Kenji Mizoguchi

Mizoguchi is acknowledged as one of the three great masters of classic Japanese cinema but he has not received the same amount of attention as the other two, outside of Japan and France. Film theorists and critics have devoted voluminous words to Ozu and Kurosawa, but don’t seem to find Mizoguchi as deserving of attention – or as fascinating. I think that this tells us more about the limitations and biases of these critics and theorists than it does about Mizoguchi. The virile vitality, heroic histrionics and grandiose themes of Kurosawa’s movies clearly appeal to critics seeking diversification and depth in the action cinema – and finding Hollywood plus Eisenstein plus samurai plus Zen aesthetics. The systematic rigour and charming/cute boyish prankishness of Ozu’s oeuvre clearly appeal to critics and theorists seeking fun and gamesmanship in commercial genre cinema – and finding (slapstick and sentimental) homages to Hollywood plus a neo-formalist paradise plus or minus Zen aesthetics. They appear less fascinated by Mizoguchi’s powerfully moving and formally intricate cinema. Is it because it is too sophisticated, too adult for them? Or is it because it is centered on the lives of adult women? Mizoguchi’s movies are very sophisticated, aesthetically and politically, and they are concerned with adult issues which may well be foreign to American (and Australian) boys brought up on a diet of action movies and family sitcoms. It is also a fact that the woman’s film and melodrama used to be pejorative terms before Sirk studies made them respectable. Even though that was a long time ago and there is no excuse for such attitudes nowadays, the prejudice persists.

Like Ophuls, Mizoguchi is one of the masters of the long take. He intricately choreographs the movements of the actors and the movements of the camera in such a way that the line between on-screen space and off-screen space is constantly shifting. The audience is thereby moved from a position of close proximity to the central characters to a more removed position, where the individual drama is framed by the social context around the characters and where we are invited to take in the ramifications of their situation… before returning to a closer view. We remain dramatically riveted but the moving camera and the use of the long shot place attention on the wider social setting, giving us critical distance on the action at the same time as we are hooked into the personal drama. Mizoguchi’s magnificent long takes manage to encompass intimacy and distance, dramatic potency and social criticism, subjectivity and objectivity.

Although he lacked the longevity of Kurosawa or even Ozu (who at least lived a few more years), dying of cancer in his mid-fifties, Mizoguchi was a prolific director who directed around 85 movies in the years between 1923 and 1956. He spent his early career (1923–1932) at Nikkatsu, the most successful Japanese film company before it was overtaken by the more highly capitalised and more “modern” Shochiku and Toho companies, in the 1930s. According to Mizoguchi’s unreliable memoirs, he came to specialise in women’s melodramas because the company already had a full quota of jidai-geki directors and allotted him women’s films. However, if you examine the list of his titles and read a little about them (unfortunately only brief fragments of very few of the early films have survived), you find he in fact seemed to experiment in a variety of genres and to have been influenced by Weimar German cinema (Expressionism and experimental street films specifically) and Sternberg inter alia. In 1930 he was listed as a Friend of Prokino, in the journal Proletarian Film, and encountered trouble with the censors over leftist tendencies in some of his films around this period. But he was later to be accused of “opportunism” by leftist critics like Akira Iwasaki, because he appeared to accommodate himself to state-endorsed policies and shift his political sympathies according to dominant tendencies of the time. (Some friends attributed his accommodations to the nationalist/militarist regime and then to the postwar American Occupation to his need to stay in remunerative employment in order to fund his expensive lifestyle, to indulge his passions for the company of geisha and the acquisition of objets d’art.) Although he managed to survive in the system, I don’t think it is fair to damn him as an opportunist. Very few Japanese filmmakers risked losing their livelihoods, let alone going to prison, by openly questioning national policy. Even Iwasaki survived the war, after a short term of imprisonment, by working for Man-ei, the Manchurian Film Company, an imperialist Japanese company that employed leftists who were politically active in the pre-war and post-war eras. Mizoguchi managed to evade the strict control of the censors by working on approved topics (Japanese traditional arts and the canonic kabuki play, Chushingura, during wartime; the need for Japanese women to liberate themselves from an oppressive patriarchy under the Occupation) and yet investing them with his own particular stylistic and thematic concerns. Throughout his career, as his long-term scriptwriter Yoshikata Yoda as well as the film critic Tadao Sato have noted, he remained loyal to his central concerns: sympathy and admiration for women; and anger at the unjust social system that oppresses them.

