Wednesday, August 28, 2013

August Director - Kenji Mizoguchi

We are getting to the end of this particular theme for the Director of the Month. I have been using it to count down my favorite Japanese directors, which since I started with Oshima, means counting down 6 to 1. (With bumps.) We are almost there - we are at Number 2.

I can't imagine there's any suspense here - anyone who's read this blog regularly ought to be able to figure out who's number one. And once I put my other obvious favorite at number 3, that pretty much leaves Mizoguchi. I can't claim any kind of originality obviously - I don't really depart much from the consensus, other than elevating Imamura over Kurosawa - I imagine Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa are the standard Big Three. So I doubt I have to make much of a defense of this choice, except maybe to myself.

I haven't written about Mizoguchi all that much here - I noticed that I don't have a Label for him yet (well, I do now, but I didn't before I hit publish.) I have labels for all the others on this list, and a few who aren't on the list (yet - if I go down from 7 to 10, say, I will surely hit Suzuki and Kiyoshi Kurosawa soon - they have labels!) Are there reasons for that? accidents of what I happen to have seen in the last 9 years? Is Mizoguchi maybe somewhat out of fashion, making his films less likely to be revived, less likely to be reissued that some of the others? There might be something to that - there aren't that many Mizoguchi DVDs available in the states, not that I've found. I don't remember any big retrospectives of his work in the past decade or so - unlike Ichikawa, Ozu, Naruse, Oshima... I don't know. I saw the bulk of the Mizoguchi's I have seen in the late 90s - it has been harder to add to what I have seen than it has to add to the others.

And some of it might be me. I took longer to warm to his films than I did to most of the directors I've written about - the first time I saw them, I liked his early, contemporary films better than his later, period films - however impressive all of them were formally. That division did not survive repeated viewings - every film I saw made me love him more, and every time I see them again, I am inclined to love them anew... (Though again, that's true of almost all my favorite directors of any sort - it's certainly as true of Ozu or Mizoguchi, or even Kurosawa, whose films are shown enough that you can become used to them, as it is of Mizoguchi.) But then again - I use the word "love" there - and I don't know if that is quite right. "Love" is the word for Ozu - it's the word for most of the Imamuras, and a few of the Kurosawas (Kurosawa or Kurosawa), and some Suzukis.... Is it the word for Mizoguchi? Or is the word more like "Awe"? When I'm watching them, I can't say that's a very meaningful distinction. But still - I've put Mizoguchi ahead of Imamura here, but that's a bit deceptive. That's not true if this is a "favorite directors" list - it might be true if this is a "best directors" list. Fortunately, the whole list concept here is just a conceit to pick an order to write these essays, so we can forget it!

And talk instead about what these films have. There's not much debating the question of beauty - there might not ever be a filmmaker more capable of taking your breath away, shot after shot, moment by moment in a film. Start with that. And then, of course, note that there aren't a lot of directors with a more distinct and powerful individual style. (And most of the directors with a more individual style are on this list; or will be in a month.) His camera work, the constant movement, the deep spaces, the sculpting of light and dark, creates a world that is incredibly complex. He expands space in his films, creates a world that is too big for the film, that seems to be waiting in the wings to destroy the characters. There are filmmakers who disorient you, who break the sense of spatial continuity in a film, who make you feel the difference between real world space and screen space - there are other filmmakers who work to create a cinematic world that feels as deep and encompassing as the real world. Mizoguchi is their master. He has good company - Murnau, Renoir, Welles, Dreyer - but he is probably the greatest of them. I remember when I was first reading about film, being confused about why the French loved Mizoguchi so much, at Kurosawa's expense - I think this is a big part of it. Mizoguchi fits in with the people Bazin and his followers valued - Renoir, Dreyer, Murnau, Welles, Rosselini - their use of long takes, deep spaces, the sense of continuity, of keeping back from the action, letting the viewer sort things out, make sense of the imagery - is all present in Mizoguchi, probably to an even greater extent. Those critics were not inclined to value what Kurosawa offered - the much more America and Russian style editing, the more direct creation of "meaningful" shots, and so on. That isn't to say Mizoguchi is not "meaningful" - in fact, it might be one of the points against him, that his films feel very self-enclosed (for all their expansiveness) - their style builds to a complete and inescapable world, in ways that, certainly, Imamura's films don't. Or Ozu - whose style seems much more disorienting, constructed, never letting you forget this is a thing that has been made.

