Kenji Mizoguchi Essay - Critical Essays

Mizoguchi, Kenji


Kenji Mizoguchi 1898-1956

Japanese film director and scriptwriter.

During the three decades of his career as a film director, Mizoguchi was one of the most distinctive and dominant figures in the Japanese motion picture industry. In the early 1950s he achieved breakthrough success in the international art film market, and was hailed by European critics as one of the world's great cinema artists. Both praise and criticism of Mizoguchi centers on his trademark style and themes: his preference for panoramic long shots over closeups; his tendency to let entire scenes play out in one uninterrupted take; his pre-occupation with downtrodden women; and his meticulous recreation of historical settings.

Biographical Information

When Mizoguchi was growing up in Tokyo, his father lost everything in a failed business venture; as a result, Mizoguchi's beloved older sister Suzu was sold into prostitution. According to biographers, this trauma determined Mizoguchi's lifelong personal fascination with sexually exploited women, reflected in many of his films, including Gion no shimai (Sisters of the Gion), Saikaku ichidai onna (The Life of Oharu), Ugetsu monogatari, and Akasen chitai (Street of Shame). Denied an education by his penurious father, he eventually attended art school with Suzu's financial help, and worked as a commercial artist before obtaining a job as a low-level functionary at the Nikkatsu film studio in 1922. He quickly rose through the ranks and got an opportunity to direct films, the first of which, Ai ni yomigaeru hi (The Resurrection of Love), was released in 1923. Mizoguchi negotiated his career with care and flexibility, managing to maintain his characteristic style and subject matter through changing cultural fashions and political demands, first from the Fascist Japanese government during the 1930s and early 1940s, and then from the occupying American forces following Japan's defeat in World War II.

Major Works

At the start of his filmmaking career, Mizoguchi distinguished himself with such commercial and critical successes as Kaminingyo ham no sayaki (A Paper Doll's Whisper of Spring and Tokai kokyogaku (Metropolitan Symphony. However, he regarded his silent and early sound films as essentially apprentice work. With studio contracts that allowed him greater creative control, he achieved what he considered his mature style, starting in the mid 1930s with Sisters of the Gion and Naniwa ereji (Osaka Elegy) and culminating with the internationally acclaimed Life of Oharu, Ugetsu, Sansho dayu (Sansho the Bailiff), and Street of Shame. Although Mizoguchi wrote the scripts or original scenarios for some of his early films, most of his more well-known works are based on screenplays written by others, such as Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda. However, Mizoguchi worked closely with his screenwriters and took an active part in shaping scripts to meet his artistic standards. He earned a repuation as a zealous perfectionist who required lengthy research and preparation for both his historical dramas, such as the nationalistic samurai epic Genroku chushingura (The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin), and his naturalistic modern-day depictions of geishas and other lower-class characters. Altogether he made approximately ninety films, only about a third of which were still in existence by the end of the twentieth century.

Critical Reception

From the 1920s through the 1940s, Mizoguchi's films were seldom seen in the West, and his reputation rested primarily with Japanese audiences and critics. Although he scored several popular hits in the 1920s and 1930s, esteem for his work lessened as his artistic signatures, such as the meticulously authentic period piece and the single-take long shot, began to seem stale. Perception of his career changed radically when he entered the world cinema scene with The Life of Oharu, which won him the grand prize at the 1952 Venice Film Festival. The highly influential critics and film-makers of the French New Wave movement established his enduring international public image as one of Japan's greatest directors. During the 1980s, retrospective showings of his films stimulated new scholarly writings and critical appreciations of his works.