Unlike Ozu and Kurosawa, who remained wedded to the film company that had trained them (Shochiku in the case of Ozu, Toho in the case of Kurosawa), Mizoguchi left Nikkatsu in 1932 and went to work for independent companies where he was freer to experiment with form (long takes, dissolves, flashbacks) and content (social criticism, adaptations of modernist literature). Until the last few years of his life, when he settled at Daiei, he worked for a number of different companies – Irie Productions, Dai-Ichi Eiga, Shinko, Shochiku, Shin Toho – for short periods. But he maintained collaboration with key professional colleagues across these changes. Minoru (aka Shigeto) Miki was his regular cinematographer from 1933 to 1947 and Kazuo Miyagawa from 1951 to 1956; Yoshikata Yoda was his regular scriptwriter from 1936 to 1955; and he relied heavily on the performances of particular star actresses – Takako Irie in the late silent era, Isuzu Yamada from 1934 to 1936, and Kinuyo Tanaka for the longest period, from 1944 to 1954. From 1950 onwards, the music for most of his films was arranged by Fumio Hayasaka, although Toshiro Mayuzumi was responsible for the more discordant avant-garde music of the two late contemporary films, The Woman of Rumour (1954) and Street of Shame (1956).

Of the films that have survived, the most highly regarded are the two prewar films, The Sisters of Gion and Osaka Elegy (both made in 1936), and the series of period films he made in the 1950s: The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Sansho Dayu (1954) and Chikamatsu Monogatari (1955). The Sisters of Gion was rated best film of the year by contemporary Japanese critics, and is considered by critics to be the best prewar Japanese movie. Both of the 1936 films focus on poor working women battling to survive in the cut-throat contemporary worlds of Kyoto and Osaka, respectively, and failing, because of gender and class imbalances structured into the social system. Both films conclude with a cry of protest from the youthful rebellious heroine, played by the great character actress, Isuzu Yamada (who was to play Lady Macbeth for Kurosawa 21 years later). Of the two films, The Sisters of Gion has the more perfectly crafted scenario, and the more impressive cinematography – especially memorable for its bravura opening lateral tracking shot; its witty montage sequence of the sisters on excursion, exquisitely framed in their geisha costumes like the beautiful women in classic Japanese woodblock prints, all the while conducting an ongoing ideological argument; and its final piercing close-up on Omocha’s social protest. Osaka Elegy is a darker film in lighting and mood, and more episodic in structure. It was Yoda’s first job as scriptwriter and he was still learning.

The postwar “masterpieces” are all both period films and literary adaptations, unlike the 1936 films which had original scripts written by Yoda after undertaking substantial research on social conditions in contemporary Gion (the geisha district of Kyoto) and Osaka. The literati of all nations are always precious about their literary masterworks, and Japan is no exception. Mizoguchi received considerable criticism at home for tampering with the classics. His Oharu is not Saikaku’s Oharu; he dared to make a mish-mash of two separate Ueda Akinari ghost stories (Ugetsu Monogatari was an 18th century collection of ghost stories); he was not faithful to Mori Ogai’s novella, Sansho Dayu. While in Japan their rating was lower (The Life of Oharu and Sansho Dayu were rated only ninth in the best ten Japanese films of 1952 and 1954, respectively), foreign critics, unacquainted with the literary sources, acclaimed them as masterpieces and awarded them the major prizes at the Venice International Film Festival. They were acclaimed by the French critics in particular as great epics, lyrical in camerawork, intensely moving, and universal in theme. Godard raved about Mizoguchi, claiming him as “the greatest Japanese director… one of the greatest anywhere … the equal of Murnau and Rossellini.” He also called Ugetsu Monogatari “his masterpiece, placing him on an equal footing with Griffith, Eisenstein and Renoir…. It is Don Quixote, The Odyssey and Jude the Obscure rolled into one.” (1)

By this time in his life, Mizoguchi had become a devout Buddhist, and these period films betray a spiritual dimension – an acceptance of suffering as one’s lot in life combined with an aesthetic of transcendence – absent in his earlier films and absent even in the contemporary films about geisha and prostitutes (A Woman of Rumour and Street of Shame) that he made at the end of his life. It would seem that the material problems and social stigma suffered by women in the contemporary sex industry could not be transcended. Tadao Sato claimed that Mizoguchi viewed the oppression of women, whom he saw as the nobler sex, as the original and unforgivable sin of mankind.

