Mizoguchi, Kenji

views updated May 08 2018


Nationality: Japanese. Born: Tokyo, 16 May 1898. Education: Aohashi Western Painting Research Institute, Tokyo, enrolled 1914. Career: Apprentice to textile designer, 1913; newspaper illustrator, Kobe, 1916; assistant director to Osamu Wakayama, 1922; directed first film, 1923; began association with art director Hiroshi Mizutani on Gio matsuri, 1933; began collaboration with writer Yoshikata Yoda on Naniwa ereji, 1936; member of Cabinet Film Committee, from 1940; elected president of Japanese directors association, 1949; signed to Daiei Company, 1952. Awards: International Prize, Venice Festival, for The Life of Oharu, 1952. Died: 24 August 1956, in Kyoto, Japan, of leukemia.

Films as Director:


Ai ni yomigaeru hi (The Resurrection of Love); Furusato(Hometown) (+ sc); Seishun no yumeji (The Dream Path ofYouth) (+ sc); Joen no chimata (City of Desire) (+ sc);Haizan no uta wa kanashi (Failure's Song Is Sad) (+ sc);813 (813: The Adventures of Arsene Lupin); Kiri no minato(Foggy Harbor); Chi to rei (Blood and Soul) (+ sc); Yoru(The Night) (+ sc); Haikyo no naka (In the Ruins)


Toge no uta (The Song of the Mountain Pass) (+ sc); Kanashikihakuchi (The Sad Idiot) (+ story); Gendai no joo (TheQueen of Modern Times); Josei wa tsuyoshi (Women AreStrong); Jinkyo (This Dusty World); Shichimencho noyukue (Turkeys in a Row); Samidare zoshi (A Chronicle ofMay Rain); Musen fusen (No Money, No Fight); Kanrakuno onna (A Woman of Pleasure) (+ story); Akatsuki no shi(Death at Dawn)


Kyohubadan no joo (Queen of the Circus); Gakuso o idete(Out of College) (+ sc); Shirayuri wa nageku (The WhiteLily Laments); Daichi wa hohoemu (The Earth Smiles);Akai yuhi ni terasarete (Shining in the Red Sunset); Furusatono uta (The Song of Home); Ningen (The Human Being);Gaijo no suketchi (Street Sketches)


Nogi Taisho to Kuma-san (General Nogi and Kuma-san);Doka o (The Copper Coin King) (+ story); Kaminingyoharu no sayaki (A Paper Doll's Whisper of Spring); Shinono ga tsumi (My Fault, New Version); Kyoren no onnashisho (The Passion of a Woman Teacher); Kaikoku danji (The Boy of the Sea); Kane (Money) (+ story)


Ko-on (The Imperial Grace); Jihi shincho (The Cuckoo)


Hito no issho (A Man's Life)


Nihombashi (+ sc); Tokyo koshinkyoku (Tokyo March); Asahiwa kagayaku (The Morning Sun Shines); Tokai kokyogaku(Metropolitan Symphony)


Furusato (Home Town); Tojin okichi (Mistress of a Foreigner)


Shikamo karera wa yuku (And Yet They Go)


Toki no ujigami (The Man of the Moment); Mammo Kenkokuno Reimei (The Dawn of Manchukuo and Mongolia)


Taki no Shiraito (Taki no Shiraito, the Water Magician); Gionmatsuri (Gion Festival) (+ sc); Jimpuren (The Jimpu Group)(+ sc)


Aizo toge (The Mountain Pass of Love and Hate); Orizuru osen (The Downfall of Osen)


Maria no Oyuki (Oyuki the Madonna); Gubijinso (Poppy)


Naniwa ereji (Osaka Elegy) (+ story); Gion no shimai (Sisters of the Gion) (+ story)


Aienkyo (The Straits of Love and Hate)


Aa furusato (Ah, My Home Town); Roei no uta (The Song of the Camp)


Zangiku monogatari (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum)


Danjuro sandai (Three Generations of Danjuro); Miyamoto Musashi (Musashi Miyamoto)


