Mini-Retro Spotlights Japan’s Most Versatile Cinematic Legend


In some danger of being overlooked in the press of history that reveres Ozu’s rigorous constancy and Kurosawa’s noble pulp, Kenji Mizoguchi is a more difficult master magician to love and a harder legend to sell in this land of semi-cine-illiteracy. His 33-year career covered a variety of milieus and genres, and his style was neither hyper-restrained nor post-Kabuki. Instead, Mizoguchi followed in the footsteps of Murnau, investigating the potential for emotional expression through camera motion and placement, often reframing our perspective in midscene as if to remind us of human ambivalence and full-dimensional sympathy. (In this sense, virtually any of Mizoguchi’s set-piece traveling shots rephrases the message of Kurosawa’s
Rashomon—at a substantial savings in energy, time, and bombast.) The laziest eye can see how Mizoguchi’s pensive yet restless, heat-seeking visual style expresses the stories—most of them original, and most tragic diagrams of sexist inequity—and vice versa. The BAM mini-retro brings out the late films that made his reputation in the art houses of the postwar era: The Life of Oharu (1952), the still magisterial Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), the Job-like bludgeon Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and his final film, Street of Shame (1956), a stinging portrait of an Americanized postwar Tokyo where hooking became the new geisha-dom. Shoring these up are three earlier works—Osaka Elegy (1936), Sisters of the Gion (1936), and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)—each an indictment of a lingering traditional culture in which even headstrong women are reduced to sex slavery. Still coming into his vision, Mizoguchi nevertheless pioneered the idea that life happens in waves, not particles, whether or not we and his characters know enough to notice.