And so. I admit that I will keep harping on these formal qualities in the notes below - I suppose that is part of what makes Mizoguchi sometimes a bit hard to place - he is so formally astonishing, so beautiful, that sometimes, the story might seem to become secondary. (There are many ironies there: I find Ozu much more formally disruptive - but I find his work much more emotionally cohesive. I'm not sure how that works.) But that's really just an impression - the simpler fact is that I find Mizoguchi's films to be incredibly beautiful, brilliantly composed and staged, always featuring strong stories, with a consistent and complex point of view, and - notwithstanding what I was just saying - very humanistic. He is a master in every sense.

1. Ugetsu Monogatari - Ghost story. A potter leaves his wife to pursue a mysterious woman, who proves to be a ghost; another man leaves HIS family to pursue military glory thus plunging his wife into prostitution. Features one or two of the single most magnificent shots in the history of cinema. There is probably not much need to explain why this is such a masterpiece - an utterly gorgeous film on Mizoguchi's usual subject, how women suffer to make men worth their suffering. For good measure, he works in anti-militarism (the samurai are all scum, cowards, fools - the foot soldiers are bullies, rapists, murderers, thieves) and a tract on the evils of greed as well. It is one of the high points of filmmaking - its mix of dynamicism and lyricism - the way people move in and out of the frame, the camera movement, the perfect compositions, the effects, even the use of sound.

The scenes with lady Wasaka make a particularly dazzling high point. From the beginning - Genjuro comes in, passing through the ruins; the sequence starts in ruins, but as he moves into the castle, things become more animated - lights, other ghosts and so on appear - until he is brought to Lady Wasaka herself. It is all very theatrical, especially the moment of truth - references to traditional Japanese theater in particular. The lone pine on the stage, for instance... Then Lady Wakasa dances - again, theater, the way she moves, the staging - and as she sings we hear another kind of music start, then hear her father's ghost singing... That might be a first - a ghost appearing inside a ghost story... The voices blend and Mizoguchi moves the camera to the empty armor.... I lose it every time I see that; who wouldn't?

The film as a whole becomes more moving every time I see it, as do most of these films. There is the emotional punch of the ending, but also the ending for Lady Wakasa, who Genjuro betrays as surely as he betrays his wife. She is almost as sympathetic as Miyagi. And all through there is so much to be in awe of - take the shot of Miyagi's death - a long crane shot, three starving men fighting, one stabs her, she dies in long shot and the others die in very long shot... devastating.

2. Osaka Elegy - Story of a woman who becomes her boss's mistress to pay off her useless father and brother's debts. Murky in every print I have seen, but beautifully composed and shot. Notice the use of light - the dark foregrounds, the bright backgrounds, the frequent high contrast lighting that picks objects out in the background, bright shining objects. These great Japanese directors found their styles fairly early - this is 1936, but Mizoguchi is in command of the style completely - the perfectly composed shots, the long, elaborate tracks, the cranes, the long takes, the sophisticated mise en scene. Shooting through screens - literal screens, also people, windows, shelves, laundry. Like Sternberg - also like Sirk. It is a very strong lineage, that is probably real - certainly Sternberg influenced Mizoguchi, and probably Sirk (who was making his own expressionistic masterpieces in Germany about this time). Sculpting and shaping the world in light and dark, composition, set decoration, all three of them, at a level not really matched by anyone else. (Except maybe Murnau, who helped beget the lot of them...) For Mizoguchi, especially, space is the key - he shapes it, shapes the story out of what is seen and not seen. He is a master of what we don't see as much as we see - using offscreen sounds along with the camera and actor movements, the light and dark, entrances and exits, to establish a sense of continuous space, a whole world around what we see. You feel as if every shot could go on forever, in time or space - that the world extends infinitely in all directions. And what you see, the flow of things you see, and how you see them, creates the narrative and reveals the emotional story. These things are constant in Mizoguchi's work, and they are all here, in 1936, in 71 minutes...

3. Sansho the Bailiff - Story in medieval Japan, of a boy and girl, children of a ruined noble, enslaved by Sansho, who forces their mother into prostitution. The girl sacrifices herself to let the boy escape, and he does, and gets vengeance, though he gives it up to find his mother. Another rather unbelievably beautiful film, though as usual with Mizoguchi, thematically complex as well. Here, the two fathers, good and bad - the ways the sons, Taro and Zushio - betray and redeem their fathers, and so on. And of course, the way Mizoguchi develops themes and tells stories through the formal elements of the film - the play of space, of light and dark, of movement through landscapes, the circles, the routes traced by Zushio (and his mother and sister), the sounds and images, and the ravishing shots... Images that develop themes - consider the way the characters move, where they go - men, whatever happens to them, can move; women cannot. Women sacrifice themselves because that is all they have, in these worlds - men can be stars or heroes or artists; women are lucky not to get their tendons cut.

