The Beauty in Her Sacrifice

The Life of Oharu.jpg


Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu, 1952

There is something quite touching about the reverence shown by Jean-Luc Godard for the great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi. Godard is a dogmatic leftist, while Mizoguchi was primarily an aesthete. Mizoguchi worked for major film studios aiming at a mass audience; Godard has settled for a cult following. And yet Godard visited Kyoto years ago to lay flowers on Mizoguchi’s grave. He once wrote: “If poetry is manifest in each shot, each second filmed by Mizoguchi, it is because it is…the instinctive reflection of the filmmaker’s creative nobility.”

Godard rated Mizoguchi (1898–1956)—all of whose surviving films are being shown at the Museum of the Moving Image this month—much more highly than he did the more famous Akira Kurosawa, whose work he dismissed as facile exoticism. To Godard, and some other members of the French New Wave, Mizoguchi was the pure artist, whose long meticulous takes raised film to a heightened form of dramatic realism. Kurosawa was a terrific editor, but this alone made him suspicious in the eyes of a purist like Godard, who regarded too much editing as meretricious.

The attempt to rank geniuses like Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, and the third great Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu, is actually profoundly silly. It is a miracle that three artists of their caliber worked more or less at the same time. And there were others, notably Mikio Naruse, who made the period from the early 1930s till the mid 1960s a golden age of Japanese cinema.

Why such periods of extraordinary artistic creativity occur is an interesting question, to do with economics, relative political freedom, levels of education, and public taste. But to say that Mizoguchi was greater than Kurosawa, or Ozu greater than Mizoguchi, is like saying that Vermeer was greater than Rembrandt. It is pointless.

The tragedy of Mizoguchi’s oeuvre is that so much of it has been lost. Studios did not think it worth their while to conserve old films. Many films were also destroyed during the war, and immediately after, when, under instruction from the US occupation authorities, studios consigned movies with subjects that might be construed as “feudal” to huge bonfires.

Still, more than thirty Mizoguchi films survived and are now being screened in New York. They include such masterpieces as The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), about the tragic love life of a young Kabuki actor, and the most famous films, The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). But lesser-known early films, such as White Threads of the Waterfall (1933) and Osaka Elegy (1936), which both explore the role of women in early modern Japan, should not be missed.

Sansho the Bailiff.jpg

Daiei Film

Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff, 1954

One thing that is immediately striking is how consistent Mizoguchi was as a stylist. The carefully composed long shots, almost like paintings, and the long takes, are already evident in films of the early 1930s, as in an extraordinary image of the young lovers in silhouette on a moonlit bridge in White Threads of the Waterfall.

Like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi was born in Tokyo, and had wanted to become a painter. His family was too poor to give him much of a formal education. At the age of fifteen he worked as an apprentice to a textile designer of summer kimonos. But Mizoguchi was a keen reader of European and Japanese literature, as well as a largely self-taught connoisseur of painting. He was a stickler for authenticity in period detail. His sets did not just have to look real, they actually had to be real. Every pot, every piece of furniture, had to be authentic. And the camera angle had to be just right.

In one famous instance, Mizoguchi had an entire Japanese-style house built on the borders of a lake at vast expense. When it was done, he took a careful look through the camera lens and decided that for the shot to be perfect, the house had to be dismantled, and rebuilt a few inches to the right. (Similar stories, by the way, exist about Kurosawa, who would hold up production for days while he waited for the ideal cloud formation.) Only in those long bygone days when the big studios were booming was such behavior imaginable, and then only among a few established masters.

Even though Mizoguchi was very knowledgeable about Western art, his style owed above all to the classical Japanese tradition. In the 1920s, during his early career, he had worked in Kyoto, where he saw a great deal of traditional Japanese theater. His use of cuts, camera movements, and dissolves, gives the impression of viewing a painted scroll. Godard described this beautifully in the case of Ugetsu, a story about Genjuro, a simple potter in the fifteenth century seduced by a beautiful woman who turns out to be a ghost:


Genjuro is bathing with the fatal enchantress who has caught him in her net; the camera leaves the rock pool where they are disporting themselves, pans along the overflow which becomes a stream disappearing into the fields; at this point there is a swift dissolve to the furrows, other furrows seem to take their place, the camera continues tranquilly on its way, rises, and discovers a vast plain, then a garden in which we discover the two lovers again, a few months later, enjoying a picnic. Only masters of the cinema can make use of the dissolve to create a feeling which is here the very Proustian one of pleasure and regrets.

Of course, one can take the traditionalist interpretation of Mizoguchi’s style too far. I once asked his favorite cameraman, Kazuo Miyagawa, whether his characteristic depth of focus—in Ugetsu, for example—had anything to do with Japanese art. He smiled. “Not at all,” he said. “My main influence was the camera work of Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane.”

