Kenji Mizoguchi: 10 essential films

Some must-see titles from the long career of one of the great masters of Japanese cinema, famed for his exquisite travelling shots and fierce critiques of his country’s patriarchal inequality.

Jasper Sharp
Updated:

Sansho Dayu (1954)

Sansho Dayu (1954)

Unjustly overshadowed in the west by Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, alongside whom he is seen as representing Japanese cinema’s golden age, it is Kenji Mizoguchi whose work arguably embodies some of the purest expressions of cinematic artistry cultivated within the domestic industry in its first half century.

While Ozu steadfastly kept his camera still and his images flat for his low-key portraits of contemporary family life in the postwar period, Mizoguchi’s seldom ever rested, with some of the most delicately choreographed tracking shots and striking examples of deep-focus staging seen the world over. If Kurosawa’s meticulously realised portrayals of samurai heroics were fashioned in the stylistic vein of Hollywood, Mizoguchi’s portraits of a bygone age were all of his own. And if Ozu or Kurosawa could be accused of skirting around the political aspects of their chosen subject matter, Mizoguchi was unashamedly unapologetic about his chosen concern: the unfair lot of Japanese women through the ages.

Throughout a career lasting just over three decades, Mizoguchi directed almost 90 films, making his debut in 1923 (four years before Ozu and some 20 before Kurosawa) with The Resurrection of Love. His Passion of a Woman Teacher (1926) was among the first Japanese titles to play in the west, and Hometown (1930) was one of the country’s earliest experiments in sound technology. Unfortunately most of the titles realised in this first decade, which make up over half his overall output, no longer survive. 

Though appointed chairman of the Directors Guild of Japan in 1937, Mizoguchi’s refined aesthetic sensibilities only really reached western consciousness late in his life, when he received his first international award in 1952 for The Life of Oharu. Just four years later, his career was brought to a tragic end by his death of cancer, aged 58.

Here’s a sample of 10 representative works, ranging from the undisputed masterpieces to the critically undervalued or neglected, which exemplify the development in Mizoguchi’s style and subject matter throughout this distinguished career.

The Water Magician (1933)

The Water Magician (1933)

The Water Magician (1933)

This haunting silent (one of his earliest extant works), based on a story by the Japanese gothic novelist Kyoka Izumi (1873-1939), was the second Mizoguchi shot for Irie Pro, the first independent production company in Japan established by an actress (his 1932 film for Irie Pro, Dawn of Manchuria and Mongolia, is now lost).

Its producer-star, Takako Irie, plays ‘Taki of the White Threads’, a beautiful travelling circus performer whose spectacular displays using water fountains have made her name legendary. Her romantic attachment with a penniless rickshaw driver whom she agrees to put through college in Tokyo leads to her ruination when, as another long winter approaches (always a bleak time for itinerant performers) and money grows scarce, she is cornered into committing a heinous crime.

Osaka Elegy (1936)

Osaka Elegy (1936)

Osaka Elegy (1936)

The jaunty jazz soundtrack and accompanying opening shots of Osaka’s flashing neon hoardings and twinkling cityscapes set the scene for this extraordinarily modernist take on Mizoguchi’s characteristic theme of female self-sacrifice. The script, long-term collaborator Yoshikata Yoda’s first for the director, revolves around the switchboard operator of a pharmaceutical company who is reluctantly coaxed into an affair with her married boss in order to pay off her father’s debts and finance her ungrateful older brother’s education.

The story plays out against the backdrop of cafés, department stores, subway stations and other modern urban spaces that seem a world apart from the images of Japan most in the west would be familiar with from the prewar period. It also proved a little too ahead of its own time; its cosmopolitan vision of Osaka and progressive take on the social pressures faced by independent modern Japanese women made it a controversial title in the increasingly culturally conservative climate of the era, and distribution was temporarily suspended by Japan’s Ministry of Affairs. Even more remarkable to modern-day viewers is Minoru Miki’s amazing deep-focus cinematography, anticipating some of Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane (1941).

Sisters of the Gion (1936)

Sisters of the Gion (1936)

Sisters of the Gion (1936)

The behind-the-scenes dynamics of the geisha house and its less salubrious poor relation the bawdy house was a theme to which Mizoguchi would return throughout his career in films such as A Woman of Rumour (1954) and Street of Shame (1956). The Gion entertainment district in Kyoto represents the former institution at its most decorous and socially palatable, and is the setting for this depiction of the clash between old traditions and modern-day mores, embodied respectively by two geisha sisters.

Umekichi believes in sticking with her patron through thick and thin, mindful of her need for security as she passes her first flush of youth, while her defiantly independent younger sibling Omocha takes a more hard-nosed attitude to financial relationships with the men who employ her services. Both soon find their prospects ultimately confined by their profession in this standout work from the director’s prewar output, again scripted by Yoda from an original story by Mizoguchi.

Women of the Night (1948)

Women of the Night (1948)

Women of the Night (1948)

Mizoguchi was able to remain active as a filmmaker during the wartime years, although largely confined to the relatively safe domain of historical dramas, such as his patriotic two-part version of The Loyal 47 Ronin of the Genroku Era (1941-42) and an account of the life of the legendary Edo-period swordsman Musashi Miyamoto (1944), during a time when contemporary social criticism was understandably difficult to slip past state censors.

Shot largely on location amid the rubble and devastation of occupation-era Osaka, this return to contemporary subject matter presents a city very much changed from its more vibrant portrayal in Osaka Elegy little over a decade previously, and the problems of its characters – a group of women forced into prostitution by the hardship of the postwar period – are a world apart from those of Sisters of Gion. It is an interesting transitional piece in Mizoguchi’s career, notable for its gritty neorealist approach and a powerful performance by Kinuyo Tanaka, the actress who, following on from her first central turn for him in another film set in the city, the now lost A Woman of Osaka (1940), would become closely associated with the director both on screen and off.

