In cinephile circles, his name is spoken in hushed tones. Yet aside from a handful of canonical masterpieces (1952's The Life of Oharu, 1953's Ugetsu and 1954's Sansho the Bailiff), the films of Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi haven’t been screened stateside with much frequency—largely because a substantial portion of his oeuvre has been lost to time. (Of his 85 works, only 30 survive.) The Museum of the Moving Image’s retrospective of all the extant movies is a godsend for those enthralled by, and those yet to discover, one of the true geniuses of cinema. Here are some highlights.
Mizoguchi’s films tend to be unerringly serious and sympathetic portraits of societal outcasts worn down by Japan’s oppressive institutions—a partial product of the director witnessing his own sister being sold into geishadom. Osaka Elegy (May 24 at 7pm) and Sisters of the Gion (Sun 4 at 6:30pm), each from 1936, reveal the filmmaker at his most polemical. The great Isuzu Yamada stars in both movies: In Elegy she’s a switchboard operator who defiantly becomes her boss’s mistress to support her family; in Gion, she’s a cynical geisha trying, and spectacularly failing, to improve her status. The bluntness with which Mizoguchi attacks the powers that be (“Why do there even have to be such things as geisha?” Yamada screams in Gion’s stunning direct-address climax) is counterbalanced by his expert filmmaking, which favors, here as elsewhere, extended takes and deep-focus long shots that lend a meditative air to the righteous belligerence.
Mizoguchi’s mesmerizing aesthetic constantly forces us to grapple with what we’re seeing, and the work is all the richer, and slipperier, for it. This is certainly the case with 1941’s heady two-part period epic The 47 Ronin (May 25 at 2pm), a retelling of the famous Japanese tale about a group of 18th-century samurai who avenge their disgraced master and then commit seppuku. (The name may ring some bells: Keanu Reeves starred in the abysmal 2013 remake.) Initially conceived as a propaganda piece and released around the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the film actually does everything possible to not get the nationalistic blood pumping—right from the spellbinding opening scene in which the camera slowly tracks its way through a regal residence, eventually taking in a murder in progress. The way 47 Ronin refracts the lust for revenge through an obsessively ritualistic prism (the second part is especially remarkable in the way it patiently observes the bureaucratic formalities of hara-kiri) makes the protagonists’ actions appear more questionable than honorable. Are their hallowed ideals a hard stance against the ruling classes or a diseased symptom of it?
Similarly complicated, even as it hits with the force of a gut-punch, is the director’s astonishing final feature, from 1956, Street of Shame (Sat 3 at 7pm). This scathing yet compassionate exposé of Japan’s red-light district finds no heroes or villains among its mostly female ensemble. Set at a brothel named Dreamland, the film incisively portrays the vicious cycle that keeps these women of all ages acceding to or scheming their way around a life that provides for and punishes them in equal measure. Street of Shame contains one of Mizoguchi’s most heartbreaking scenes (in which a son viciously rejects his prostitute mother) and is certainly a high point in the director’s socially conscious body of work (the movie is widely thought to have played a part in the passage of Japan’s 1956 anti-prostitution law). The man himself would die of leukemia soon after the film’s release, depriving the world of an artistic titan. Now he can finally be celebrated in full.
Moving Image’s Mizoguchi series runs Fri 2–June 8.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich