In some danger of being overlooked in the press of history that reveres Yasujiro Ozu’s rigorous constancy and Akira Kurosawa’s noble pulp, Kenji Mizoguchi is a more difficult master magician to love and a harder legend to sell. We like our auteurs set in idiosyncratic bronze, and the more consistently they cast stylistic shadows, the more they are lionized by successive generations of cinephiles. Mizoguchi’s 33-year career, reaching from the silent era to the rise of global popularity of Japanese cinema in the postwar years, with 1956’s Street of Shame, had a subtler, more nuanced trajectory, guided only by his tastefulness, flamboyance-free humanism, and belief in the expressive force of the moving camera and the resonance of deep compositions.
That is to say, gliding through different genres and time periods, Mizoguchi’s style was neither hyper-restrained nor post-Kabuki. Rather, it walked in the footsteps of Murnau, moving the camera to follow emotional movement, and using a scene’s visual geography as a way to subjectively experience a character’s dramatic life and also watch it from a sympathetic distance. This was never an exercise in pyrotechnics, but always a stroke of heartbreak, and often entailed reframing perspectives mid-scene, as if to remind us of human ambivalence and the risks of judgment. (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.) Anyone with eyes can see how Mizoguchi’s pensive-yet-restless, heat-seeking visual strategy embodies the stories’ emotional tragedies, and vice versa.
Today, Mizoguchi represents a delicately passé version of cinema; I have a hard time imagining a generation raised on CGI assimilating to his introverted rhythms and quietudes. But his material still stings: Most of the films are tragic diagrams of sexist inequity, a knee-jerk issue for many Japanese filmmakers coming after him, but one Mizoguchi plumbed so relentlessly it became his signature. It might be his biggest hook today, particularly since the man’s proto-feminist sadness and outrage was instinctual, not political or calculated; there may not have ever been a more sincere maker of women’s melodramas in the history of film. (His focus on feminine oppression was both radical and inevitable in Japan, famously one of the world’s least gender-equal industrialized countries.)
The MOMI retro proudly rolls out all of Mizoguchi’s extant films; over 50 of his 85 works are still lost to history. (These include some of the most evocative titles ever conjured for movies, from 1926’s A Paper Doll’s Whisper of Spring and Queen of Modern Times, from 1924.) The famous, canonized late masterpieces — Life of Oharu (1952), the still-sorcerous Ugetsu (1953), the Job-like bludgeon of Sansho the Bailiff (1954), the gripping cross-purposes nightmare of Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954), and his final film, Street of Shame (1954), a stinging portrait of an Americanized postwar Tokyo where hooking became the new geisha-dom — are necessary centerpieces, and each should be a liberal-arts undergrad requirement, both for the auteur’s forceful grace and the window they open on midcentury American moviegoing. Mizoguchi’s last films were second only to the rambunctious energy of Kurosawa in awakening the West to the world of Japanese cinema, years before any New Waves broke and made imports supercool. That these tender and sorrowful films made such an impression in our grandparents’ heyday can make today’s moviegoing trends look primitive by comparison.
The less heralded work is the prize here, including rare prints of Mizoguchi’s only color films, Tales of the Taira Clan (1955) and Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955), the first a samurai epic uncharacteristically consumed with generational intrigue and masculine aggression, the second a strange and somewhat glacial realization of a Chinese fable, co-produced by the Shaw brothers but never released in China. The filmmaker’s de-testosteroning of the samurai paradigm is best manifested in The 47 Ronin (1941–42), at nearly four hours the best and — ironically, given the year — the least propagandistic homegrown version of the classic bushido saga.
But Mizoguchi was always more comfortable in the laps of women facing the dead ends offered them in Japanese society. This reaches a screaming pitch in the less-known Women of the Night (1948), a matter-of-fact bulldoze through Japan’s 1948 whorescape (by all signs the world’s most feral postwar society). Here, a hard-luck pair of widowed sisters get played, raped, knocked up, beaten, and gang-stripped in the ruins by streetwalkers; they transform themselves into syphilitic sex workers. The camera never stops roving, looking for a way to understand.
Like Ozu, Mizoguchi needed the war to attain his aesthetic. His earlier movies, from the simplistically nationalist Song of Home (1925) to the myth-like The Water Magician (1933), with its forecasts of Joan Crawford noir, the bolero-like romance Poppies (1935), with its sublimated gay subtext, and the Stagecoach–structured Oyuki the Virgin (1935), look stylistically rudimentary today compared to the best late silents and early talkies of Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu. Always appalled by how inexorably Japanese women can be forced into prostitution, his eye was sharpened as the ’30s wore on: Osaka Elegy (1936), Sisters of Gion (1936), and The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) each indicts the persistent traditional norms that reduce even headstrong women to sex slavery, but each also blooms in space, making nearly each shot a room filled with emotional heat. For the devout Mizoguchian, the way of seeing, not what’s seen, is the revelation.