4. Sisters of the Gion - Another mid-30s film, tracing 2 sisters who are Geisha's - one remains loyal to her lover, even when he is ruined and moves in with her; the other schemes and connives several men, but is almost killed in the end by one of them... while the loyal, good geisha, loses her man when his wife gets him a job. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, though I suppose they are all better off rid of the bastards. As such, for all it's misery, it plays a bit closer to Naruse than some of the other Mizoguchi's - the women are abandoned and suffer, but for no one's sake but their own.

5. 47 Ronin - Classic piece of Japanese drama about 46 ronin who avenge the death of their lord, and are allowed to kill themselves. This was made in 1941, and shows some propaganda elements, but great lord, what a stunning looking film. Maybe the government's interest in the film meant that Mizoguchi had all the resources he could possibly ask - this is far more extravagant looking than his other early films that I have seen. Long elaborate crane shots - overhead angles moving into low angles, all smooth and magisterial. Mizoguchi here moves the camera to get between shots - what might be a conventional shot/reverse shot, he achieves by moving the camera - moving from long to medium shots and so on... Slow going - 4 hours of it, much of it samurai sitting around pretending to vacillate - but it has such weight in the pictures that it feels full, constantly engaging. Amazing film.

6. Chikamatsu Monogatari (The Crucified Lovers) - Another theatrical adaptation, this from Chikamatsu, one of Japan's great dramatists. A complicated story of a printer's wife, whose useless brother needs money that she can't borrow from her husband. So she mentions it to Mohei, her husband's best employee - he agrees to help, but is caught in the act of trying to sneak some money away - when he tries to confess and apologize, the husband turns on him. Why? Well - the old rake had been trying to molest a maid, so the maid said she was engaged to Mohei. Well - as everyone tries to explain everything to everyone else - Mohei and the wife are caught together in the maid's room... Uh oh! They run away, and as they travel together, they fall genuinely in love - to the point that when they are caught, they go together to the gallows, hand in hand, happier than they have ever been.

The tragedy is familiar enough, but beyond that, it is a very dense, complex film - gorgeous and bitter. Money is everywhere - Ishun, the printer, has made a fortune from the great nobles, who all owe him money, and are itching for a chance to break him. He has a rival aiming to get the position back; faithless employees, stealing under his nose. The wife's brother is a useless playboy, taking singing lessons and letting his mother and sister suffer in his place. The class issues - between the printer and the court nobles in his debt, between the poor samurai like the wife's family and the printer, between the printer, his wife, and his employees - are ubiquitous as well. And sexual power - the husband causes a lot of the trouble by seducing a maid; no one (except his wife, and maybe Mohei) pauses for a second to think about the hypocrisy of it - but she does, and Mohei does, and they are ruined for it. All this is lovely as usual, dense and beautiful. Bitter, funny, cruel, tragic, as complicated and modern as Shakespeare (might be more modern that Shakespeare, though only a half century later than Shakespeare) - great film, geat story, everything.

7. Story of the Last Chrysanthemum - Late 30s Mizoguchi, about an actor in the 1880s who runs off with a servant. He had been a hack actor - she makes him a star and an artist, but only after she sacrifices herself for his good. Quintessential version of the Mizoguchi theme, probably - and as always, a masterful piece of work.

8. Life of Oharu - Another gorgeous film, this one about a samurai's daughter who is ruined by loving a servant, and then descends through the ranks of society as misfortune dogs her every step. There might be just a tad too much of it here - the parade of woe starts to seem almost comical, though that is hardly fair. As always with Mizoguchi, the style is impeccable, and this has a fantastic performance by Kinuyo Tanaka as well.

9. Loves of Sumiko the Actress - Film about the the theatrical world of late 19th century Japan - starts with a man trying to put on new, European plays - he wants to stage A Doll's House, and needs an actress - he meets and casts Sumiko, who has left her husband to act - she is a hit. It isn't long before they are lovers, and runs off with him - they become famous, revolutionizing drama in Japan, but they work themselves to death doing it. A fine film, though perhaps a bit flat, and the storytelling merely adequate - but Kinuyo Tanaka's performance carries it. She is radiant - maybe never so radiant as she is here. Radiant and spiky at once - a masterful performance.

