Today: July 9, 2024

Kenji Mizoguchi – Clockwork Perfection

Kenji Mizoguchi began his filmmaking career in the 1920s. Child of middle-class parents trapped on a downward social trajectory, Mizoguchi’s schooling was blighted by illness and periods of poverty so abject that the family was compelled to sell his older sister, Suzu, into Geishadom. As traumatic as Suzu’s fate undoubtedly was for Mizoguchi, her sacrifice offered him an island of financial stability from which to launch a career as first an artist, then a set designer, then an actor and finally a film director.

Extraordinarily prolific even by the standards of the 1920s Japanese film industry, Mizoguchi learned his trade quickly and soon acquired a reputation not only for unflinching social realism but also for devastatingly beautiful staging that combined a painter’s eye for composition with a general’s capacity to conceive and direct incredibly long and complex shots. A peerless technician and a sensitive adapter of famously complicated novels, Mizoguchi began his post-War career as one of the universally-recognised greats of Japanese cinema; a man who produced not only great art but a steady stream of commercial successes that spoke directly to a Japanese public struggling to cope with the extraordinary changes forced upon their culture by modernity, war and occupation… then Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival.

According to the introductions provided by Tony Rayns on the excellent Masters of Cinema Late Mizoguchi: Eight Films, 1951-1956 Blu-ray box set, Mizoguchi saw Kurosawa’s international success as a slap in the face. As one of the greats of Japanese cinema, surely it should have been he who served as an ambassador for Japanese film and not some upstart with barely ten films to his name! Incensed, Mizoguchi set out to equal Kurosawa’s achievement, but while he may never have captured the elusive Golden Lion, Mizoguchi’s pride and resolve ensured that his final years produced some of the greatest films ever made. Originally released in 2007 but re-released in a format better suited to their stature, the late films of Kenji Mizoguchi are beautiful, tragic and emotionally sophisticated. Never has the human character seemed so perverse and yet so noble.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1951)
Based on a pair of 18th Century ghost stories by the Japanese writer Ueda Akinari, Ugetso Monogatari (Tales of the Rain Aand Mood) offers a strange blend of ghostly fantasia and trenchant social criticism. The film opens on a gritty post-apocalyptic wasteland racked by continuous wars waged between unknown forces for unknown reasons. Having made an unexpected fortune selling pots, the film’s protagonists disappear off into a liminal realm of military glories and ghostly lovers while their dutiful wives remain in the real world where they are raped, murdered and pressed into prostitution.

Eerily atmospheric in its depiction of both war-torn feudal Japan and the Japanese afterlife, the film warns against ambition on the grounds that social advancement must always come at the expense of someone else and, chances are, that person will be a woman. The message of the film is one of the enduring themes of Mizoguchi’s life and career, namely that it is the lot of women to suffer for the sake of foolish men. Indeed, while the film’s main protagonists behave in an utterly disgusting manner, the one thing that redeems them is their recognition of a debt owed to the women in their lives. Given how often the films in this box set focus upon the plight of Japanese women, it is perhaps unsurprising that many have been quick to portray Mizoguchi as either a feminist or a quasi-feminist filmmaker. However, seeing as Mizoguchi’s films tend to focus upon the tragic fate of women rather than their capacity to control their own lives, a more personal interpretation seems appropriate. This film, like many of the films included here, is an expression of gratitude for the sacrifices made by Mizoguchi’s older sister Suzu and a roar of anguish at the world that made her sacrifices necessary in the first place.

Oyu Sama (1951)
Are you Team Jacob or Team Edward? As Hollywood and Young Adult fiction devour our culture and catapult us into a bizarre parallel world where nobody is expected to have an emotional age higher than fourteen, Mizoguchi’s Oyu Sama (Miss Oyu) demonstrates how to produce a real love triangle. Set in 19th Century Japan, the film opens with a man being invited to marry the daughter of a middle-class family. Walking through the woods on his way to the meeting, the man happens to see his intended walking with her widowed sister-in-law and immediately falls in love with the older woman. Unfortunately, while the older sister feels exactly the same way, her obligation to stay with her in-laws and raise their grandchild means that she cannot re-marry. Thus we have a perfect love triangle: Man loves older woman, older woman loves man but must play the role of chaste and grieving widow, younger woman marries man in an effort to make her sister happy and therefore makes it impossible for either her or her husband to move on with their lives.