Meito Bijomaru (The Famous Sword Bijomaru); Hisshoka(Victory Song) (co-d)


Josei no shori (The Victory of Women); Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna (Utamaro and His Five Women)


Joyu Sumako no koi (The Love of Sumako the Actress)


Yoru no onnatachi (Women of the Night)


Waga koi wa moenu (My Love Burns)


Yuki Fujin ezu (A Picture of Madame Yuki)


Oyu-sama (Miss Oyu); Musashino Fujin (Lady Musashino)


Saikaku ichidai onna (The Life of Oharu)


Ugetsu monogatari (Ugetsu); Gion bayashi (Gion Festival Music)


Sansho dayu (Sansho the Bailiff); Uwasa no onna (The Woman of the Rumor); Chikamatsu monogatari (A Story from Chikamatsu; Crucified Lovers)


Yokihi (The Princess Yang Kwei-fei); Shin Heike monogatari(New Tales of the Taira Clan)


Akasen chitai (Street of Shame)


Osaka monogatari (An Osaka Story)


By MIZOGUCHI: articles—

Texts, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1959.

"Kenji Mizoguchi," in Positif (Paris), November 1980.

"Table ronde avec Kenji Mizoguchi" in Positif (Paris), December 1980 and January 1981.

On MIZOGUCHI: books—

Anderson, Joseph, and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art andIndustry, New York, 1960.

Ve-Ho, Kenji Mizoguchi, Paris, 1963.

Mesnil, Michel, Mizoguchi Kenji, Paris, 1965.

Iwazaki, Akira, "Mizoguchi," in Anthologie du Cinéma, vol. 3, Paris, 1968.

Yoda, Yoshikata, Mizoguchi Kenji no hito to geijutsu [Kenji Mizoguchi: The Man and His Art], Tokyo, 1970.

Mesnil, Michel, editor, Kenji Mizoguchi, Paris, 1971.

Mellen, Joan, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, New York, 1975.

Mellen, Joan, The Waves at Genji's Door: Japan Through ItsCinema, New York, 1976.

Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors, New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1985.

Freiberg, Freda, Women in Mizoguchi Films, Melbourne, 1981.

Serceau, Daniel, Mizoguchi: De la revolte aux songes, Paris, 1983.

Andrew, Dudley, Film in the Aura of Art, Princeton, New Jersey, 1984.

McDonald, Keiko, Mizoguchi, Boston, 1984.

Kirihara, Donald, Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi and the 1930s, Madison, 1992.

On MIZOGUCHI: articles—

Mizoguchi issue of Cinéma (Paris), no. 6, 1955.

Anderson, Joseph, and Donald Richie, "Kenji Mizoguchi," in Sightand Sound (London), Autumn 1955.

Rivette, Jacques, "Mizoguchi vu d'ici," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 81, 1958.

Godard, Jean-Luc, "L'Art de Kenji Mizoguchi," in Art (Paris), no. 656, 1958.

Mizoguchi issue of L'Ecran (Paris), February/March 1958.

Mizoguchi issue of Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1958.

"Dossier Mizoguchi," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), August/September 1964.

"The Density of Mizoguchi's Scripts," in interview with Yoshikata Yoda, in Cinema (Los Angeles), Spring 1971.

Wood, Robin, "Mizoguchi: The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Catcher," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1973.

"Les Contes de la lune vague après la pluie," special Mizoguchi issue of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 January 1977.

Cohen, R., "Mizoguchi and Modernism," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1978.

Legrand, G., and others, special Mizoguchi section, in Positif (Paris), November 1978.

Sato, Tadao, and Dudley Andrew, "On Kenji Mizoguchi," in FilmCriticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), Spring 1980.

Andrew, Dudley, "Kenji Mizoguchi: La Passion de la identification," in Positif (Paris), January 1981.

Leach, J., "Mizoguchi and Ideology," in Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), Fall 1983.

Douchet, J. and others, "Traverses Mizoguchi," in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), January 1993.

