Meet the Man Who Shot Some of Japanese Cinema’s Greatest Masterpieces

This month, the work of Kazuo Miyagawa gets a major New York retrospective


“Forget the expensive equipment. Only a beautiful person can take beautiful pictures,” the cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa once said. He was speaking, of course, not about pretty people and pretty pictures but about sensitivity and authenticity in one’s art. Over the course of his career, Miyagawa, who died in 1999 at the age of 91, shot more than 130 films. A ridiculous number of them were masterpieces, but what shines through most in the Japan Society and the Museum of Modern Art’s joint tribute, “Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer,” is his almost supernatural versatility. He could find beauty, it seems, in just about anything.

One of the rewards of building a screening series around the work of a cinematographer is that it prompts us to pay even closer attention to the visual qualities of the films — to find the cinematographic threads and themes that might unify an otherwise disparate body of work. However, Miyagawa never had a particular “look” he became commonly associated with; he didn’t regularly work the darkness, like Gordon Willis, or always bathe his scenes in shimmering, unreal light, like Vittorio Storaro. He did, though, occasionally do both of those things, and he did pioneer a few techniques during his more than six-decade-long career. And he clearly understood, better than perhaps anyone, the psychological properties of light, using that knowledge in service to a wide variety of directorial visions.

Miyagawa’s best-known works came in collaboration with some of Japan’s greatest filmmakers. He was, famously, the cinematographer on Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 production of Rashomon, which put both that filmmaker and Japanese cinema on the map when it won the top-prize Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Kurosawa had always had a strong sense of the frame himself, but Miyagawa — whose reportedly modest, cheerful demeanor was often in stark contrast to the demanding, tempestuous Kurosawa’s — was perhaps the only cinematographer willing to take the director up on the challenge of shooting directly into sunlight, just one of the many reasons why Rashomon’s stark interplay of deep shadows and sharp spears of light would become so influential.

He and Kurosawa worked for different studios in Japan, so it was some years before they’d collaborate again — this time, for 1961’s Yojimbo. Besides being one of Kurosawa’s most notable samurai films, Yojimbo also inspired Italian director Sergio Leone, who replicated the film’s desolate grandeur and its tensely epic visual language when he remade it as the Clint Eastwood western Fistful of Dollars. Miyagawa worked with the great Yasujirô Ozu only once — but it happened to be on the late-period masterpiece Floating Weeds (1959), one of the director’s most formally striking pictures, where the flattened planes of the film’s small-town setting seem to bring its reserved characters into uncomfortable proximity with one another.

It was with Kenji Mizoguchi that Miyagawa found one of his most fruitful collaborations, working with the director on some of his most notable films, including the masterpieces Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and Ugetsu Monogatari (1953). Despite the formal control and unity of Mizoguchi’s work, one can see the breadth of Miyagawa’s technique in these films: in the sweeping long takes that define the mythic tragedy of Sansho; in the misty, otherworldly atmosphere of Ugetsu’s surreal fable; or in the intimate, noirish realism of Street of Shame (1956), the director’s last film, an unflinching but tender look at the lives of a group of Tokyo sex workers.

Miyagawa had originally become fascinated by ink painting at the age of eleven. As a teenager, he tried to make money doing illustrations, but, as he once put it, “my subjects were children and they wouldn’t sit still, so I got a camera.” He entered the film industry at the age of seventeen, working first as a lab technician and then as a camera assistant. He would later credit the three years he spent in a lab as the “foundation” of his camera work, and, indeed, much of his accomplishments rest on a precise knowledge of how light and focus can radically transform both the image and the subject.

Miyagawa had already become known for his proficiency with comedies by the time he came to shoot Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Rickshaw Man (1943), a touching comedy-drama about an uncouth, hard-driving, street-fighting pedicab driver who becomes a kind of surrogate dad and mentor to a middle-class boy whose father has recently died. It’s the kind of material that could easily become mawkish — as the boy grows up, he becomes wary of this odd, rough-mannered man, who loves him dearly — were it not for Inagaki and Miyagawa’s visual ingenuity and dreamy expressiveness. There’s plentiful (and surprising) use of slow motion and condensation of time. When the driver recalls how he fled a tough home as a child, we see him in flashback wandering in the forest, as the edges of the frame become a blur and encircle the lost, scared boy. Meanwhile, a wispy, inchoate figure hovers over him — a mysterious, formless flutter that feels almost like it exists not so much within the film image itself, but in some other dimension. I still can’t tell what exactly it is. That Inagaki and Miyagawa were able to create such resoundingly eerie effects in 1943, without the benefit of big budgets or state-of-the-art equipment, is nothing short of miraculous.