This nest of grief and yearning bumbles along for a while until, eventually, the grandchild dies allowing the older woman (played by Mizoguchi’s favourite actress the great Tanaka Kinoyu) to leave the couple in peace in the hope that the husband will eventually come to love the younger sister. As soon as the older sister is trapped in a loveless marriage of her own, the younger sister dies leaving the husband loveless, alone and crucified by the guilt of dooming his wife to a life without requited love. Flawlessly paced and unbelievably moving, Oyu Sama is a fantastic example of the kind of script Mizoguchi liked to direct: Aside from being an emotionally complex exploration of the tension between social expectation and personal desire, the film’s plot is as rigorous and unforgiving as a great and terrible machine that traps people in its gears and grinds them into dust. However, unlike many directors who build these types of stories around a seemingly innocent sin, Mizoguchi destroys the lives of three innocent people out of love… as the younger woman says to her husband on her deathbed: All of this could have been averted, if only her sister had not chosen to join her on that walk.

Sansho Dayu (1954)
Arguably one of Mizoguchi’s most famous films, Sansho Dayu (Sansho The Bailiff), opens with a nobleman being exiled for the terrible crime of putting his subjects first and believing that all men are created equal. Neatly in step with values that American censors were attempting to force upon an occupied Japan, this crypto-socialist creed seeps into the bones of the nobleman’s children as they are cast out into the darkness and forced to make their own way in the world. Tricked and sold into the slave pits of the eponymous Sansho, the children try to remain alive by learning the rules of their brutal new world. Fast-forward a few years and the nobleman’s son has grown into a cynical and nihilistic young man who would rather torture unruly slaves than remember the lessons of his father. Worried about the mental health of her brother, the nobleman’s astonishingly loyal daughter engineers an escape attempt and sacrifices herself for the sake of her brother. Mizoguchi captures the brother’s change of heart in a beautiful sequence where the nobleman’s ailing wife calls pitifully for her children only for the wind to catch her words and carry them to the ears of her distant son. He is immediately transported back to happier times where he realises the sacrifices that were made to keep him alive.

Thematically similar to Ugetsu Monogatari but structurally closer to Oyu Sama, Sansho Dayu is a film about the human cost of self-improvement; The Bailiff Sansho is a commoner who has won the ear of a powerful minister by virtue of his unequalled skill at exploiting his fellow man. Understandably eager to improve his lot in life, the nobleman’s son follows his master’s brutal example until he is reminded of the way his father worked tirelessly for those beneath him and his sister’s willingness to put her own life aside for the sake of her brother’s freedom. Much like Ugetsu Monogatari, Sansho Dayu is about remembering your debts and paying your dues to the people who helped and continue to help you. Moving with all the poise and precision of a well-oiled machine, the film ends with three glorious images: the slaves in revolt, a man surrendering his title and a son finding his way back to a mother who loves him. It is genuinely hard to think of a more humane call for revolution and compassion.

Gion Bayashi (1953)
Gion Bayashi (Gion Festival Music) introduces us to another of Mizoguchi’s obsessions: the working conditions of Geishas in 20th Century Japan. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, the film opens on a young girl seeking sanctuary with an experienced Geisha who used to work with the girl’s mother before getting married. Once comfortably middle-class, the girl has now fallen on hard times as her once-successful father has grown too old to look after the business and too selfish to look after her. Filled with pity for the young woman, the experienced Geisha agrees to pay for her kimonos and training only to discover that the world of the Geisha is about to change forever.

The term ‘geisha’ literally means ‘art person’ and the traditional role of the Geisha is that of a socially skilled performer you would invite to a dinner party in order to entertain guests and keep conversation flowing. Sex, though a part of many Geishas’ professional lives, was something agreed between consenting adults rather than something included as part of the evening’s entertainment. Unfortunately, the young woman graduates into a professional environment where the boundary between Geisha and sex-worker is becoming increasingly blurred and many Geishas are sleeping with their clients in an effort to retain their custom. This tension between dignity and livelihood is exposed when the young woman refuses to sleep with one of the district’s wealthier clients. True to the values of her profession, the more experienced Geisha defends her protégée only for the other Geishas to cut off trade to her business. Aside from a contemporary setting that places Mizoguchi’s social criticism firmly in the forefront of the film, Gion Bayashi is unusual in so far as it features a woman who not only chooses to sacrifice herself for another woman but also explains why she does so. Unlike Oyu Sama that grounds the clockwork perfection of the plot in a moment of very human passion, Gion Bayashi argues that sacrifice is not just a matter of guilt or love, but also of principle. The older Geisha believes that her profession should not descend into sex work and while she may not be able to change the darkened hearts of men or convince her fellow Geishas to act with anything approaching professional solidarity, she is able to sacrifice herself for the sake of just one girl; a girl who would hopefully live her life mindful of the great gift that was given to her. The film ends with the question of gratitude balanced on a knife-edge as the young girl is unsure of what to do with the gift the older Geisha has given her. Initially, it is quite tempting to either look upon the girl as ungrateful or roll one’s eyes at the naivety of the older Geisha, yet the horrific uncertainty of these moments only serves to highlight the depth of Mizoguchi’s humanity. If we could bind each other with a gift then morality would not be an issue. But sacrifice is not something done in an effort to control. It is something we do in hope of a better world.

Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954)
In his introduction the film critic Tony Rayns explains that Mizoguchi was never particularly happy with this film as the studio forced both the script and leading actor upon him. It is easy to see why Mizoguchi might have felt this way as the decision to cast the forty six-year old Kazuo Hasegawa as a naïve young printer’s clerk very nearly cripples the film. Based on a play by a 17th Century playwrite who grew so tired of actors improvising that he left the theatre in order to write for puppets, Chikamatsu Monogatari (The Crucified Lovers) presents us with yet another malevolently-conceived love triangle. At the top of this triangle is the supremely competent printing clerk who makes the mistake of embezzling a loan at the request of his master’s wife. This relatively minor breach of trust is then exacerbated by the fact that one of the printer’s maids had decided to tell the printer that she was engaged to the clerk in the hope that this might stop her master from badgering her for sex. Confronted with a junior who has not only stolen but also won the hearts of two women he felt entitled to, the printer casts the clerk out of his house along with his seemingly unfaithful wife. Terrified that they will be crucified for the crime of adultery, the unlikely couple decide to commit suicide only for the clerk to reveal that he has long been in love with his mistress all along. This admission allows them both to die an excruciating and yet happy death.

The primary problem here is one of credibility. By casting an older actor as the clerk, the studio ensured that he appears to us not as an immature and flighty young man but as a mature and respected professional who mysteriously decides to destroy his own life. Indeed, rather than sticking to the ‘one-passion-sets-the-plot-moving’ structure found in Oyu Sama and Sansho Dayu, the film relies upon an entire series of weird misunderstandings and impenetrably poor decisions. Even worse, the script simply does not allow Mizoguchi the space in which to explore his characters motivations and so every character beat, from the decision to flee, to the declaration of love, to the final happy acceptance of death feels forced and unbelievable. Despite being well shot and immaculately paced, it is easy to see why Mizoguchi might have felt inclined to distance himself from this project.

Uwasa No Onna (1954)
It is tempting to look upon Uwasa No Onna (The Woman In The Rumour) as a sort of spiritual successor to the earlier Gion Bayashi. Though both films are set in ‘contemporary’ 1950s Geisha houses, Uwasa No Onna presents the corrosive social changes introduced in the earlier film as simply an inescapable fact of life. Indeed, unlike the older Geisha in Gion Bayashi, the protagonist of this film (played by Mizoguchi regular Tanaka Kinoyu who was, by this point, Japan’s first female film director) accepts the changes forced upon her profession and makes a fortune in the process. However, while the aging madam may be wealthy and respected, she is also quite lonely and spends her money trying to woo a handsome young doctor who promptly falls in love with the madam’s alienated and suicidal daughter.

One of the most interesting things about this film is that, while most of Mizoguchi’s films revolve around men mistreating women, Uwasa No Onna is one of the few films to explore the idea of female agency and how women might seek to improve their lot in life. The most obvious example of this is the madam who profited from the debasement of her profession and uses her profits to seek out not only love but also social respectability. However, the more obvious the madam’s attempts at seduction become, the more aware she becomes of the social stigma associated with her age and position until a trip to the theatre leaves her feeling ashamed for even thinking that an older woman might be capable of finding love. Given that many of Mizoguchi’s plots revolve around sacrifice, one could be forgiven for thinking that the film might end with the older woman sacrificing her happiness for that of her daughter but not so. The madam’s daughter learns of the way in which her boyfriend treated her mother and immediately dumps him, thereby suggesting that women might actually have a choice about whether or not to suffer for the sake of stupid men. Indeed, many of the film’s warmest moments come when the daughter decides to help out at the brothel and make friends with the women working there. The sense of solidarity between the sex workers is so intense and so touching that it is impossible to see their words as anything other than a message to women who believe that they must sacrifice themselves for the men they love. Emotionally powerful as well as politically radical for the times, Uwasa No Onna is both a wonderful rejoinder to Gion Bayashi and an excellent precursor to what some would consider to be Mizoguchi’s finest (and final) film.