Le Fanu, Mark, "Autour de Mizoguchi," in Positif (Paris), June 1993.

Nemes, K., "Mizogucsi Kendzsi," in Filmkultura (Budapest), October-December 1993.

Janakiev, Aleksander, "Elitarna projava," in Kino (Sophia), no. 6, 1993–1994.

Kirihara, Donald, in East-West (Honolulu), January 1994.

Roger, Philippe, "Mizoguchi inédit," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), no. 228, Summer 1994.

Burdeau, Emanuel and others, "Mizoguchi Encore," in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), July-August 1996.

Brown, G., "Casting Spells," in Village Voice (New York), 24 September 1996.

Macnab, Geoffrey, in Sight and Sound (London), December 1998.

* * *

By any standard Kenji Mizoguchi must be considered among the world's greatest directors. Known in the West for the final half-dozen films which crowned his career, Mizoguchi considered himself a popular as well as a serious artist. He made eighty-five films during his career, evidence of that popularity. Like John Ford, Mizoguchi is one of the few directorial geniuses to play a key role in a major film industry. In fact, Mizoguchi once headed the vast union governing all production personnel in Japan, and was awarded more than once the industry's most coveted citations. But it is as a meticulous, passionate artist that Mizoguchi will be remembered. His temperament drove him to astounding lengths of research, rehearsal, and execution. Decade after decade he refined his approach while energizing the industry with both his consistency and his innovations.

Mizoguchi's obsessive concern with ill-treated women, and his maniacal pursuit of a lofty notion of art, stemmed from his upbringing. His obstinate father, unsuccessful in business, refused to send his older son beyond primary school. With the help of his sister, a onetime geisha who had become the mistress of a wealthy nobleman, Mizoguchi managed to enroll in a Western-style art school. For a short time he did layout work and wrote reviews for a newspaper, but his real education came through the countless books he read and the theater he attended almost daily. In 1920 he presented himself as an actor at Nikkatsu studio, where a number of his friends worked. He moved quickly into scriptwriting, then became an assistant director, and finally a director. Between 1922 and 1935, he made fifty-five films, mostly melodramas, detective stories, and adaptations. Only six of these are known to exist today.

Though these lost films might show the influences his work had on the development of other Japanese films, German expressionism, and American dramatic filmmaking (not to mention Japanese theatrical style and western painting and fiction), Mizoguchi himself dismissed his early efforts, claiming that his first real achievement as an artist came in 1936. Working for the first time with scriptwriter Yoshikata Yoda, who would be his collaborator on nearly all his subsequent films, he produced Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, stories of exploited women in contemporary Japan. Funded by Daiichi, a tiny independent company he helped set up to bypass big-studio strictures, these films were poorly distributed and had trouble with the censors on account of their dark realism and touchy subject. While these films effectively bankrupted Daiichi, they also caused a sensation among the critics and further secured Mizoguchi's reputation as a powerful, if renegade, force in the industry.

Acknowledged by the wartime culture as Japan's chief director, Mizoguchi busied himself during the war mainly with historical dramas which were ostensibly non-political, and thus acceptable to the wartime government. Under the Allied occupation Mizoguchi was encouraged to make films about women, in both modern and historical settings, as part of America's effort to democratize Japanese society. With Yoda as scriptwriter and with actress Kinuyo Tanaka as star, the next years were busy but debilitating for Mizoguchi. He began to be considered old-fashioned in technique, even if his subjects were of a volatile nature.

Ironically, it was the West which resuscitated this most oriental director. With his critical and box-office reputation on the decline, Mizoguchi decided to invest everything in The Life of Oharu, a classic seventeenth-century Japanese picaresque story, and in 1951 he finally secured sufficient financing to produce it himself. Expensive, long, and complex, Oharu was not a particular success in Japan, but it gained an international reputation for Mizoguchi when it won the grand prize at Venice. Daiei Films, a young company that took Japanese films and aimed them at the export market, then gave Mizoguchi virtual carte blanche in his filmmaking. Under such conditions, he was able to create his final string of masterpieces, beginning with Ugetsu, his most famous film.

