Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) was a Japanese film director most noted for exploring both personal and broad societal issues such as the status of women. He is, according to The Yomiuri Shimbun "regarded as the dean of Japanese filmmaking." Gary Arnold, writing in The Washington Times, called his work "a substantial but curiously fragmentary and haunted body of work." Arnold says his films extract "extraordinary eloquence and pathos from stories of human abandonment, struggle and loss."
Early Life Fraught with Sorrows
Mizoguchi's topic selection is seen as reflecting his personal life, which was filled with seemingly constant sorrow. Mizoguchi was born on May 16, 1898, in Tokyo, Japan. He was born to a roofing carpenter and the daughter of a failed herbal medicines trader, one of three children. The family, who were living in the middle-class district of Toyko known as Hongo, was devastated financially during the Russo-Japanese war by his father's attempts to sell raincoats to the Army. The business failed. The family was forced to move to Asakusa and to eventually give up their daughter for adoption. The sister's adoptive family eventually sold her into servitude in a geisha house. Mizoguchi harbored a lifelong hatred of his father.
It was after this move that Mizoguchi first had an attack of rheumatoid arthritis, a condition which ultimately affected the way he walked and persisted throughout his life. He entered elementary school in 1907, but after six years' schooling, he was sent to relatives in Morioka as apprentice to his uncle, a pharmacist. When he returned home in 1912, Mizoguchi expected to resume his education. His father refused to send him to school, however, so he went to work, though grudgingly. As noted in an essay in World Film Directors, "the resulting sense of inferiority about his lack of formal education stayed with him all his life."
His mother died in 1915, while Mizoguchi was still in his teens. His sister placed their father in a home and took in her brothers. These formative experiences fueled his passion for artistic expression and shaped his films. Under these freer living conditions, Mizoguchi became interested in art and theater. He moved to Kobe in 1918 to take a position as a newspaper advertising designer.
Industry Strike Provided Opportunity for Directorial Debut
Mizoguchi returned to Toyko, homesick. He moved in with a friend working at the Mukojima film studios who secured a job for Mizoguchi. Originally offered an acting job, Mizoguchi decided to become a jack of all trades— transcribing scripts and organizing sets. He was given his first opportunity to direct during a strike in 1923; he made Aini yomigaeruhi (The Resurrection of Love) . He would make 10 more films before the Tokyo earthquake in September that same year. He was able to get equipment and film the destruction for newsreels.
Mizoguchi's life was rife with emotional episodes played out with various women. A romantic involvement in 1925 interrupted his career. Yuriko Ichijo, a call girl, attacked Mizoguchi with a razor, scarring him for life. The attendant scandal resulted in his suspension from the studio. He returned to work with a new demeanor some called "his obsessive perfectionism." Four years later, he married, but that relationship was marred with violence and frequent separations.
Arnold says it was that "history of family estrangement and bitterness on one hand and romantic turbulence and susceptibility on the other" that "conspired to create a peculiarly expressive interpreter of primal passions and misfortunes in Kenji Mizoguchi."
In 1930, Mizoguchi made his first sound film, Furusato (Home Town), which was also the first sound film in Japan. It was in 1935 that he and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda first teamed for Osaka Elegy (1935). This creative relationship would last until Mizoguchi's death. The film was considered his first master work, but it was a financial failure.
His next major film was made in 1938, the same year his brother died. Zangiku monogatari (The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums) is considered by some to be represent the pinnacle of Mizoguchi's career. It is also said to be the most feminist of his films.
Made Epic Ronin
Mizoguchi drew from Japanese history for Genroku Chushingura (The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin of the Genroku Era or The 47 Ronin, 1941 and 1942). Its script was written by Yoda and Kenichiro Hara. The sprawling epic was made in two parts and was the largest budget film at the time, costing 53,000 Yen. In a review of the re-release of The 47 Ronin in Cineaste, Diane Stevenson calls the film "the most beautiful movie ever made… . I'm not sure it's the greatest … but it's the most beautiful."
The film is based on a incident in Japanese history that has become legend—revenge of Lord Asano's loyal retainers following the death of their master, who was forced into seppuku or ritual suicide after being provoked to draw his sword in the Shogun's palace. The story has been used frequently in theater and film. Mixoguchi's version of this story delves into explorations of the samurai code, its ceremonies and obligations.
While filming the second half of the epic, Mizoguchi's wife was committed to a mental asylum. He moved in with his sister-in-law.
Stevenson and other critics wonder about Mizoguchi's choice to refrain from showing violent acts on screen in that film. "Mizoguchi has been criticized for not showing the dramatic culmination of the story, the loyal retainers finally avenging their master." In his retelling, she says, the story does not end with the successful revenge, but "the punishment for the revenge, the collective seppuku required of the forty-seven ronin in consequence of their triumph… . It may be said that Mizoguchi's propensity for pathos led him to emphasize the punishment rather than the triumph. But the crucial thing is ceremony. Ceremony is about social order, about social ordering. It is about hierarchy, and the story of the loyal retainers is a story about hierarchy. Like any other etiquette or courtesy, ceremony makes it possible to live with the humiliations of hierarchy. Seppuku is a ritual that makes suicide a social act."