Yokihi (1955) (Main Picture)
Much like Chikamatsu Monogatari, Mizoguchi’s penultimate film feels very much like a project that was imposed upon him from above. Shot in colour, Yokihi (translated here as The Princess Yang Kwei-Fei) is based upon an 8th Century Chinese princess whose scandalous relationship with the Emperor of China served as a touchstone for a famous military revolt. However, while the fate of the real Princess Yang may well have resonated with many of Mizoguchi’s favoured themes, the version of her life contained in this script gives him almost nothing to work with. The film presents Yang as an impoverished kitchen girl who is elevated to the status of concubine by an ambitious general. Though the concubine wins the Emperor’s heart and becomes a major figure in the Chinese court, her patronage never quite extends further than her immediate family meaning that the general winds up blaming Yang for his failure to achieve political office.

The problem with this film is that its two plotlines are entirely disconnected. Yokihi should be a film about the dangers of blending love and politics but in order to emphasise the romantic elements of the story, the writers chose to present the character of Yang as a blameless soul devoid of all political agency. By failing to recognise Yang’s influence on courtly politics (and thus her role in her own downfall) the script isolates the central romance from the rest of the plot, thereby ensuring that nothing the couple do has any wider dramatic resonance. This is not a story of doomed love or political hubris but of a love story cut short by an unfortunate civil war. This lack of dramatic energy completely sinks the film, which is something of a shame as the use of colour is certainly eye-catching and the performances by Machiko Kyo and Massayuki Mori are satisfyingly stilted.

Akasen Chitai (1956)
The first seven films in this box set establish Mizoguchi as a politically engaged director who cared deeply about the plight of women in Japanese society. However, unlike many politicised film directors from the 1960s onwards, Mizoguchi worked within a studio system that expected him to deliver a certain number of films and for all of these films to make money. As a result, many of Mizoguchi’s later films feel as though their scripts are being carefully bent to meet a set of pre-existing interests. For example, Sansho Dayu and Oyu Sama shine precisely because Mizoguchi was able to take a traditional ghost story and a tale of honourable revenge and use them to highlight the treatment of the film’s secondary female characters. Similarly, Chikamatsu Monogatari and Yokihi struggle as the both scripts treat their female characters as little more than plot devices. The three strongest films in this box set are Gion Bayashi, Uwasa No Onna and Akasen Chitai (Street Of Shame) as their focus upon the contemporary Japanese sex trade gives Mizoguchi full reign to explore the plight of Japanese women and the social systems that debase and enslave them. Street Of Shame was not only Mizoguchi’s last film but also one of his most commercially successful and the reason for the success is obvious: This film is an unimpeachable masterpiece of World Cinema.

Much like Uwasa No Onna, Street Of Shame focuses upon the working conditions of Geisha some time after the profession was subsumed by the sex trade. However, while the women in Uwasa No Onna resembled upscale escorts working in a reasonably nice-looking brothel, the Geishas of Akasen Chitai are little more than street walkers forced to practically wrestle passing men to the ground in an effort to make some money. This complete loss of social status outside the brothel is replicated inside where a combination of terrible wages and loan sharking allow some women to make vast fortunes while others are trapped servicing their enormous debts. The solidarity between women that so warmed the heart of Uwasa No Onna has now been replaced with a Darwinian swamp of manipulation and exploitation where nobody can afford to fall sick, fall in love or dream of starting a new life.

Less a cohesive narrative than a series of interlocking short stories, Mizoguchi builds his film around the lives of four different sex workers whose ostensibly very different lives intersect and resonate with each other in all sorts of fascinating ways. Particularly effective is the brutally realistic portrayal of a young woman who works as a prostitute in order to support her family. Already quite moving, this portrait is rendered devastating by the careful juxtaposition of a story concerning a much older woman whose dreams of retirement are shattered by an ungrateful son who simply cannot accept the idea that his mother worked as a prostitute in order to pay for his upbringing. Did this older woman once battle the odds with poise and dignity like her younger colleague? Is the younger woman doomed to end her days mad and alone like the older woman? Mizoguchi suggests that while the economic system may be inhumane, its inhumanity stems from our own willingness to exploit each other and forget sacrifices made on our behalf. Devastatingly bleak, mercilessly real and yet bone-crunchingly beautiful, Akasen Chitai is one of the great achievements of 1950s cinema and a fitting tribute to one of the most rigorously humane directors ever to sit behind a camera.

Eureka! Entertainment ‘s Late Mizoguchi: Eight Films, 1951-1958, compiled together on 1080p Blu-ray for the first time will be released as part of their The Masters of Cinema Series on 21 October 2013.

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