Mizoguchi's fanatic attention to detail, his insistence on multiple rewritings of Yoda's scripts, and his calculated tyranny over actors are legendary, as he sought perfection demanded by few other film artists. He saw his later films as the culmination of many years' work, his style evolving from one in which a set of tableaux were photo-graphed from an imperial distance and then cut together (one scene/one shot) to one in which the camera moves between two moments of balance, beginning with the movements of a character, then coming to rest at its own proper point.

It was this later style which hypnotized the French critics and through them the West in general. The most striking oppositions in his themes and dramas (innocence vs. guilt, good vs. bad) unroll like a seamless scroll until in the final camera flourish one feels the achievement of a majestic, stoic contemplation of life.

More recently Mizoguchi's early films have come under scrutiny, both for their radical stylistic innovations (such as the shared flashbacks of the 1935 Downfall of Osen) and for the radical political positions which they virtually shriek (in the final close-ups of Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy, for instance). When charges of mysticism are levelled at Mizoguchi, it is good to recall that his final film, Street of Shame, certainly helped bring about the ban on prostitution in Japan in 1957.

A profound influence on the New Wave directors, Mizoguchi continues to fascinate those in the forefront of the art (Godard, Straub, Rivette). Complete retrospectives of his thirty-one extant films in Venice, London, and New York resulted in voluminous publications about Mizoguchi in the 1980s. A passionate but contemplative artist, struggling with issues crucial to cinema and society, Mizoguchi will continue to reward anyone who looks closely at his films. His awesome talent, self-discipline, and productivity guarantee this.

—Dudley Andrew

Kenji Mizoguchi

views updated Jun 08 2018

Kenji Mizoguchi

Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) was a Japanese film director most noted for exploring both personal and broad societal issues such as the status of women. He is, according to The Yomiuri Shimbun "regarded as the dean of Japanese filmmaking." Gary Arnold, writing in The Washington Times, called his work "a substantial but curiously fragmentary and haunted body of work." Arnold says his films extract "extraordinary eloquence and pathos from stories of human abandonment, struggle and loss."

Early Life Fraught with Sorrows

Mizoguchi's topic selection is seen as reflecting his personal life, which was filled with seemingly constant sorrow. Mizoguchi was born on May 16, 1898, in Tokyo, Japan. He was born to a roofing carpenter and the daughter of a failed herbal medicines trader, one of three children. The family, who were living in the middle-class district of Toyko known as Hongo, was devastated financially during the Russo-Japanese war by his father's attempts to sell raincoats to the Army. The business failed. The family was forced to move to Asakusa and to eventually give up their daughter for adoption. The sister's adoptive family eventually sold her into servitude in a geisha house. Mizoguchi harbored a lifelong hatred of his father.

It was after this move that Mizoguchi first had an attack of rheumatoid arthritis, a condition which ultimately affected the way he walked and persisted throughout his life. He entered elementary school in 1907, but after six years' schooling, he was sent to relatives in Morioka as apprentice to his uncle, a pharmacist. When he returned home in 1912, Mizoguchi expected to resume his education. His father refused to send him to school, however, so he went to work, though grudgingly. As noted in an essay in World Film Directors, "the resulting sense of inferiority about his lack of formal education stayed with him all his life."

His mother died in 1915, while Mizoguchi was still in his teens. His sister placed their father in a home and took in her brothers. These formative experiences fueled his passion for artistic expression and shaped his films. Under these freer living conditions, Mizoguchi became interested in art and theater. He moved to Kobe in 1918 to take a position as a newspaper advertising designer.

Industry Strike Provided Opportunity for Directorial Debut

Mizoguchi returned to Toyko, homesick. He moved in with a friend working at the Mukojima film studios who secured a job for Mizoguchi. Originally offered an acting job, Mizoguchi decided to become a jack of all trades— transcribing scripts and organizing sets. He was given his first opportunity to direct during a strike in 1923; he made Aini yomigaeruhi (The Resurrection of Love) . He would make 10 more films before the Tokyo earthquake in September that same year. He was able to get equipment and film the destruction for newsreels.