Principal Works

Ai ni yomigaeru hi [The Resurrection of Love] (film) 1923

Chi to rei [Blood and Soul] (film) 1923

Furusato [Hometown] (film) 1923

Haikyo no naka [Among the Ruins] (film) 1923

Haizan no uta wa kanashi [Failure's Song is Sad] (film) 1923

Joen no chimata [City of Desire] (film) 1923

Seishun no yumeji [Dream of Youth] (film) 1923

Yoru [The Night] (film) 1923

Kanashiki hakuchi [The Sad Idiot] (film) 1924

Kanraku no onna [A Woman of Pleasure] (film) 1924

Toge no uta [The Song of the Mountain Pass] (film) 1924

Gakuso o idete [Out of College] (film) 1925

Doka o [The Copper Coin King] (film) 1926

Kaminingyo haru no sayaki [A Paper Doll's Whisper of Spring] (film) 1926

Kane [Money] (film) 1926

Nihonbashi [The Nihon Bridge] (film) 1929

Tokai kokyogaku [Metropolitan Symphony] (film) 1929

Gion matsuri [Gion Festival] (film) 1933

Jinpuren [The Jinpu Group] (film) 1933

Gion no shimai [Sisters of the Gion; with Yoshikata Yoda] (film) 1936

Naniwa ereji [Osaka Elegy; with Yoshikata Yoda] (film) 1936

Naniwa onna [Woman of Osaka] (film) 1940

Genroku chushingura [The Loyal Forty-Seven] (film) 1941-42

Saikaku ichidai onna [The Life of Oharu] (film) 1952

Ugetsu monogatari [Tales of the Rainy Moon] (film) 1953

Sansho dayu [Sansho the Bailiff] (film) 1956


Andrew Sarris (essay date 1973)

SOURCE : "Ugetsu: A Meditation on Mizoguchi," in Favorite Movies: Critics' Choice, edited by Philip Nobile, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973, pp. 61-9.

[In the following essay, explains why Mizoguchi's Ugetsu is one of his favorite films, noting the continuing mystery and inaccessibility of Mizoguchi's work.]

When I was asked to contribute to [Favorite Movies: Critics' Choices], I had two options: I could have said yes or I could have said no. If I had said no, that would have been the end of the affair. My integrity, my scruples, my sanctity, my aversion to the hysteria of hyperbole would have remained inviolate. I could then scoff at colleagues who participated in such blatantly promotional enterprises as a "favorite film anthology." Having said yes, however, I would seem to be morally obligated to play by the rules of the game. And these rules do not allow setting one's self up as a paragon of critical virtue or as a being of supreme fastidiousness. In this, as in many other matters, a simple yes or no will suffice. Nonetheless, I am willing to bet that at least one contributor to this anthology will take the opportunity to demean the others. In sports parlance that would be called a cheap shot, since no one is more vulnerable than a critic flushed with enthusiasm. An d especially a film critic. Indeed, mere superciliousness still masquerades as profundity in the culturally insecure realm of cinema. An d so I say in advance to the nitpickers among us: Humbug! Play the game as it is supposed to be played, or go stand on the sideline with the other kibitzers.

But as much as my participation in this anthology obliges me to accept its premises, I must make it clear at the outset that in my estimation, there is not a single film or a single director that towers over the rest. I have never been a desert-island man in the sense that I could make up a list of ten or a hundred or even a thousand films that could content me for the rest of my life. I need the constant challenge of rediscovery and renewal in a cosmopolitan, moviegoing life style. As Claude Chabrol once observed, there are no waves, new or otherwise, there is only the ocean. Similarly, there are no peaks in the cinema, only a series of plateaus, and on the highest of these (in my view) is Kenji Mizoguchi and a score or more directors from various places and periods. I could have written about a great many other films and about a great many other directors. It just so happens that of all the directors I admire most highly, Mizoguchi remains the most mysterious and inaccessible. I have never before made a sufficient effort to justify my admiration for Mizoguchi. Of the eighty or ninety films he directed in a thirty-five-year career, I have seen only a dozen, but I am finally satisfied that I have seen the bulk of his finest work. Perhaps I have nothing more substantial to go on than Mizoguchi's own self-appraisal in a 1950 interview with a Japanese film critic: "Born in 1898, I shall be fifty-two in May this year. For a Japanese film-maker, I am perhaps not quite so young any more. As you see, I am in excellent health. I still find myself greatly attracted to women. I admit to feeling very envious of Matisse when I read in an article the other day that, when he was seventy, he had a child by a young woman of twenty. In any case, I think the true work of an artist can only be accomplished after he is fifty, when he has enriched his life with accumulated experiences."

