“The greatest of Japanese filmmakers. Or, quite simply, one of the greatest of filmmakers.”
“If the cinema has yet produced a Shakespeare, its Shakespeare is Mizoguchi.”
One of cinema’s towering talents, and arguably the preeminent master of classic Japanese film (although Ozu and Kurosawa have their champions, to be sure), Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) was responsible for some of the most ravishingly beautiful films ever made.
Mizoguchi, born in Tokyo, began making films in 1922. During his 34-year career he directed more than eighty features, of which only some thirty survive today. His much-belated international discovery came near the end of his career, when three of his greatest works — The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) — were showcased (and won major awards) in successive years at Venice.
“Better than Ozu and Kurosawa ... Mizoguchi is not just the greatest Japanese director but one of the handful of the greatest filmmakers ever.”
RICHARD BRODY, THE NEW YORKER
Mizoguchi’s films are renowned not only for their painterly beauty but for their poetic humanism. The visual hallmarks of Mizoguchi’s celebrated style include the breathtakingly elegant use of fluid camera movement and of long-take sequence shots (in which spatial and temporal continuity is uninterrupted by editing); a fondness for long shots (“I hate close-ups,” Mizoguchi once said); and a stunning sense of composition. He is, with Renoir, Murnau, Welles, and Ophüls, one of the classic cinema’s great masters of mise-en-scène aesthetics, and his long takes and mobile camera exerted a profound influence on the French New Wave.
Mizoguchi’s central thematic interests, intrinsically linked to his visual style, can be catalogued — “the interplay of art and life, the transience of life, vanity of human ambition, transcendence through love after death” (James Quandt) — but the key concern of his art was the social condition of women, in both feudal and modern times. In film after film, Mizoguchi’s protagonists were complex, capable women struggling to cope in a society that subjugated or exploited them; often, his heroines were prostitutes. His compassion for women and his angry critique of their social oppression were such that he was long considered one of the leading “feminist” filmmakers. Although Mizoguchi’s exaltation of female self-sacrifice may no longer seem “feminist” in the contemporary sense, his work remains remarkable for its profound empathy with women and their plight. He is, without doubt, one of the great directors of female actors.
This select retrospective, featuring seven of Mizoguchi’s finest films, is occasioned by the recent restorations of Ugetsu and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), two of the director’s most beautiful achievements.