Mizoguchi's life was rife with emotional episodes played out with various women. A romantic involvement in 1925 interrupted his career. Yuriko Ichijo, a call girl, attacked Mizoguchi with a razor, scarring him for life. The attendant scandal resulted in his suspension from the studio. He returned to work with a new demeanor some called "his obsessive perfectionism." Four years later, he married, but that relationship was marred with violence and frequent separations.

Arnold says it was that "history of family estrangement and bitterness on one hand and romantic turbulence and susceptibility on the other" that "conspired to create a peculiarly expressive interpreter of primal passions and misfortunes in Kenji Mizoguchi."

In 1930, Mizoguchi made his first sound film, Furusato (Home Town), which was also the first sound film in Japan. It was in 1935 that he and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda first teamed for Osaka Elegy (1935). This creative relationship would last until Mizoguchi's death. The film was considered his first master work, but it was a financial failure.

His next major film was made in 1938, the same year his brother died. Zangiku monogatari (The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums) is considered by some to be represent the pinnacle of Mizoguchi's career. It is also said to be the most feminist of his films.

Made Epic Ronin

Mizoguchi drew from Japanese history for Genroku Chushingura (The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin of the Genroku Era or The 47 Ronin, 1941 and 1942). Its script was written by Yoda and Kenichiro Hara. The sprawling epic was made in two parts and was the largest budget film at the time, costing 53,000 Yen. In a review of the re-release of The 47 Ronin in Cineaste, Diane Stevenson calls the film "the most beautiful movie ever made… . I'm not sure it's the greatest … but it's the most beautiful."

The film is based on a incident in Japanese history that has become legend—revenge of Lord Asano's loyal retainers following the death of their master, who was forced into seppuku or ritual suicide after being provoked to draw his sword in the Shogun's palace. The story has been used frequently in theater and film. Mixoguchi's version of this story delves into explorations of the samurai code, its ceremonies and obligations.

While filming the second half of the epic, Mizoguchi's wife was committed to a mental asylum. He moved in with his sister-in-law.

Stevenson and other critics wonder about Mizoguchi's choice to refrain from showing violent acts on screen in that film. "Mizoguchi has been criticized for not showing the dramatic culmination of the story, the loyal retainers finally avenging their master." In his retelling, she says, the story does not end with the successful revenge, but "the punishment for the revenge, the collective seppuku required of the forty-seven ronin in consequence of their triumph… . It may be said that Mizoguchi's propensity for pathos led him to emphasize the punishment rather than the triumph. But the crucial thing is ceremony. Ceremony is about social order, about social ordering. It is about hierarchy, and the story of the loyal retainers is a story about hierarchy. Like any other etiquette or courtesy, ceremony makes it possible to live with the humiliations of hierarchy. Seppuku is a ritual that makes suicide a social act."

1950s Brought Awards Streak, Acclaim

During the occupation of Japan after World War II, demand for escapist entertainment and film was at its height. Mizoguchi was depressed, thinking he was tapped and his filmmaking style outmoded. The success of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon was said to have provoked him into making The Life of Ohara in 1952. It was considered to be ambitious and also took Mizoguchi in a new direction. The film was made without the financial support of a studio. The film shared a Silver Lion at the 1952 Venice Film Festival with John Ford's The Quiet Man.

Among his most enduring and popular films is Ugetsu (1953), a ghost story that plumbs the depths of the post-war Japanese psyche. Time 's Richard Corliss contrasts it with the internationally popular Gojira/Godzilla story, another postwar film classic. Corliss says Ugetsu "critiques … [Japan's] own blood-lust, most profoundly." The story follows two couples through the degradation of war, "beyond pain, beyond death … a horror story and a haunting masterpiece." It was awarded a Silver Lion and Italian Critics' Award.

The complexities of Ugetsu are explored in a comprehensive 1993 volume by the same name, edited by Keiko I. McDonald. The book contains printed materials including the film script, the two 18th-century tales on which the film was based and critical essays.