The fluid camera movements of the late films are breathtakingly beautiful and endowed with a profound sense of pathos. Famed examples are the final shots of both Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu, when the camera slowly swoops up and away into a high long shot. Then there are the exquisite dissolves – among which I would single out the scene of Anju’s drowning in Sansho Dayu, when the perfectly concentric ripples on the water dissolve into a still shot of the statue of the Buddha in the monastery where her brother finds haven, after escaping from slavery through his sister’s urgent prompting and subsequent self-sacrifice. The Mizoguchian motif of victimised woman functioning as mentor and muse is also conveyed by the soundtrack, through the haunting ethereal voices of the absent mother in Sansho Dayu and the ghost of Miyagi in Ugetsu Monogatari. The aristocratic mother of Zushio and Anju, exiled and incarcerated in a brothel on an island far away from them, constantly and longingly calls to her children across endless expanses of space and time, inspiring them with hope in their darkest hours; while the ghost of Miyagi, who was deserted by her husband and murdered by bandits, encourages her weary, widowed husband to work hard and produce beautiful pieces of pottery. Another haunting scene in the latter film is the early one in the mist on the lake. It was this magical scene, full of a sinister mysterious beauty, that so entranced me on first viewing it that I decided to devote myself to the study of Mizoguchi. Of course, the potter and the peasant, the major protagonists of this film, are entranced by their dreams of fame and fortune (as artist and warrior, respectively), and it is this scene that beautifully prefigures their disenchantment – as always too late, for the damage is irreparable.

Noël Burch was the first Western critic to dispute the high valuation accorded these late films, preferring the austerity and rigour of wartime Mizoguchi – Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) and Genroku Chushingura (1941–2) – to the full-blown aestheticism of his late work (2). I too was later to decry the conservative aspects of the late period films and applaud another Mizoguchi – the proto-feminist and incisive social critic who is most potently present in The Sisters of Gion and the unjustly neglected My Love Has Been Burning (1949). I was amazed to discover that such powerful critiques of class and gender were made in Japan long before the advent of second-wave feminism in the West – and light years ahead of Hollywood. But Mizoguchi’s contemporary films and his melodramas with Meiji-era settings are not just powerful works of social criticism. They are at the same time intensely engaging dramatically and always inventive formally.

While being transported with delight by the masterly choreography of the long take, the unparalleled command of editing within the shot and between shots, and the artistry of the shot composition, we can easily overlook the fact that Mizoguchi was also a master of mise en scène. The worlds of his films were created with meticulous attention to the selection of props and costumes, the positioning and movements of extras as well as stars, the use of outdoor settings and indoor furnishings. These not only provide a richly detailed background to the central drama; they are often central to the drama. The different dress of the Gion sisters underlines the ideological gap between them – one traditional, the other modern. The branding iron in Sansho’s domain is a fearful symbol of his power, and his power to corrupt, but it is also used to generate narrative suspense and heighten the drama. A crowd of extras rushing towards the edges of the frame often acts as a means of building anticipation and tension just before a climactic revelation or act of violence, which takes place just off-screen. Outdoor settings are never just picturesque backdrops; they are used to create feelings of pathos, fear, suspense, hope or disappointment, as well as being made into integral components of the narrative and dramatic action.

There is no way one can do justice to the magic of Mizoguchi ‘s cinema in a brief essay. I hope I have managed to convey just some of its fascinations (3).


  1. Arts 5/2/1958.
  2. See Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Scolar Press, London, 1979.
  3. For other approaches to Mizoguchi, you should consult some of the following: Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, Kodansha International, 1978; Noël Burch (Ch. 20); Freda Freiberg, Women in Mizoguchi films, Japanese Studies Centre, Melbourne, 1981 (monograph in English); Akira Iwasaki, Kenji Mizoguchi: Anthologie du Cinéma, no. 29, L’Avant-Scene du Cinéma, Paris 1967 (monograph in French language); Donald Kirihara, Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi and the 1930s, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1992; Joan Mellen, The Waves at Genji’s Door – Japan through its Cinema, Pantheon Books, New York, 1976 (Ch. 14); Yoshikata Yoda, Souvenirs de Mizoguchi, Cahiers du Cinéma, Paris, 1997 (memoirs of working with Mizoguchi, translated from Japanese into French).

About The Author

Freda Freiberg is a freelance critic, lecturer and researcher on Japanese cinema.

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