Miss Oyu (1951)

Miss Oyu (1951)

Miss Oyu (1951)

Mizoguchi’s first film for Daiei, the studio most active in pushing Japanese cinema towards overseas audiences during the 1950s, Miss Oyu features Kinuyo Tanaka as the eponymous widow who falls for the man introduced as a prospective partner for her younger sister Shizu as part of an omiai formal marriage arrangement. Seeing Oyu’s affections reciprocated by her would-be husband, Shizu hatches a plan to go ahead with the sham marriage in keeping with propriety, but for it to act as a façade for an otherwise socially impossible affair.

Based on Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1932 novel The Reed Cutter, this delicate portrait of a clandestine ménage à trois that comes unravelled at the seams marked Mizoguchi’s first collaboration with the cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, whose elegant long takes would come to define the director’s later work.

The Life of Oharu (1952)

The Life of Oharu (1952)

The Life of Oharu (1952)

Mizoguchi first achieved real recognition outside of Japan with this adaptation of Saikaku Ihara’s 17th-century novel The Woman Who Loved Love when it won the international prize at the Venice International Film Festival. Actually it had been nominated for the festival’s top prize of the Golden Lion and reputedly the director – critically esteemed and with a firmly established track record on his home turf – was rather put out that the young upstart Kurosawa had pipped him at the post with his surprise win of this more prestigious award for Rashomon the previous year.

The film provided Tanaka (then aged 42) with one of her best-remembered roles, as the titular daughter of an imperial court samurai. She plays a variety of ages across the decades as the narrative charts her character’s relentless downwards plummet through the social strata into prostitution and beggary after her forbidden love for a lowly page (Toshiro Mifune) is discovered and she is banished from Kyoto.

A powerful, if not somewhat gruelling depiction of a woman at the mercy of the patriarchalism historically engrained within Japanese society, the film has been criticised in some quarters as aestheticising its protagonist’s suffering. Nevertheless, on this aesthetic level alone it counts among Mizoguchi’s most distinguished works, with the fluid tracking shots that make up its fabric providing some of the most sublime examples of the director’s signature one-scene one-take style.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Ugetsu (1953)

Ugetsu (1953)

Adapted from a story by Ueda Akinari (1734-1809), this poetic karmic morality tale set during the late-16th-century period of civil war follows the separate fates of two brothers who make their livings as potters and their respective downfalls through lust, arrogance, murder and greed – with the usual Mizoguchi message that it is the women in their lives who ultimately suffer for their husbands’ vanities.

The supernatural aspect, introduced as one of the siblings, Genjuro, is lured from his wife and child by the ethereal beauty of the mysterious Lady Wakasa, have seen some perplexingly checklist the film as an early marker in the evolution of Japanese horror. Nevertheless, this is a film of discreet chills, subtle emotions and a strong spiritual dimension, with the dreamlike sequence detailing Genjuro’s arrival at the noblewoman’s manor and subsequent seduction surely counting as one of the most beautiful in world cinema.

Sansho Dayu (1954)

Sansho Dayu (1954)

Sansho Dayu (1954)

This is a truly heart-wrenching adaptation of Ogai Mori’s 1915 short story about an 11th-century noble family dispersed after their father, a local governor, is banished for disobeying his feudal lord, with the young brother and sister separated from their mother (Tanaka Kinuyo) and sold into slavery by a brutal bailiff.

Sansho Dayu arguably represents the apogee of Mizoguchi’s method, unfolding with a clarity of vision in which form and content are perfectly matched and the whole far transcends the sum of its parts. In this, and so many of the director’s films from this era, the contributions of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa really cannot be underestimated. Even more exquisite and emotionally poignant than their collaboration on Ugetsu Monogatari, the film gave Mizoguchi his second Silver Lion at Venice (although somewhat ignominiously for Mizoguchi, the prize was shared with Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.)

Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955)

Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955)

Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955)

Few would describe the first of Mizoguchi’s two colour features (alongside the same year’s historical epic Tales of the Taira Clan) as among his more distinguished works. It is a curiosity nonetheless, one of the first in a series of Japanese coproductions with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers instigated by Daiei’s president Masaichi Nagata in an attempt to foster a cinematic entente cordiale between Japan and its south-east Asian neighbours just a decade after the war, while simultaneously pandering to a brief vogue in chinoiserie in Japan.

Despite the oriental trappings however, this sumptuous tale set in eighth-century T’ang dynasty China follows a typical Mizoguchi trajectory, with Machiko Kyo starring as the innocent young concubine to the recently widowed Emperor Xuan Zong, who falls prey to the scheming of his court officials and the political turmoil of the time. Dramatically it may be a little stiff, it is true, but the ornate costumes and sets, embellished by veteran cameraman Kohei Sugiyama’s sumptuous cinematography, ensure it is never less than beautiful to behold.

Street of Shame (1956)

Street of Shame (1956)

Street of Shame (1956)

Mizoguchi returned to the lives of sex workers for his final work, somewhat fittingly released in the same year that Japan’s anti-prostitution law came into effect, and one of a short-lived cycle of so-called akasen (‘red light’) films depicting the sun setting on this twilight demi-monde.

Stylistically pared down in comparison with the more lyrical, metaphysical period dramas for which he is best remembered from his final decade, the film paints an unvarnished yet sensitive portrait of the five women drawn by their circumstances to the Dreamland brothel and their fears for the future following its enforced closure. Mizoguchi tragically passed away three months after its release, and with it, an entire era of classical Japanese cinema came to an end.

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