The 100 Essential Directors Part 7

Kenji Mizoguchi to Satyajit Ray

by PopMatters Staff

21 August 2011

Pushing boundaries seems to be the thread that ties the directors of our seventh day together. From Japanese innovators to Italian iconclasts and Polish provocateurs, the directors that fall between Kenji Mizoguchi and the man who was perhaps India's greatest visual storyteller, Satyajit Ray, all push the form in incredible, surprising ways.
 

Pushing boundaries seems to be the thread that ties the directors of our seventh day together. From Japanese innovators to Italian iconclasts and Polish provocateurs, the directors that fall between Kenji Mizoguchi and the man who was perhaps India’s greatest visual storyteller, Satyajit Ray, all push the form in incredible, surprising ways.

 
Kenji Mizoguchi
(1898 - 1956)

Three Key Films: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954)



Underrated: Street of Shame (1956). More accurately translated as Red Light District, Mizoguchi’s final film couples Kazuo Miyagawa’s deep-focus photography with the interwoven stories of five women working at a Tokyo brothel. Documenting the push and pull of rivalry and solidarity as the characters cope with oppression, Street of Shame is a fitting conclusion to Mizoguchi’s career. Its vision of female camaraderie is troubled by its acknowledgement of bitter truths.



Unforgettable: Sansho the Bailiff‘s Anju drowning herself in a lake while her mother’s plaintive songs echoes in the background. As she descends into the misty waters, Anju is both releasing herself from salvery and hiding her brother’s whereabouts; her suicide constitutes the most tender, indelible act of self-sacrifice in Mizoguchi’s filmography.



The Legend: Through a career marred by disease, personal tragedy, natural disasters, and war, Kenji Mizoguchi not only persevered, but also entered the pantheon of international cinema with a string of refined masterpieces. His greatest films are visually lush melodramas laden with tragic irony, and they cement his position as one of the masters of the tracking shot—Mizoguchi’s greatest tool, alongside his meticulous mise-en-scène, for exploring his characters’ emotional depths. Influenced by William Wyler and Josef von Sternberg, his films offer fluid, lyric imagery while earnestly relating human hardships.



Mizoguchi first gained renown in the 1930s for sensitively chronicling the lives of working-class women in films like Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both 1936). These films were at once topical and unsparing in their representations of contemporary Japanese sexual politics, frequently catching the ire of censors. This phase of his career culminated in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, a sprawling melodrama set against the world of kabuki theater. In order to continue making films and avoid being drafted during World War II, Mizoguchi accepted jingoistic projects like the bank-breaking epic The 47 Ronin (1941).



After the war, Mizoguchi fell into a personal and creative decline, broken only by the chance to finally make his passion project The Life of Oharu (1952). Its critical success revived his reputation, and he reached his artistic apex with his next two films, both of which won Silver Lions at the Venice Film Festival. Ugetsu Monogatari (or “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”) juxtaposes the lives of two couples in wartorn medieval Japan; Sansho the Bailiff follows a pair of noble siblings who slave for the title character after their father is disgraced.



Both films showcase Mizoguchi’s ability to subtly illuminate the past among dense, painterly landscapes, as well as the contributions of his long-time collabotors: cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, and actress Kinuyo Tanaka. Mizoguchi made four more films, including two color spectacles, before his early death from leukemia. Although often overshadowed in the popular consciousness by Ozu and Kurosawa, he was a unique voice in Japanese filmmaking, detailing women’s struggles with rare beauty and political awareness. Andreas Stoehr

 
 
 

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