Kenji Mizoguchi: Films not to Be Missed

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Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the most important directors of all time, was born in 1898 in Tokyo. The father is a modest craftsman who has many financial difficulties and sells raincoats to soldiers during the war against Russia. To survive he moves to the Asakusa community, a place full of popular theaters and very poor artists, and is forced to offer his 14-year-old daughter Suzu as a geisha.

Kenji will always carry memories of this period of his life with him. The death of his mother when Kenji is 17 forces the young man to find any job. Subsequently, his brother, to whom he will be linked for life, manages to give Kenji the opportunity to resume his abandoned research studies to become a doctor. 

At the age of 19 he deals with marketing and in his spare time he devotes himself to the organization of theater groups. At 22 he entered the cinema as an actor and in the short space of two years, he directed his first film. In 1925 he has already directed more than 30 very different films: from contemporary films (gendaigheki) to historical films (jidaigheki), to academic films or films drawn from Western literature.

In 1923 a terrible earthquake ruined most of the film library (and the city of Tokyo). Theproduction companies Nikkatsu and Shochikumoved their headquarters to Kansai. In subsequent years, the bombing of Tokyo during World War II and the natural humidity of the climate will do other irreparable damage to the Japanese film heritage.

Kenji-Mizoguchi

Kenji Mizoguchi started his directorial business at a time of great turmoil for theindustry film  and cut his teeth with a truly diverse series of films. He had to wait until 1936 with Elegy of Osaka to be able to create a personal work. His auteur filmography continues with The Sisters of Gion in the same year. The warforces him stillto compromise: he is asked to make some historical films of propaganda, including Genroku Chushingura – Revenge of the 47 ronin. At the end of the war, Mizoguchi returns to devote himself to his favorite themes, initially in the form of modern theater and later also holds the position of president of the Director’s Guild of Japan until 1955.

His period of fame begins thanks to the success achieved by Rashomon of Kurosawa in 1951 at the Venice Film Festival. The Western market opens up to Far Eastern directors and recognizes Mizoguchi’s latest works. The director died of leukemia in 1956 in Kyoto while preparing to shoot “History of Osaka”.

Kenji Mizoguchi’s Style and Poetics

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In his incomparable style, in which life seems to flow as if by magic and the long shot technique anticipates the cinema of Antonioni and Jancsó, Mizoguchi has observed the world and its contradictions and changes, the survivals of the past in the labor of a new age. Through a humanist realism, his point of view has been that of an unpleasant observation rather than a denunciation one, and his lyrical, genuine and controlled vision never falls into paternalism and controversy.

Through the spaces, the power of one individual and the nullity of the other are revealed: bows that never end, salamelecchi, individuals who humiliate themselves by crawling on the ground. And despite all these shots of individuals crossing passages and spaces, we never understand what it feels like to live in those houses, as they are simply sets, sets made of rectangular shapes, volumes, lines and cubes, and their surface is fictitious. , part of the very structure of power.

The individuals Mizoguchi focuses on are compulsive, even hysterical in their needs, living in a hell, if not in the world of puppets. “Describe the implacable to me,” Mizoguchi asked his faithful screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, at the time of Naniwa hika (Naniwa Elegy, 1936). “Describe to me the implacable, the self-centered, the sensual… There are only horrible people in this world.” In this sense, naturalistic melodrama was the perfect medium: “Everything needs to be brought into focus… You should compose a fantastic work in the manner of Balzac, Stendhal, Victor Hugo or Dostoevsky.”

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Kenji Mizoguchi’s Must-See Films

Osaka Elegy (1936)

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The cheeky jazz soundtrack and accompanying opening shots of Osaka’s flashing neon signs create sparkling cityscapes. It is the setting for thistale extremely modernisttypical of Mizoguchi’s style which deals with female sacrifice. The screenplay is by Yoshikata Yoda, a friend and collaborator of Mizoguchi for many years: it is the story of aoperator switchboardof a pharmaceutical company who begins a relationship with her married boss to pay the debts of her family.

