The Other Mizoguchi


When Kenji Mizoguchi died in 1956, Akira Kurosawa remarked, "Now that Mizoguchi is gone, there are very few directors left who can see the past clearly and realistically." Mizoguchi is best known both in Japan and around the world as the chronicler of female suffering throughout the ages, especially under Japan’s feudal system. In the six years between the end of the American occupation and his death, Mizoguchi churned out four films, all set in Japan’s distant past. (His last film, Red Light District, is set in contemporary Tokyo.) The best known of the period films are The Life of Oharu, about a miserable seventeenth-century prostitute, and Ugetsu, about two sixteenth-century adventurers who make their wives miserable. Because of his melancholy geishas and painterly technique, Mizoguchi has often been called the most Japanese of all directors, even though he studied Western painting as a young man and his visual style, with its long takes and composition pushing the eye beyond the frame, owes a considerable debt to Jean Renoir.

Writing in the latest issue of Sight and Sound, Alexander Jacoby takes issue with this view of Mizoguchi. More broadly, Jacoby shows us how a national cinema comes to be defined. He points to the films Mizoguchi made before his last four-film trip through the feudal past and argues that a different Mizoguchi emerges, one that is more clear-eyed and leftist than the yamato-e films for which he’s best known outside Japan.  For instance, My Love Has Been Burning (1949) looks at the exploitation of textile workers.  Burning covers Mizoguchi usual themes, but it’s shot in a recognizably post-war neo-realist style. Socially-conscious films like Burning and Five Women around Utamaro (1946) were rarely distributed outside Japan, Jacoby explains, because Tokyo film executives "often assumed that patterns of Japanese family life would be
incomprehensible to westerners." Jacoby continues, "It is a paradox that at a time
when the most critically esteemed western films were neorealist in
style, the Japanese barely exported their supremely realistic home
dramas or presented examples of a then-thriving tradition of left-
leaning, socially conscious films."

The more directly Mizoguchi looked at the Japan of his time, the less Japanese he seemed. When the New German Cinema directors of the 1960s rejected the mannered visual style of the time, they were considered more authentic, more German. No other cinema that I can think of–other than perhaps the Indian cinema–is so closely associated with a specific visual style and narrative treatment of the past. In order to see another side of Japanese cinema, it turns out, we need to look more closely at the director most closely associated with that tradition.

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  1. Hi! I’m not sure I subscribe to, or even as yet comprehend, what I’m about to say. However, the urge to say it is overpowering; so here it goes:
    Cinema as a cultural portal through which a better understanding of a different culture is made possible derives a peculiarly Western way of looking at the world. This sounds like too much of a generalization. Besides, one can no longer be certain whether in the East they do do things differently nowadays.
    Which brings me to the next point that suggests itself to my mind. It is possible that the Japanese filmmaker’s shift from the neorealist style and a leftist disposition to more obscure and stylized visualizations may have been a result of his response to the realization that the tendency within the Japanese society in the post-war years to rebuild Japan in a different way was not a quick fix but more a permanent, total and universally adopted resolve to “do the things these foreigners do better than they themselves can do it”. It seems like wisdom to ignore and distance oneself from a total situation so as to create just the flaw in it that prevents it from being totally total.
    Is this at all relevant? Does it make any sense? I can’t tell. Your writing is inspiring. In the particular case of this post, it is your good taste in quoting that comment – with its mildly Benjaminian flavour – in the beginning that gets one excited and interested in reading – with rewards – to the end of the post on a subject one knows absolutely nothing about. Thank You!


  2. Sure, what you say makes sense. Mizoguchi’s style changed after the end of the American occupation of Japan in 1952, and he was very aware of how his style would be viewed in the West. What’s interesting about Jacoby’s article is that Japanese distributors were responsible for the propagation of a narrowly-defined image of their culture. In effect, they created an ideal Western viewer for an ideal Japanese cinema. What’s also interesting about Japanese cinema in general is the whole “who is the most Japanese” debate. (Ozu is another director who’s called the most Japanese.) No one talks about who is the most American or the most British.


  3. I’m not an area specialist in Japanese cinema, but I have seen a few of Mizoguchi’s pre-1950 films, including My Love Has Been Burning. Yes, its politics are left-reformist, but calling it neorealist is a stretch: there are similarities in style between it and the pre-1940 and the post-occupation Mizoguchi films I’ve seen. I don’t disagree with Jacoby’s main point that the director’s legacy gets distorted by the universalist themes of Ugetsu, et al. I just wonder if he’s attacking a straw man view that the Japaneseness of Mizoguchi (if that’s even important) lies in the period piece reference rather than in a formal, presentational rigor.
    Thanks for the pointer to the article, by the way. It’s a reminder of how overdue DVD releases of his oeuvre are – and how the inavailability shapes how we understand his auteur legacy.


  4. Girish sent me the link to your blog. I see you’re at Temple, where I got my PhD. I hope everything is going well there.
    Calling Mizoguchi a “neo-realist” is relative, of course, and maybe it’s not such a great term to describe his pre-1952 work. Certainly the familiar Mizoguchi style–long takes, diagonal composition, Ozu-like minimal editing–is present in the Occupation-era films. And the historical settings continued throughout his postwar work. What I found interesting about Jacoby’s article was the idea that the Japanese themselves defined their national cinema according to a very deliberate and relatively narrow set of characteristics.
    Plus, the whole debate about the “most Japanese” director is unique to Japan, as far as I know. Does anyone still call Mizoguchi or Ozu the most Japanese director any more?


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