What Mizoguchi often did, however, especially in his period films, was to find a cinematic expression for the episodic storytelling that marked not just traditional painted scrolls, but pre-modern Japanese literature. The original story of The Life of Oharu was written by Ihara Saikaku, the great seventeenth-century chronicler of fictional rakes and courtesans in the brothel districts of Kyoto and Osaka. Saikaku did not write like modern novelists, developing characters over time; he wrote atmospheric vignettes, almost like mini-novellas, that bring the reader into his imaginary world. Mizoguchi does something similar in such films as The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu, and The Crucified Lovers (1954), which is based on a play by Chikamatsu, the seventeenth-century puppet theater dramatist.

If there was one subject that obsessed Mizoguchi it was that of women sacrificing themselves for their men—lovers, but also sons and brothers. There are some films about male heroes, such as The 47 Ronin (1941), or Miyamoto Musashi (1944), but these were both made during the war, when Mizoguchi tried to appease military censors by filming historic subjects that expressed the “samurai spirit.” But these movies, though not all to be dismissed, are rarities in his oevre. He was far more interested in women than in men.

For this reason, he is often described in Japan as a “feminist.” But his feminism, if that is what it was, bore little resemblance to what we might understand by that term today. A typical early example is the melodramatic White Threads of the Waterfall, about Taki, a beautiful circus performer, who sacrifices everything to support her impecunious lover, an orphan from a samurai family. Long after he has moved to Tokyo to study law, she even kills a man to be able to continue sending him money. Much later, after she is finally arrested for her crime, she meets him again, as her judge. Her eyes shine in wonder at the successful man he has become, even as he has to condemn her to death. He then commits suicide to atone for his guilt.

There is nothing pathetic about Taki. She is always in control of her own fate. It is the young man who is the weaker one, dependent on the woman’s sacrifice.

Mizoguchi’s own life history partly explains his fascination for this type of woman. When his father’s business venture failed, Mizoguchi’s sister was given up for adoption and then sold to a geisha house. He never forgave his father for this, even though he felt no scruples about living off this same sister after she had married a rich man.

Mizoguchi was also himself a great patron of brothels and geisha houses. A jealous mistress, who worked as a call girl, once slashed his back with a razor. But he felt so strongly about the awful fate of most women in the pleasure districts that he once stood up in a room full of prostitutes in a VD clinic and begged their forgiveness with tears streaming down his face.


Daiei Film

Mizoguchi on the set of Ugetsu, 1953

Female sacrifice was also in the zeitgeist, as it were. The early twentieth century was a time of social mobility in Japan, when young men from relatively poor families could better themselves by getting educated. This often led to an estrangement from the mothers who had supported them; they ended up living in separate worlds. And for one brother to go on to university, the interests of younger siblings, especially sisters, had to be neglected.

In Mizoguchi’s movies, this drama is reenacted over and over. In The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, Otoku, the loyal maid, helps a young Kabuki actor through hard times, only to be cast aside when he becomes a star. In The Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955), Mizoguchi even changes the famous Chinese story about court intrigues and betrayal during the Tang Dynasty into a drama about the beautiful concubine Yang’s sacrifice for the emperor.


The point of these stories is not political protest against “feudalism” or male chauvinism. Rather, as always with Mizoguchi, the point is aesthetic, even spiritual. He finds beauty in the sacrifice of his heroines, and a dark and uncontrollable force in their attraction to men. The female sex, in his movies, is to be worshiped, but also to be feared. Women are victims of male ambition and lust, but they are at the same time more powerful than men.

Some of this attitude comes from traditional Japanese sources; the matriarchal animism of Shinto nature worship, perhaps. But Mizoguchi, like other Japanese artists and writers of his era, was also strongly influenced by European Romanticism. He regarded himself as a Buddhist, but the Virgin Mary pops up in his imagery too, not always to the best effect. One film made in 1935 is actually called Oyuki the Virgin, or Maria no Oyuki in Japanese.

The Madonna is never far from the whore. A flawed, though still interesting picture, entitled Women of the Night, shot in the ruins of Osaka in 1948, paints a vicious picture of streetwalkers in Japan under US occupation. This story of exploitation, disease, and murder ends on a note of redemption, however, when the camera pans from the body of a prostitute in a bombed-out church to an image on the wall of the Virgin Mary. It is not one of Mizoguchi’s most inspired moments. But it is quite typical of his work.

Where Mizoguchi was a true Romantic was in his passion for his art. For this, no sacrifice, from himself and those who worked with him, was too great. He was known to his crews as “the demon.” So great was his fear of losing control of anything, or anyone, on the set, even for a second, that he refused to go to the bathroom, preferring to urinate into an empty bottle.

Mizoguchi’s favorite actress, Kinuyo Tanaka, who played Oharu among many other roles, including a prostitute in Women of the Night, bore the brunt of his tyrannical dedication. She once recalled Mizoguchi telling her that his artistic model was Vincent van Gogh. An artist should be prepared to cut off his ear for his art. That van Gogh may have mutilated himself for reasons that had little to do with his painting is beside the point. Mizoguchi meant what he said.

A retrospective of the films of Kenji Mizoguchi is showing at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image through June 8.

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