The story unfolds against the backdrop of contemporary cafes, outlets, subway stations, and other urban areas that seem a world apart from the images of Japan that most of the West envisions. Likewise , it proved to be a little too ahead of its time; her cosmopolitan view of Osaka and progressive interpretation of public opinion faced by independent contemporary Japanese women made her a moot title in the conservative cultural climate of the time, and distribution was momentarily suspended by the Japanese Ministry of Affairs. impressive Minoru Miki’s photography is, anticipating style Gregg Toland’sin Citizen Kane.

Sisters of the Gion (1936)

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The story takes place behind the scenes of the life of the geishas forced by economic necessities to lead that life. A theme that Kenji Mizoguchi would return to throughout his career in films such as A Woman of Rumor (1954) and Street of Shame (1956). The entertainment district of Gion in Kyoto represents at best the clash between tradition and modernity, embodied respectively by the 2 brothers of the geisha.

Umekichi believes in bad luck, aware of her need for security as she lives her youth, while her brother and younger sister adopt a more severe attitude towards the men who use them as geishas. They both find that their prospects are limited by their profession. An extraordinary work of the director’s pre-war production, once again scripted by Yoda from an early story by Mizoguchi.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939)

“The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum” (in Japanese: “Zangiku monogatari”) is a Japanese film from 1939 directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a historical drama known for its delicate storytelling and Mizoguchi’s masterful direction.

The plot of “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum” is set in the Meiji period (late 19th century) and revolves around a young kabuki actor named Kikunosuke, portrayed by Shotaro Hanayagi. Despite his aspirations to become a successful actor like his father, Kikunosuke struggles to gain recognition from the audience and critics. He is rejected and considered an amateur due to his status as the son of an established actor.

The film follows Kikunosuke’s journey as he tries to prove his talent and overcome his father’s shadow. The story is also an exploration of the kabuki tradition and the sacrifices that actors must make to excel in this art form.

“The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum” is known for its long uninterrupted takes, a distinctive feature of Kenji Mizoguchi’s directorial style. The film offers an intense and profound look into the life of an artist and the conflicts between tradition and personal aspiration.

The title of the film refers to a traditional kabuki song and symbolizes the beauty, fragility, and brevity of life. “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum” is considered one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinema and a milestone in Mizoguchi’s filmography.

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La vendetta dei 47 ronin (Genroku Chūshingura) (1941)

“The 47 Ronin” (in Japanese: “Genroku Chūshingura”) is a 1941 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a historical drama based on the famous story of the 47 ronin, also known as the “47 samurai,” who sought revenge for the death of their lord.

The plot of “The 47 Ronin” is set in the 18th century and follows the story of the ronin, samurai warriors without a master, known as “chūshingura.” These ronin decide to avenge the death of their lord, Lord Asano, who was forced to commit seppuku (an honorable act of suicide) following an incident with Lord Kira, a high-ranking government official.

The 47 ronin plan and carry out a secret revenge that requires years of planning and sacrifice. The story explores their feelings of loyalty, honor, and vengeance as they seek to restore the honor of their lord and clan.

The film is known for its faithfulness to historical events and its profound reflection on samurai values, including loyalty and duty. Kenji Mizoguchi directs the film masterfully, capturing the atmosphere of the era and offering an engaging portrayal of the story of the 47 ronin.

“The 47 Ronin” is one of the most celebrated and respected films in Japanese cinema and is considered a masterpiece by director Kenji Mizoguchi.

Miyamoto Musashi (1944)


“Miyamoto Musashi” is a 1944 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a historical drama based on the life of the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi, known as one of the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history.

The plot of “Miyamoto Musashi” follows the life of Musashi, portrayed by Toshiro Mifune, from the beginning of his career as a young undisciplined warrior to his evolution into a master swordsman. The film depicts his struggles, duels, and his pursuit of perfection in the art of kenjutsu (sword technique).

The story also explores aspects of Musashi’s philosophy, including his authorship of the famous treatise “The Book of Five Rings,” in which he expounds his ideas on strategy and the warrior’s mindset. Musashi is portrayed as a complex character seeking truth through the sword.