10. A Geisha - An older geisha adopts a 16 year old girl, puts her through training, they go to work--the girl has an admirer, and so does the older woman--they go to Tokyo where the two swains try their hands with them--the girl bites her man, the other woman just turns hers down. They are blacklisted. As it happens, of course, the older woman's lover is the problem--he controls some business deal. Everyone--the other man, the teahouse owner, the geishas of course owe everyone else--and when they refuse to cooperate they are blackballed. This lasts a while--then Miyohara goes with the man. Miyoe is unhappy, but that's how it ends. Gorgeous photography as usual.


Sam Juliano said...

Wonderful piece WS, and dead-on placement as far as I'm concerned, with your upcoming Number 1 also my own Number 1. Mizoguchi is a staggering genius, and his output is among the greatest in world cinema. I do, however, consider SANSHO THE BAILIFF as his supreme masterpiece, and one of my own four favorite films of all-time with TOKYO STORY, AU HASARD BALTHAZAR and CITY LIGHTS. More than any other Mizoguchi film, Sansho the Bailiff is entitled to be described as “Shakespearean.” it’s themes are universal, it’s characters embrace all walks of life and morality. The film’s central theme may well be how civilization and morality can emerge out of barbarism. Hence this noble story of redemption, and of good arising from evil, is tuned into cinematic art, abetted by the highest level of black and white cinematography, acting and writing. The mother is played by the legendary Kinuyo Tanaka, one of the greatest of Japanese actresses. As Mizoguchi was a passionate advocate of feminism, evidenced in many of his films, he surely had Tanaka evoke the strongest feminine vulnerability through literally every pore. The adult Zushio is played by Yoshiaki Hanayagi and his sister Anju by Kyoko Kagawa, who appeared in the other Japanese masterpiece of the same period, Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

The cinematographer is Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot Kurosawa’s Rashomon, among others. The scenes of nature, and especially the ones of trees and water evoke the texture of classic paintings, and Mizoguchi’s famous use of the long-shot and extended take insures that the camera keeps a respectful distance from the action, a distancing effect which mutes acute emotion. Hence, the viewer is inclined to be more contemplative. The use of close-ups, limited in this film, would force an emotional reaction. The fact that Mizoguchi still negotiated such a response is testament to the power of the story. Contemporary Far East directors like Edward Yang and Hsaio-Hsien have effected the same cinematic style, and similarly it’s been successful.

Still, UGETSU, OSAKA TRILOGY and LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS are also supreme masterpieces, and I could hardly contest your numerical placements, even if my own would be slightly different.

For the third greatest Japanese director I would go with Yoshida, and then have Kurosawa or Naruse for No. 4. Ichikawa, Kinoshita, Shindo, Oshima, Teshigahara, Kobayashi, Yamanaka, and Shimizu would also be solidly in the mix.

Again, lovely, passionate presentation here.

weepingsam said...

Thanks, Sam. Placement is pretty arbitrary, I admit. I can't say I intentionally alternated between his later, grander, historical masterworks, and his earlier, sharper, domestic melodramas - but I did in fact, and - it is very hard picking among those four. I think Ugetsu might win for the scene I described (the ghost in a ghost story), and maybe for the scene where the other man kills the wounded Samurai and becomes a military man himself. It reminds me of an idea I've had for a series of posts here - Posts From the Staircase! AYou know - things I wish I had said to someone somewhere in the past, arguments I wish I'd answered.... This happened in a class I was in some years back. Discussing Ugestu. There was a woman in the class who was something of a know it all - she apparently had studied kendo, somewhere in her life... and She objected to that scene. It could never happen - Samurai were trained from birth as killing machines - no peasant could kill one of them like that! That deserved an answer - I should have said - well, two things: 1) the samurai was wounded and the peasant stabbed him from ambush. But more - 2) That's a big part of the point, right there - to demythologize samurai - to make them look evil and stupid. It's a direct response to WWII, and one of the clearest - romanticizing these people just got millions of Japanese people killed - if you're going to romanticize the past, romanticize the potters and women. Something like that is close to another of Mizoguchi's universal themes - maybe that, the presence of artists and craftsmen, in Ugetsu pushes it ahead of Sansho, makes it just that little bit more characteristically and quintessentially Mizoguchi.

Your directors ranking reminds me that I need to try to see more Yoshida - I have seen 7 or 8, I think - all marvelous - but I need to see more. That's true of a lot of Japanese directors, but he's one who I know would be among my favorites if I could get into double digits, and see some of them a couple more times.