Mizoguchi had several frequent collaborators. Among them was Matsutaro Kawaguchi, a novelist whom he knew since they met in elementary school; Shuichi Hatamoto, who worked with him between 1924 and the advent of talkies in Japan; Hiroshi Mzutani, his art director from 1933 on; producer Masaichi Nagata; and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda. With actress Kinuyo Tanaka, Mizoguchi made 11 films.

His sets were said to have been tense. Yoda observed Mizoguchi "does not have the courage to face persons, things, and ideas that assail him. The anger and resentment which he cannot deal with makes him cry hysterically." Actors were rarely given license to improvise. His concentration while working on any given film was said to have been legendary. According to World Film Directors "his working method tested the endurance of his collaborators, who nevertheless testify to its success as well as the affection he inspired."

Mizoguchi continued prolifically. Sansho dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954) shared a Silver Lion with Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Chikamatsu monogatari (Chikamatsu Story), among his last films, is considered "perhaps the best-loved of all his works among his colleagues and the Japanese critics" according to World Film Directors.

Left Rich and Distinctive Body of Work

The resultant body of work Mizoguchi left has been studied and pondered by scholars and film buffs alike, mined for meaning and subtext. Much of his work shares similar themes. He used historic tales as well as the works of Guy de Maupassant, Tolstoy, and contemporary Japanese novelists. His work was often contrasted with that of Kurosawa during their lifetime, and continues to be simply by virtue of their both being Japanese directors.

"Like Shakespeare, Mizoguchi respected ordeal, marks of true birth (moral status), and home as the place you set out from and eventually return to, changed utterly. He knew that what we long for is undying passion and reunion with what has been lost," wrote Village Voice reviewer Georgia Brown in a 1996 article.

J. Hoberman, writing in the Village Voice in 1996, called Mizoguchi "the first universal master of Japanese cinema, a specialist in crypto-feminist-period melodrama, beloved by the critics of the French new wave for his fluid camera moves and bravura mise-en-scene." Mizoguchi drew inspiration from numerous sources, including the art of Pablo Picasso. Among the directors who inspired him were William Wyler, John Ford, and Erich von Stroheim. One of his preferred conventions was to use long, distant camera shots. Stevenson says "The cllose-up may bring on the tear in a Hollywood movie, but it is Mizoguchi's distant camera that makes us cry." Others state they find God in his attention to those smallest details. "Mizoguchi's scenes are lit by fires of rapture, filtered through veils of an awesome sorrow," writes Brown in the Village Voice. "A simple tracking shot of a woman walking creates a binding spell. A couple in discussion tracked from below look like they're standing on a bridge, which, in an important sense, they are. Another bridge is an emblem of banishment; a drowning makes rings on a lake of tears. His signature crane shots look down with compassion or quiet horror. In Princess and Ohau, he shows us courage in a trailing hem."

Mizoguchi made two color films late in his career, but the experiences were not good. His final film—made in 1956—is considered the most financially successful of his work. Mizoguchi died from leukemia on August 24, 1956, while working on yet another project.

There are conflicting filmographies. Most frequently, Mizoguchi is said to have directed about 90 films between 1923 and 1956. Cinematheque Ontario and the Japan Foundation reportedly recognize 85 titles made between that same period. One obvious problem is that documentation and reels for most of his early films has been lost. Mizoguchi's own repository was destroyed in the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and then again in World War II. Then too, he was frequently dissatisfied with his work. Arnold says "Mizoguchi was hard-pressed to remember everything he had done—and content to leave the forgotten or unsatisfying projects to oblivion." Hope remains among cinephiles those prints will be found.


McDonald, Keiko I., ed., Ugetsu, 1993.


Asia Africa Intelligence Wire (From The Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri), December 5, 2002.

Cineaste, Summer 2000.

Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 2000.

Japan Quarterly, October 1994.

Time International, August 23, 1999.

Village Voice, September 17, 1996; September 24, 1996.

Washington Times, February 16, 1997. □