It would have been easy for a retrospective like this to focus primarily on the big warhorses from the big filmmakers. God knows there are enough of them in Miyagawa’s filmography, and it’s always worth seeing such canonical titles like Yojimbo, Rashomon, and Ugetsu theatrically. One classic that isn’t screened nearly as often, but benefits from being seen big, is Kon Ichikawa’s monumental, rapturous Tokyo Olympiad (1965), the director’s epic documentary of the Olympics held in Tokyo in 1964. Working with more than 100 cameras, 164 assistants, and nearly 250 lenses, Miyagawa and Ichikawa famously covered just about every angle imaginable on the games. But it would have all been for naught without the beauty they found and shaped from their footage: At its best, Tokyo Olympiad feels less like a sports documentary than a work of poetic abstraction, as the movements of the athletes are fragmented, extended, slowed down, and otherwise manipulated into rhythmic dances of muscle, sweat, and pain. Speed walkers in the rain go from amusing faces shuffling along to grimaces of unbearable agony; close-ups in profile of champion Ethiopean marathoner Abebe Bikila are flipped and intercut, so it looks like he’s charging and competing against himself — which, when you think about it, he kind of is.

But many of the best examples of Miyagawa’s skill can be found in lesser-known efforts, which reveal his ability to adapt to the demands of different genres. In Yasuzô Masumura’s nutty and disturbing exploitation film The Spider Tattoo (1966), sensuality and body horror become intertwined. It follows a headstrong young woman who attempts to run away from home with her obliging lover, but is then abducted and sold to a geisha house, whereupon a giant tattoo of a female spider is carved into her back. Despite her enslavement, Otsuya (Ayako Wakao) still manages to manipulate her milquetoast fiancé, Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa), into killing those who’ve wronged her.

Is it the tattoo that’s really doing the killing? Does it matter? It’s a sleazily disturbing premise approached with a combination of visual refinement and unsettling intimacy. Tattooed against her will as she sleeps, our heroine makes slight moaning sounds, as the camera and the soundtrack hone in on the gently unnerving thup-thup-thup of the needle piercing her bare skin. It was probably meant to be erotic once, but it quickly turns nausea-inducing — and no less transfixing. That sentiment could apply to the whole film: Spider Tattoo is a deeply unnerving nightmare of sex, manipulation, and violence, in which the emotions are so vivid and the characters so broad that you can neither take it seriously nor entirely turn away.

Kenji Misumi’s The Devil’s Temple (1969), meanwhile, exists on a whole other level of weird. It’s a psychological drama about Taro (Shintarô Katsu), a fallen samurai who lives in isolation in a temple in the woods with his mistress, Aizen (Michiyo Aratama), far from the civil war that’s ravaged their city. One day, Kaede (Hideko Takamine), Taro’s abandoned wife, arrives, determined to win him back from the temptress. The setup is reminiscent of a classic B movie bait and switch: In its early scenes, it promises lots of wild action — there’s one crazy sword fight right at the beginning, and a brief, chaotic melee not long after — but then settles into a lengthy, dialogue-driven story set in one location, as the doomed love triangle of Taro, Kaede, and Aizen is interrupted by a wandering, magic-Buddha-wielding priest, whom Aizen attempts to seduce.

Thus, in the film’s second half, the chaos of the outside world fully filters into this sanctuary via the creeping presence of elemental evil and earthly desire. Visually, the picture moves from precisely arranged master shots to stark close-ups and two-shots, as beads of sweat and gently exposed bits of skin gain great, tragic import. A piece of cloth gently caressing a half-exposed breast becomes just as urgent as any slashing, blood-soaked sword fight; a decorative swath of red on a curtain comes to symbolize the psychological (and possibly even literal) hell the characters slowly find themselves in. What started off looking like a historical drama ends up looking more like a perverse supernatural fantasy in which no one is innocent.

An even more deranged group of affairs unfolds in Kon Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession (1959), about an aging antiques dealer (Ganjirô Nakamura) who, worried about his loss of virility, arranges for his wife (Machiko Kyô) to become infatuated with his young, handsome doctor (Tatsuya Nakadai) — who also happens to be engaged to their daughter (Junko Kanô). Occasionally disorienting us temporally and always disorienting us morally, Ichikawa’s film never really seems on the level: Characters tolerate all sorts of bizarre behavior in one another, without quite letting on what they truly think. And sure enough, the further we delve into the curious relationships at the heart of this kinky morality play, the more we understand just how fallen these people are. Meanwhile, the story moves from mundane angles to stark, alienating compositions, and the darkness of the film’s interiors eventually takes over the screen.

“This is the interesting case of a pathetic man who attempted to fight off senility,” the young doctor tells us early on, addressing the audience — but that too seems to be a ruse, uttered for our benefit. The more we watch Odd Obsession, the more we might wonder if we’re the ones losing our minds. And yet, as shot by a visionary director and the most sensitive of cinematographers, it’s all so overwhelmingly beautiful.

‘Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer’
Japan Society and the Museum of Modern Art
Through April 29