“Miyamoto Musashi” is known for Toshiro Mifune’s iconic portrayal in the lead role and for its representation of one of the most legendary figures in Japanese history. The film was one of the early adaptations of Musashi’s life for cinema and was followed by other productions that further explored the life of this legendary samurai.

Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)

“Utamaro and His Five Women” is a 1946 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a historical and biographical drama that explores the life of the famous Japanese painter and printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro.

The plot of “Utamaro and His Five Women” is set in the Edo period of the 18th century and follows the life and career of Utamaro, portrayed by Minosuke Bando. Utamaro is known for his ukiyo-e artworks, which depict scenes of daily life, geishas, and beautiful women. The film explores his relationships with the five women who were significant in his life and who inspired his works.

The film highlights Utamaro’s struggle to express his artistic vision in an era when censorship was strict. It also explores themes of love, art, and personal independence.

“Utamaro and His Five Women” is known for its visual beauty and fidelity in representing Utamaro’s artworks. Kenji Mizoguchi directs the film with his distinctive style, which often explores the nuances of female characters in his works.

The title of the film refers to the fact that Utamaro was married five times in his life, and each of these women had a significant impact on his art and life. The film offers a fascinating perspective on the culture and art of the Edo period in Japan.

Women of the Night (1948)

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Filmed primarily on location amid the rubble and devastation of the Osaka occupation era, this film presents a city much changed from its most vibrant representation in Osaka Elegy a little over a year earlier: a group of women pushed into prostitution by post-war hardships are a world apart from the Sisters of Gion.

It is a fascinating moment of transition in Kenji Mizoguchi’s career, a film noteworthy for its gritty neorealist approach and an effective portrayal of Kinuyo Tanaka, the actress who, after her first central role for him in another film set in the city, Osaka’s now-lost A Woman (1940) would end up being closely associated with the director both on and off screen.

Portrait of Madame Yuki (1951)

“The Portrait of Madame Yuki” (in Japanese: “Yuki fujin ezu”) is a 1950 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a historical and psychological drama that explores the life and challenges of a young widow in Meiji-era Japan.

The plot of “The Portrait of Madame Yuki” is set in the Meiji period (late 19th century) and follows the story of Yuki, portrayed by Machiko Kyō, a young widow who is forced to work as a servant in the house of a wealthy silk merchant after her husband’s death. The film explores the difficulties that Yuki must face as she tries to maintain her dignity and honor in a rigidly stratified society.

The story highlights the challenges and injustices that women, particularly widows, had to endure in the Meiji era when traditions and social expectations were rapidly changing.

“The Portrait of Madame Yuki” is known for its profound reflection on women’s rights and their struggle for independence and equality. Kenji Mizoguchi directs the film with his distinctive style, which often delves into the hardships faced by women in Japanese society.

The title of the film refers to Yuki’s portrait, which plays a symbolic role in the story and in the representation of her dignity and inner strength. The film is considered a classic of Japanese cinema and one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s most important works.

Miss Oyu (1951)

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first film Kenji Mizoguchi’s for Daiei, the studio most active in pushing Japanese cinema to foreign audiences in the 1950s, Miss Oyu includes Kinuyo Tanaka as the widow of the same name who falls in love with the man she is to get married with her younger sister Shizu. Seeing Oyu’s love reciprocated by her would-be partner, Shizu devises a plan to carry on the fake marital relationship in line with fairness, but to serve as a facade for an otherwise socially impossible relationship.

Based on Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1932 novel The Reed Cutter, this delicate portrait of a ménage à trois markedfirst collaboration Mizoguchi’s  with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, the sophisticated long shots of which would influence the director’s subsequent work.

The Life of Oharu (1952)

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Kenji Mizoguchi initially gained real recognition outside of Japan with this adaptation of a 17th century tale by Saikaku Ihara, The Woman Who Loved Love, winning an award at the Venice International Film Festival. He had actually been chosen for the Golden Lion award and the director was sad that the young Kurosawa had overtaken him with the surprise victory for Rashomon.

