Today: February 22, 2024

Late Mizoguchi: Eight Films

Kenji Mizoguchi, the visionary Japanese director is admired and
even revered by almost all that have seen his films; the great French
critic Jean Douchet, for example, said of Mizoguchi’s final film,
Akasen-chitai (1956), “For me, along with Chaplain’s Monseiur Verdoux
and Renoir’s La Regle du jeu, the greatest film in the history of the
cinema.”
Powerful praise indeed, but Mizoguchi remains unknown to
many in the West. However with Eureka’s new eight film box set Late
Mizoguchi, we get a new chance to be acquainted with this old master.
And while his final film was released in 1956, this socially conscious
and politically motivated director still has much to teach us,
especially as we enter a period of social upheaval and change.

Mizoguchi was born into a modest middle-class family in Tokyo in
1898. This relative prosperity ended, however, when his father tried to
move up in the world, selling raincoats to soldiers during the
Russo-Japanese war. Unfortunately for the family, the war ended too
quickly for the father to recoup his investment and their finances
plummeted. They were forced to leave Tokyo, and they gave up Mizoguchi’s
elder sister Suzu for adoption, where she was eventually sold to a
geisha house. His mother died when Mizoguchi was 17 and his father’s
inability to support him meant he lived with relatives, and was only
able to study art and become an actor and then director due to Suzu’s
sacrifices.

These formative years produced the themes Mizoguchi would explore
throughout his prolific directing career: the perils of being overly
ambitious, the arrogance of men, and most importantly the suffering
inflicted upon women in modern Japan. This interest in women’s position
in society has led to him being remembered as one of the first feminist
film directors.

Women in Mizoguchi films are typically ill-fated heroines, pitted
against a male-dominated, money oriented society, victimised by forces
beyond their control. The women typically become victim of male
selfishness, but in sacrificing themselves for the man, the film can end
with the man transformed.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) for example, features two farmer
couples having to confront the chaos of mid-sixteenth century feudal
society. The two men try to profit from civil war then taking place by
selling clay products in big towns and cities. One wife encourages their
greed, the other pleads for them to be happy with their quiet family
life. As armies sweep through their homeland, they are forced to flee
and the pairs are both separated. The men give in to their moral
weaknesses: for one man it is sex, for the other it is status, but it is
the women that suffer for their husbands’ failings. Through the women’s
continued devotion, the men are able to redeem themselves, and a peace
of sorts is found at the end.

When recounted like that, it may not sit well with many modern feminists. The women in Mizoguchi’s films typically lack agency and control of their own lives,
and can only uphold their dignity by saving the men around them: hardly
the feminist dream. But Mizoguchi’s films are important because they
recognise the position of the women in modern society: downtrodden and
oppressed. The women in his films may not be able to control their lives
because of societal constraints, but neither are they passive victims.
Akasen Chitai for example, is the story of five prostitutes, and
balances the shame of their profession with the economic opportunities
it brings. Rather than being a simple judgement, it is an exploration of the societal structures that
restrict women’s choices and the ways women fight to find their own
agency. Unfortunately, fortune rarely favours the women in Mizoguchi’s
work.

Sometimes Mizoguchi’s films can feel old-fashioned, but in reminding
us how much of our lives – men and women – operate out of our control,
his films, and this boxset, offer a timely reminder: in periods of
upheaval, whether after military defeat or economic austerity, it is
women that usually suffer the most.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website: thekolsocial.com

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