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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