Mizoguchi's self-prophecy took form on the screen with The Life of Oharu (1952), Vget su Monogatari (1953), Sansho the Bailiff, The Crucified Woman, Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954), The Empress Yang Kwei Fei and The Taira Clan (1955). Mizoguchi died in Kyoto on August 24, 1956 at the height of his powers and popularity. He left behind a heritage of sublime achievement that his admirers in the West would ponder on for years and years to come. I am grateful to Peter Morris, Donald Richie and J. L. Anderson for all the material they have compiled in English on Mizoguchi's life and career.

Ugetsu Monogatari is but one of five "favorite" Mizoguchi films I might have chosen for this anthology. The Empress Yang Kwei Fei or The Life of Oharu or The Taira Clan or Sansho the Bailiff can be said to merit as extended and as ecstatic an appraisal as does Ugetsu Monogatari, which I have chosen partly because it is the most familiar of Mizoguchi's films, and partly because it is the most delicately balanced between the mystical and humanistic tendencies in the director's personality.

The title Ugetsu Monogatari has been translated as Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain. The film's official credits indicate that the scenario is by Mizoguchi, Yoda Yoshikata and Kawaguchi Matsutaro, and has been adapted from a novel by Veda Akinari. Not only am I totally unfamiliar with the novel, I am not even sure that the novel is the sole literary source of the screenplay. Peter Morris's invaluable monograph Mizoguchi Kenji (published by the Canadian Film Institute) is somewhat ambiguous on this point: "Inspired by the classic tale of the sixteenth century, the story is an amalgam of a Chinese legend often called 'The Lewdness of the Female Viper' (twenty times adapted to films in Japan and China) and a novel, The House in the Broken Reeds."

Unfortunately, Morris never makes clear how much of the anecdotal material of the film is derived from the "classic tale of the sixteenth century," how much from "a Chinese legend," and how much from the novel. Or to what extent the various literary sources diverge or overlap as they flow to their ultimate destination on the screen. Perhaps it would have required another monograph merely to resolve this issue. No matter. The only point I wish to make is that my appreciation of Ugetsu is not based on the same proportion of overall cultural awareness as my appreciation of, say, The Magnificent Ambersons. As it happens, I neither read nor speak Japanese. Hence I cannot evaluate the readings of the dialogue in Ugetsu. I must either accept these readings on faith, or judge them deductively in terms of the parallel sensibility revealed in the supposedly universal language of the visual component.

"It is interesting to note," Morris tells us further on, "that the story on which Ugetsu was based was also used in a 1927 Japanese film, The Obscenity of the Viper, directed by Thomas Kurihara, who had been a cameraman for Thomas Ince in the U. S. A. By all accounts, this film showed considerable atmosphere. It would be interesting to know if Mizoguchi ever saw this earlier version."

It would, indeed; but again we are compelled to proceed with insufficient information. Beyond Ugetsu is a vast, shadowy configuration of cultural influences not only on Mizoguchi, but also on his collaborators and on his audiences. We must therefore defer any definitive appraisal of the literary origins of Ugetsu until some future unknown—if not, indeed, inconceivable—date. What is left to contemplate is a screen spectacle endowed with supposedly internationalizing and universalizing subtitles.

The two story lines that have been fashioned into the narrative fabric of Ugetsu may be said to be parallel but unequal. Involved in this rickety duplex structure are two obviously counterposed couples in a sixteenth-century Japanese village menaced by rampaging armies of one feudal lord or another. Genjuro (Mori Masayuki) is a potter so obsessed by his craft and the income it represents that he risks his own life and that of his wife (Tanaka Kinuyo) and little boy to keep his ceramics from being charcoaled in the untended kiln. Genjuro is assisted by a neighboring farmer (Ozawa Sakae) who dreams of becoming a great samurai warrior as an escape from both the drudgery of his work and the imprecations of his shrewish wife.

Successful in both rescuing his pots and evading the raping,...

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Robin Wood (essay date 1976)

SOURCE : "The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Gatherer: Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu," in Personal Views: Explorations in Film, Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd., 1976, pp. 225-48.

[In the following essay, Wood analyzes Mizoguchi's style of direction and camera work in Ugetsu and Sansho Dayu.]

A colleague told me recently that he would not feel qualified to talk about Ozu and Mizoguchi; that he would not know how to approach them; that he could do so only in terms of mise-en-scène. In the context of the conversation it was clear that this was a covert reprimand rather than an expression of humility: my colleague meant that he did not know enough about the...