The film provided Tanaka (then 42) with one of her most remembered roles, the daughter of a royal court samurai. The actress plays a variety of character ages over the decades as the narrative depicts her character’s relentless fall through the social strata into prostitution and begging after her forbidden love for a humble page (Toshiro Mifune) is discovered and banned from Kyoto.

A powerful, if not somewhat grueling depiction of a woman at the mercy of the historically rooted patriarchy of Japanese society, the film has been criticized in some quarters as an aestheticization ofthe main character’s suffering. Visuallyit is among the most important works of Mizoguchi, with fluid tracking shots that provide some of the most superb examples of long shots.

Ugetsu (1953)

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Adapted from a short story by Ueda Akinari (1734-1809), this poetic esoteric moral tale set during the civil war period of the late 16th century follows the different fates of 2 brothers who make a living as potters and their particular falls through the desire, murder, greed and conceit – with Mizoguchi’s usual view that it is women who ultimately suffer over their men’s vanities.

The supernatural aspect arrives when Genjuro, is tempted by Lady Wakasa: it is a precursor film of Japanese horror. However, this is a story of discreet thrills, subtle feelings and a strong spiritual dimension, with the dream sequence detailing Genjuro’s arrival at the noblewoman’s manor and subsequent seduction undoubtedly counting as one of the finest sequences of the world cinema.

The plot of “Ugetsu” is set in Edo-era Japan and follows the story of Genjuro, a potter, and his brother-in-law Tobei, a farmer. After their village is ravaged by an incursion, the two men try to rebuild their lives. Genjuro strives to make his pottery business thrive, while Tobei dreams of becoming a samurai.

The film explores the ambitions and desires of the characters as they embark on separate journeys. Along the way, they encounter mysterious characters and have supernatural experiences that challenge their understanding of reality.

“Ugetsu” is known for its dreamlike atmosphere and distinctive visual style. Kenji Mizoguchi skillfully directs the film, blending the real and the fantastical in an engaging narrative.

The title of the film suggests a connection between the pale moon of August and the supernatural events that occur in the story. The film offers a unique perspective on Japanese culture and traditional beliefs while exploring human ambitions and their consequences.

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Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

“Sansho the Bailiff” is a 1954 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a historical and humanistic drama based on a traditional Japanese story.

The plot of “Sansho the Bailiff” is set in ancient Japan and follows the story of a noble family that has fallen into disgrace. The family head, Intendant Sansho, runs a brutal slave operation, forcing peasants to work hard and punishing severely anyone who tries to escape.

The story focuses on two of the noble family’s children, Zushio and Anju, who are separated from their parents and spend much of their lives in conditions of slavery. The film explores their journey to try to reunite with their mother and restore their family’s honor.

“Sansho the Bailiff” is known for its profound meditation on compassion, human dignity, and the struggle for justice. The film is a heart-wrenching portrait of human conditions in an era when cruelty was widespread and highlights the conflict between filial duty and the desire for freedom.

Kenji Mizoguchi directs the film with his characteristic style, known for its long uncut takes and attention to detail. The title of the film refers to the main antagonist, Intendant Sansho, a ruthless character who represents the dark side of authority and power.

“Sansho the Bailiff” is considered one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpieces and one of the most influential works in the history of Japanese cinema.

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The Woman of Rumour (1954)

“The Woman of Rumour,” is a 1954 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a social drama that explores issues of fame, reputation, and the challenges women face in Japanese society.

The plot of “The Woman of Rumour” centers on Mizoguchi, a landscape painter, and his relationship with a young woman named Miyako, portrayed by Kinuyo Tanaka. Mizoguchi becomes famous due to his portrait of Miyako, but the price of fame begins to strain their relationship.

The film explores how fame and reputation can influence people’s lives and highlights the social and cultural pressures that women must confront in a patriarchal society. It also addresses the theme of art and its relationship with reality.

“The Woman of Rumour” is known for its complex storytelling and its reflections on human nature and societal expectations. Kenji Mizoguchi directs the film with his characteristic style, often delving into the inner conflicts of the characters.

