriage in 1947 and broke with him entirely in his final years when he unsuccessfully tried to prevent her from becoming a director herself.
It would seem that the man who had been accused of sometimes hating the women in his personal life was paradoxically driven to express his love for them on the screen.
The series, which includes both famous and unfamiliar films, commences Saturday night with “Osaka Elegy” (1936), which reveals the hypocrisy and rejection a young woman (Isuzu Yamada, a formidable and enduring actress) suffers in behalf of her family. Yamada plays a pharmaceutical company telephone operator who becomes the mistress of the company president in order to bail her father out of an embezzlement, only to confront the double standard at its most virulent.
A half-century separates the so distant-seeming gossamer world of 1939’s “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” and the chic, hard-edged Art Deco interiors and skyscrapers of “Osaka Elegy,” but Mizoguchi suggests that the lot of the self-sacrificing Japanese woman has changed only superficially.
One of Mizoguchi’s most characteristic films, “Chrysanthemums,” finds a young servant girl (Kakayo Mori) with a selfless love for a young Kakuki actor (Shotaro Hanoyagi). Only she dares to tell him, the scion of an enormously prestigious acting family, how bad an actor he really is--only to be fired by his parents, who are suspicious of her motives.
During World War II, Mizoguchi extended his theme of self-sacrifice to men. As Japan moved inexorably toward Pearl Harbor, its home ministry accused the great Shochiku Company, with its strong humanist tradition, of failing to make enough pictures exalting the nationalist spirit and ordered it to make yet another of the several dozen versions of “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin,” the best-known of which is Toho’s lavish all-star 1962 “Chushingura.” Mizoguchi volunteered to make it, thus saving Shochiku from extinction.
Filmed in two parts in 1941 and 1942, with a combined running time of about 3 1/2 hours, “Ronin” is slow, stately and even wearying, but it stands as an extraordinary instance of a director imposing his personality on essentially uncongenial material. For all its myriad complications, the story, set in 1701, is simple, culminating with the mass suicide of 47 ronin (masterless samurai), whose master had been unjustly forced to commit hara-kiri.
Daringly, Mizoguchi not only has this mass suicide, the ultimate expression of self-sacrifice in Japanese culture, take place off-screen, he also makes the suicide of a fiancee--a character introduced by the director--count for more than the entire self-immolation of the ronin. In this way Mizoguchi, instead of exalting the samurai code, makes a tragedy of the entire series of events.
After the war, during the Occupation, Mizoguchi managed to persuade the American authorities to make an exception to a ban on period pictures to allow him to make in 1946 “Utamaro and His Five Women,” which gives us a glimpse of the great artist’s life amid a lively, emotion-charged world of courtesans.
Characteristically, Mizoguchi does not concern himself so much with the artist’s love life as with the women who adored him and their vicissitudes.
Entering his last decade, which saw him attain international renown, Mizoguchi made his final film, the 1956 “Street of Shame,” a gritty evocation of the hard lot of a group of prostitutes in postwar Japan that was released during the debates in the Diet that resulted in the outlawing of prostitution. Fittingly, Mizoguchi ended his career in a last depiction of the women he may well have known best.
* “The Art of Kenji Mizoguchi,” a 20-film retrospective put on by the UCLA Film Archive, will run from Saturday through Feb. 2 in the university’s Melnitz Theater. Selected screening times: “Osaka Elegy,” Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin,” Jan. 19, 1 p.m.; “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums,” Jan. 19, 7 p.m.; “Street of Shame,” Jan. 25, following 7:30 p.m. screening of “Women of the Night”; “The Life of Oharu,” Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m.; “Sansho the Bailiff,” Feb. 2, 2 p.m., followed by “Ugetsu”; “Utamaro and His Five Women,” Feb. 2, following 7 p.m. screening of “The Crucified Lovers.” For full schedule: (310) 206-FILM.