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Joan Mellen (essay date 1976)

SOURCE : "Mizoguchi: Woman as Slave," in The Waves at Genji's Door: Japan Through Its Cinema, Pantheon Books, 1976, pp. 252-69.

[In the following essay, Mellen discusses Mizoguchi's portrayal of women within the confines of traditional Japanese society, arguing that in his best films women rebelalthough their efforts are futileagainst the system of oppression, usually dying for their cause.]

Those directors protesting against the oppression of the Japanese woman believe that even the failed rebellion is worth the effort. The finest films of Mizoguchi, who of the older directors best understood how the Japanese patriarchy demeans women, are those in...

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Robert Cohen (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Mizoguchi and Modernism: Structure, Culture, Point of View," in Sight and Sound, Vol . 47, No . 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 110-18.

[In the following essay, Cohen discusses Mizoguchi's place in the Japanese modernist movement, stressing the necessity of critical contextualizing when analyzing the artistic efforts of other cultures.]

It is twenty-two years since Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson's first major article on Kenji Mizoguchi appeared in Sight and Sound; and twenty since Anderson stated: 'The Japanese cinema has been established as long as the cinema has existed anywhere. In the past thirty years or so it has been much in need of discovery.' In...

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Audie Bock (essay date 1978)

SOURCE : "Kenji Mizoguchi," in Film Directors, Kodansha International Ltd., 1978, pp. 33-68.

[In the following essay, Bock provides a biographical overview of Mizoguchi's work, focusing especially on the director's ambiguous political sympathies and their reflection in his work.]

As evasive as he was redoubtable, Kenji Mizoguchi has left behind him not only some of the most pictorially exquisite films in the world, but lingering questions about the relationship between his personal life and ideals and these haunting masterpieces. One of the earliest Japanese filmmakers, with a directing career that began in 1923, at the time of his death in 1956 he had made 85 films of...

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Keiko I. McDonald (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Atmosphere and Thematic Conflict in Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu,"' in Cinema East: A Critical Study of Major Japanese Films, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983, pp. 103-22.

[In the following essay, McDonald analyzes Mizoguchi's use of varying points of view in Ugetsu to capture the conflicting emotions brought on by civil war.]

It has been said mat the strength of Japanese film lies in its creation of mood or atmosphere by presenting characters in their setting. Kenji Mizoguchi's major films exemplify this feature of Japanese cinema. Early examples in Mizoguchi's films include the final, nocturnal scene of the bridge from Osaka Elegy...

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Dudley Andrew (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Passion of Identification in the Late Films of Kenji Mizoguchi," in Film in the Aura of Art, Princeton University Press, 1984, pp. 172-92.

[In the following essay, Andrew examines the ways in which Mizoguchi's later films showcase a worldview of stoic contemplation and acceptance through revolt against injustice.]

Representative both of artistic grace and social rebellion, women are at the center of virtually every film Kenji Mizoguchi made, pursuing the values of futile revolt and tragic acceptance which he himself prized. He filmed them implacably with unblinking eye until they would stare back accusingly as at the end of Sisters of the...

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Robert N. Cohen (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Why Does Oharu Faint? Mizoguchi's 'The Life of Oharu' and Patriarchal Discourse," in Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History, edited by Arthur Nolletti, Jr., and David Desser, Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 3-55.

[In the following essay, Cohen interprets Mizoguchi's portrayal of the plight of women in Japan in his film The Life of Oharu using the Western concept of patriarchal control, concluding that Mizoguchi created a "fractured" character in Oharu, which strengthens rather than weakens the patriarchy he set out to question.]

There is little doubt today in the West that Mizoguchi's most important subject has been the plight of the...

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Further Reading


Andrew, Dudley and Paul Andrew. Kenji Mizoguchi: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981, 333 p.

Includes film credits, references in English and Japanese, and essays on Mizoguchi's life and works.


McDonald, Keiko. Mizoguchi. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984, 187 p.

Critical survey of Mizoguchi's works.

Sato, Tadao. "Mizoguchi." In Japanese Cinema, pp. 178-84.

New York: Kodansha International, 1982.

Examines Mizoguchi's use of the camera.

Tucker, Richard N. "Mizoguchi: A Woman's...

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