The 100 Essential Directors Part 7: Kenji Mizoguchi to Satyajit Ray

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




Next Page




90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.