1950s Brought Awards Streak, Acclaim
During the occupation of Japan after World War II, demand for escapist entertainment and film was at its height. Mizoguchi was depressed, thinking he was tapped and his filmmaking style outmoded. The success of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon was said to have provoked him into making The Life of Ohara in 1952. It was considered to be ambitious and also took Mizoguchi in a new direction. The film was made without the financial support of a studio. The film shared a Silver Lion at the 1952 Venice Film Festival with John Ford's The Quiet Man.
Among his most enduring and popular films is Ugetsu (1953), a ghost story that plumbs the depths of the post-war Japanese psyche. Time 's Richard Corliss contrasts it with the internationally popular Gojira/Godzilla story, another postwar film classic. Corliss says Ugetsu "critiques … [Japan's] own blood-lust, most profoundly." The story follows two couples through the degradation of war, "beyond pain, beyond death … a horror story and a haunting masterpiece." It was awarded a Silver Lion and Italian Critics' Award.
The complexities of Ugetsu are explored in a comprehensive 1993 volume by the same name, edited by Keiko I. McDonald. The book contains printed materials including the film script, the two 18th-century tales on which the film was based and critical essays.
Mizoguchi had several frequent collaborators. Among them was Matsutaro Kawaguchi, a novelist whom he knew since they met in elementary school; Shuichi Hatamoto, who worked with him between 1924 and the advent of talkies in Japan; Hiroshi Mzutani, his art director from 1933 on; producer Masaichi Nagata; and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda. With actress Kinuyo Tanaka, Mizoguchi made 11 films.
His sets were said to have been tense. Yoda observed Mizoguchi "does not have the courage to face persons, things, and ideas that assail him. The anger and resentment which he cannot deal with makes him cry hysterically." Actors were rarely given license to improvise. His concentration while working on any given film was said to have been legendary. According to World Film Directors "his working method tested the endurance of his collaborators, who nevertheless testify to its success as well as the affection he inspired."
Mizoguchi continued prolifically. Sansho dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954) shared a Silver Lion with Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Chikamatsu monogatari (Chikamatsu Story), among his last films, is considered "perhaps the best-loved of all his works among his colleagues and the Japanese critics" according to World Film Directors.
Left Rich and Distinctive Body of Work
The resultant body of work Mizoguchi left has been studied and pondered by scholars and film buffs alike, mined for meaning and subtext. Much of his work shares similar themes. He used historic tales as well as the works of Guy de Maupassant, Tolstoy, and contemporary Japanese novelists. His work was often contrasted with that of Kurosawa during their lifetime, and continues to be simply by virtue of their both being Japanese directors.
"Like Shakespeare, Mizoguchi respected ordeal, marks of true birth (moral status), and home as the place you set out from and eventually return to, changed utterly. He knew that what we long for is undying passion and reunion with what has been lost," wrote Village Voice reviewer Georgia Brown in a 1996 article.
J. Hoberman, writing in the Village Voice in 1996, called Mizoguchi "the first universal master of Japanese cinema, a specialist in crypto-feminist-period melodrama, beloved by the critics of the French new wave for his fluid camera moves and bravura mise-en-scene." Mizoguchi drew inspiration from numerous sources, including the art of Pablo Picasso. Among the directors who inspired him were William Wyler, John Ford, and Erich von Stroheim. One of his preferred conventions was to use long, distant camera shots. Stevenson says "The cllose-up may bring on the tear in a Hollywood movie, but it is Mizoguchi's distant camera that makes us cry." Others state they find God in his attention to those smallest details. "Mizoguchi's scenes are lit by fires of rapture, filtered through veils of an awesome sorrow," writes Brown in the Village Voice. "A simple tracking shot of a woman walking creates a binding spell. A couple in discussion tracked from below look like they're standing on a bridge, which, in an important sense, they are. Another bridge is an emblem of banishment; a drowning makes rings on a lake of tears. His signature crane shots look down with compassion or quiet horror. In Princess and Ohau, he shows us courage in a trailing hem."
Mizoguchi made two color films late in his career, but the experiences were not good. His final film—made in 1956—is considered the most financially successful of his work. Mizoguchi died from leukemia on August 24, 1956, while working on yet another project.
There are conflicting filmographies. Most frequently, Mizoguchi is said to have directed about 90 films between 1923 and 1956. Cinematheque Ontario and the Japan Foundation reportedly recognize 85 titles made between that same period. One obvious problem is that documentation and reels for most of his early films has been lost. Mizoguchi's own repository was destroyed in the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and then again in World War II. Then too, he was frequently dissatisfied with his work. Arnold says "Mizoguchi was hard-pressed to remember everything he had done—and content to leave the forgotten or unsatisfying projects to oblivion." Hope remains among cinephiles those prints will be found.
McDonald, Keiko I., ed., Ugetsu, 1993.
Asia Africa Intelligence Wire (From The Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri), December 5, 2002.
Cineaste, Summer 2000.
Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 2000.
Japan Quarterly, October 1994.
Time International, August 23, 1999.
Village Voice, September 17, 1996; September 24, 1996.
Washington Times, February 16, 1997.