The title of the film refers to the figure of Miyako, the woman of rumour, whose story becomes the subject of speculation and gossip. The film offers an intriguing perspective on the society of the time and the individual dilemmas of its characters.

The Crucified Lovers (1954)

“The Crucified Lovers,” also known as “Chikamatsu Monogatari” in Japanese, is a 1954 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a historical and romantic drama based on a traditional Japanese story.

The plot of “The Crucified Lovers” is set in the 18th century and follows the forbidden love story between Jihei, a kimono shop clerk, and Koharu, a young geisha. Their relationship is hindered by the rigid social conventions of the time, which forbid Jihei from marrying Koharu due to her low social status.

The film explores the conflicts between love and social expectations as Jihei seeks to find a solution to be with the woman he loves. The story is imbued with drama, passion, and sacrifice.

“The Crucified Lovers” is known for its visual beauty and its romantic touch. Kenji Mizoguchi directs the film with his distinctive style, often delving into the nuances of human relationships and the tensions between individual desire and social conformity.

The title of the film refers to the tragic fate of the lovers and the difficulties they must endure due to their forbidden relationship. The film is considered one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpieces and a classic of Japanese cinema.

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955)

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Few would include Kenji Mizoguchi’s first color film (along with the same year’s historical epic Tales of the Taira Clan) as among his most recognized works.

It is however a film of great interest, one of the very first in a series of Japanese co-productions with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers initiated by Daiei’s president, Masaichi Nagata, in an attempt to cultivate a cinematic understanding between Japan and its southeastern neighbors. Asian just a year after the war.

Despite the oriental adornments, however, this delightful tale set in 8th-century Tang Dynasty China follows a typical Mizoguchi story, with Machiko Kyo playing the innocent young concubine of emperor Xuan Zong, widowed, who falls victim to his court authorities and the political turmoil of the time.

The film may seem a little stiff, however the elaborate costumes and sets, decorated by Kohei Sugiyama’s lavish photography, make it very beautiful to watch.

The New Tale of the Taira Clan (1955)

“The New Tale of the Taira Clan” is a 1955 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This historical drama explores the power struggles and conflicts within the Taira clan during the late 12th century in Japan.

The plot of “The New Tale of the Taira Clan” is set during the late Heian period and focuses on the Taira clan’s rise to power and eventual downfall. The film depicts the clan’s internal rivalries, political intrigue, and conflicts with other powerful clans, particularly the Minamoto clan.

One of the central figures in the film is Taira no Kiyomori, portrayed by Raizō Ichikawa, who plays a crucial role in the clan’s ascendancy. The story also explores themes of loyalty, ambition, and the consequences of wielding power.

Kenji Mizoguchi directs the film with his characteristic attention to historical detail and complex characters. The title of the film suggests a continuation of the classic Japanese epic “The Tale of the Heike,” which chronicles the conflict between the Taira and Minamoto clans.

“The New Tale of the Taira Clan” is known for its epic storytelling and historical accuracy, offering a dramatic portrayal of a significant period in Japanese history.

The Street of Shame (1956)

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“The Street of Shame” is a 1956 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a drama that explores the theme of prostitution in ancient Japan and the moral dilemmas that the women involved must confront.

The plot of “The Street of Shame” is set in Kyoto in the 19th century and follows the lives of a group of women who work in a pleasure house called “Yoshiwara.” The film explores their diverse stories and the circumstances that have led them to enter this profession.

As the women try to survive in a society that marginalizes and harshly judges them, the film highlights the moral conflicts they must face and the difficult choices they must make. The story particularly focuses on two of the women in the house, portrayed by Machiko Kyō and Aiko Mimasu.

Kenji Mizoguchi directs the film with his distinctive style, known for his sensitivity toward female characters and his ability to explore the nuances of their experiences. The title of the film refers to the street in the Yoshiwara district but also symbolizes the painful and challenging journey of the women involved in prostitution.

“The Street of Shame” is a poignant and moving work that addresses complex social and moral issues and is considered one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpieces.

Mizoguchi sadly passed away three months after its release, and with it, a whole period of Japanese classic cinema came to an end.

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