Kenji Mizoguchi Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.