Mizoguchi Kenji: Artist Of The Floating World

Film still for Mizoguchi Kenji: Artist Of The Floating World

Mizoguchi Kenji's great period costume dramas, such as Sansho Dayu and Ugetsu Monogatari, are held up as exemplars of his work. But has their prominence unfairly pushed his contemporary films into the shadows? By Alexander Jacoby

"The man who is without mercy is like a beast," says the father of the hero Zushio in Mizoguchi Kenji's late masterpiece Sansho Dayu (1954). To remind his son of this maxim he puts in the boy's hand a small statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. This object is central not only to the moral philosophy of the film but also to its narrative development; later it will be the token by which Zushio is recognised by more than one important character. Zushio, who will for a time be corrupted by the cruelties of the world, redeems himself by following his father's teachings, which are those of the Buddhist faith.

The prominence of Buddhism in Sansho Dayu is doubtless attributable to a change in Mizoguchi's own worldview: he had recently embraced the Nichiren sect of the religion. For a man who had committed himself in the 1930s and during the occupation to secular left-wing ideals, this conversion may be interpreted as a return to his Asian roots. Yet this was paradoxically at a time when Mizoguchi's work was achieving unprecedented recognition abroad. It is a telling illustration of this paradox that when the director went to Italy in 1953 to attend the Venice Film Festival, where Ugetsu Monogatari was screening in competition, he took with him a votive image of Kannon and prayed to her for victory.

By the time Mizoguchi achieved international acclaim he was approaching the end of a long and productive career (he was to die, at the relatively young age of 58, in 1956). He had directed his first film in 1923 and had worked prolifically throughout the silent era. He had even - although by the time of his success on the postwar festival circuit this was largely forgotten - been discovered abroad in the late 1920s: the ghost story The Passion of a Woman Teacher (1926), now lost, was screened in Paris at a time when very few Japanese films achieved any kind of foreign distribution. Nevertheless, it was the coming of sound that formed his mature manner. In the extraordinary sequence of Osaka Elegy (1936), Sisters of Gion (1936), The Straits of Love and Hate (1937) and The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) he perfected an austere style, departing radically from the conventions of Hollywood narration and typified by long takes, extreme camera distance and a balance between static shots and elaborate movement on screen.

Although Mizoguchi remained faithful to the basic elements of this style throughout his career, his aesthetic was modified in the postwar era. By then he had seen and admired the use of deep focus and long takes in the Hollywood collaborations of director William Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland, and his own deployment of those techniques began to be partially influenced by the Hollywood model. The result, in films such as Five Women around Utamaro (1946) and My Love Has Been Burning (1949), was a more direct emotional involvement, mediated through a more frenetic use of camera and onscreen movement, with a more frequent (if still, compared to most films, relatively rare) employment of medium close-ups. In essence this was the style that was carried over into Mizoguchi's last films, which included not only such serenely affecting period pieces as Ugetsu, Sansho, The Life of a Woman by Saikaku (1952, aka The Life of Oharu), The Empress Yang Kwei Fei (Yokihi, 1955) and A Story from Chikamatsu (Chikamatsu monogatari, 1954),but also the sequence of intense 'bourgeois melodramas' exemplified by Miss Oyu (Oyu-Sama, 1951) and such scathing accounts of the situation of geisha and prostitutes as Gion Festival Music (Gion Bayashi, 1953), The Woman in the Rumour (Uwasa no onna, 1954) and the director's final work Red Light District (Akasen chitai, 1956).

Universal values

Mizoguchi's late period films, with their tragic stories of delusion, suffering and injustice, were very well received in the west. Ugetsu Monogatari, about two peasants drawn away from their families by the respective lures of sexual desire and worldly ambition, scooped Mizoguchi his coveted prize, the Silver Lion, at Venice; Sansho Dayu, in which the children of a provincial governor are sold into slavery and their mother into prostitution, took the same award the following year; and The Life of a Woman by Saikaku,the story of a court lady who falls into prostitution after a forbidden love affair, had won the festival's International Award in 1952. By contrast, his films set in the present day (one half of his works produced during the 1950s) were less widely distributed and appreciated. Red Light District,indeed, was apparently released in Britain as a second feature to a nudist travelogue under the more lurid title of Street of Shame.

Eric Rohmer's comments in Cahiers du cinéma were typical of the terms on which the late period films were greeted in the west: "Like all great works, Ugetsu shatters the boundaries between genres and the frontiers between nations... You will perceive clearly the common source of our humanity, the crucible from which emerged both the Odyssey and the Round Table cycle, works with which Ugetsu has troubling analogies." This assertion of universal themes and values seems more problematic today than it did when Rohmer wrote. In the intervening decades critics such as Noel Burch and Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro have argued that western writers in the 1950s, viewing Japanese cinema through a distorting lens of liberal humanism, were approaching the material from an inappropriate standpoint. But the truth is more complex than this. In the 1950s, as Japanese films began to achieve international recognition, film-makers including Mizoguchi, Kurosawa Akira and later Ichikawa Kon deliberately opted for subject matter and styles influenced by the west, knowing that these would appeal to a foreign audience.

It is worth noting that Japan had by the 1950s experienced a century of western cultural influence, starting when the nation was forcibly opened to foreign trade by the arrival of an American fleet led by Commodore Matthew Perry. The Meiji era (1868-1912) had witnessed a wide-ranging programme of modernisation and westernisation: foreign technology, including cinema, was introduced and foreign ideologies infiltrated the consciousness of thinkers. The Meiji-era constitution, for instance, was patterned on that of Prussia.

This trend of westernisation persisted into the Taisho era (1912-26), the period when Mizoguchi was making his first films. Blood and Soul (1923), Foggy Harbour (1923) and The White Lily Laments (1925), all now lost, used plots drawn from western literature, while stills from the first of these reveal expressionist imagery reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The isolationist and nationalist sentiments of the 1930s and early 1940s, which contributed to the development of the director's unique style, were in fact a relative aberration for a Japan that in past decades had been eager to accept the foreign. Moreover, the postwar American occupation - which ended only in 1952 - had striven to inculcate western liberal humanist ideals into the population and to give these a constitutional status. Among other things, the US-influenced constitution that replaced the Meiji-era document afforded explicit sanction to human rights, women's rights and property rights.

Feminist content

It was against this background that Japanese cinema first achieved substantial distribution abroad. As part of a postwar drive to make Japan a 'leading cultural country', the film industry began to see itself as a cultural ambassador. An invitation to compete at Venice in 1951 led to the selection of Kurosawa's Rashomon, which won the Golden Lion. In a commentary accompanying the new Masters of Cinema DVD release of Sansho Dayu, Tony Rayns recalls that Mizoguchi, 12 years Kurosawa's senior, was dismayed that the younger director had trumped him in winning foreign acclaim, and now sought to match him.

In the light of this, it is interesting to contrast the style and content of Mizoguchi's films of the late 1940s with his work in the early- to mid-1950s - though in both periods his films express a broadly progressive and humanist outlook. Mizoguchi's films during the occupation were noted particularly for their feminist content: The Victory of Women (1946) is the chronicle of a female lawyer defending a woman accused of murdering her child; The Love of Sumako the Actress (1947) and My Love Has Been Burning are biographies of liberated women of the Meiji era. Five Women around Utamaro, a mellow, witty biopic of the 18th-century woodblock artist, was one of the first postwar period films, a genre discouraged under the occupation; according to Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie, Mizoguchi obtained permission to make it by stressing the hero's democratic sympathies and political dissidence. The unusually explicit dialogue in these films and the startlingly graphic violence in scenes such as that portraying the ill-treatment of textile workers in My Love Has Been Burning confirm their didactic purpose. Whether produced voluntarily by studios eager to support the new dispensations (as, according to Hirano Kyoko, was The Victory of Women) or under duress at the instigation of the occupiers (as, apparently, was My Love Has Been Burning), they were made in order to educate their Japanese audience in liberal ideals as part of a western-engineered project to transform Japanese society.

Produced in a new cultural environment, the period films Mizoguchi directed after the end of the occupation departed from this model. In a superficial sense, they seem more obviously Japanese: despite the visible influence of Wyler and Toland, their dominant style - high-angle shots with actors set against landscapes and dispersed throughout the frame - is reminiscent of classical Japanese painting. But one may surmise that the choice of this style was partly motivated by a desire on Mizoguchi's part to create a recognisably Japanese aesthetic for foreign consumption. Thus the images of characters wandering by the edge of Lake Biwa in Sansho Dayu, with plants in the foreground framing a deep-focus shot of the lake and shore, deliberately echo the compositional style of woodblock master Hiroshige, an artist celebrated in the west since the 19th century. These films paradoxically offer an exotic image of Japan by recapitulating imagery with which educated western audiences would already be familiar.

Mizoguchi's determination to appeal to the west is also apparent in the narrative mode of the late period films. In Sansho, Ugetsu and Shin Heike Monogatari (1955) there is a significant shift from the director's customary, indeed obsessive, concentration on female experience to a focus on male protagonists; in Ugetsu especially the men are conceived as everyman figures whose development is mediated through the guidance and sufferings of the women around them. The last scene of Ugetsu is replete with images of timelessness: the sense of an immutable life cycle conveyed by the famous shot of the child laying an offering on his mother's grave as in the background a farmer works the fields. While Sansho Dayu, with its labour camps and tyrannous overseers, can be interpreted as a direct response to Japan's own actions during the era of militarism, the distant historical setting similarly encourages viewers to read it as a generalised examination of man's inhumanity to man, valid for all times and places.

If that film, as noted above, invokes a Buddhist goddess, that is ironically in the service of a liberal humanist philosophy. In particular it is hinted that the decision of the villainous Sansho's son to renounce the world by becoming a monk is an inadequate response to the wickedness the film portrays. And while the narratives of A Story from Chikamatsu and The Life of a Woman by Saikaku are drawn from classical Japanese literature, they are equally in keeping with the codes of western tragic drama. The echoes of the Odyssey that Rohmer detected in Ugetsu are visible in Sansho too, in a scene not present in Mori Ogai's original story. The heroine Anju's emotional response when she hears an acquaintance sing a 'folk song' that is in fact her own mother's lament for their separation seems to recall Odysseus' tearful reaction to hearing the story of the Trojan War, in which he himself had fought, recited as if a legend by a bard.

Potters and priests

The deliberate universalism of these period films is at odds with the tone of Mizoguchi's 1950s films set in the present day. The moving geisha story Gion Festival Music, though filled with imagery drawn from traditional Japanese arts, lacks the deliberately painterly compositions and is specifically a work analysing postwar Japan. The film's theme - that, in the words of the heroine Miyoe, the image of the geisha as "symbol of Japanese beauty" is "all lies" - is expressed visually in the superb scene where she is assaulted by a prospective patron and escapes his attentions by violently biting his tongue. There follows a startling near-close-up of a stunned Miyoe staring into the camera in full geisha regalia, her immaculate white make-up broken by a bloody stain around her lips. Here Mizoguchi dramatically violates the geisha's traditional image, and a similar violation occurs in The Woman in the Rumour, about the bitter relations between the proprietor of a geisha house and her daughter. The daughter, who despises her mother's profession, dresses in western clothes that seem initially to express her rejection of the geisha system. But she is gradually reconciled to it, and in the last scenes her costume comes to signify the postwar modernisation of the geisha institution itself.

These films, then, are clearly about the cultural situation of Japan in the 1950s, and in their time they had a direct political relevance. In Gion Festival Music the continuing existence of the geisha system is questioned in the light of postwar political developments supposedly guaranteeing women's rights. Likewise Red Light District is held to have been instrumental in ensuring that prostitution was declared illegal in Japan in 1957.

The discussion of Japan by westerners and Japanese alike is often marked by a sense of its irreducible difference. Many filmgoers in English-speaking countries assume that there are formidable cultural barriers to be breached before we can appreciate Japanese cinema, in a way that apparently does not apply to, say, French or Polish or even Indian films. In Japan itself, the large and expanding literature known as Nihonjinron catalogues and analyses the supposed uniqueness of the Japanese people and their culture. So those in the industry who sought foreign distribution for their films often assumed that patterns of Japanese family life would be incomprehensible to westerners; hence the long-standing assertion that Ozu Yasujiro, as 'the most Japanese of Japanese directors', was not suitable for international distribution. It is a paradox that at a time when the most critically esteemed western films were neorealist in style, the Japanese barely exported their supremely realistic home dramas or presented examples of a then-thriving tradition of left- leaning, socially conscious films. In fact one such, Imai Tadashi's Until We Meet Again (1951), had initially been proposed when Japan was invited to submit a film at Venice, but it was Rashomon that was ultimately chosen.

Thus the Japanese strategy for exporting cinema was to select films that combined what western liberal humanists understood as universal themes with the surface exoticism of samurai, ghosts, potters and priests. It was works such as Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu that were hailed as timeless masterpieces and widely shown; opportunities to see Mizoguchi's contemporary and socially aware films were relatively scarce.

I do not, however, want to exalt one part of Mizoguchi's oeuvre over another. To suggest that the director's contemporary films remain underrated is not to devalue the great period films, and it is welcome that the DVD release of a selection of his postwar films by Masters of Cinema on discs that pair period works with contemporary stories offers the chance to compare both facets of his career. It is certainly possible to exaggerate Mizoguchi's foreignness. An in-depth understanding of the geisha system will help to reveal the audacity of Gion Festival Music, just as a familiarity with Japanese paintings will shed light on the style of Sansho Dayu. But the beauty of the images, the power of the acting and the compulsive qualities of the drama are accessible to any engaged viewer. In that, the liberal humanist critics of the 1950s were right after all, and viewers coming to Mizoguchi's work for the first time should not be surprised if they find a certain familiarity in those films that strove to comment on Japanese society, as well as in those that in a sense were meant for us.

'Sansho Dayu'/'Gion Bayashi' ('Gion Festival Music') and 'Chikamatsu monogatari'/'Uwasa no onna' ('A Story from Chikamatsu'/'The Woman in the Rumour') are available on DVD from Eureka/ Masters of Cinema; 'Ugetsu Monogatari'/'Oyu-Sama' ('Miss Oyu') is out in April and 'Akasen chitai' ('Red Light District')/'Yokihi' ('The Empress Yang Kwei Fei') in June. 'The Life of Oharu' (aka 'The Life of a Woman by Saikaku') and 'The Lady of Musashino' are available on DVD from Artificial Eye.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012