Mizoguchi Kenji Retrospect



Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), along with Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujiro, received international attention (especially from the Venice Film Festival) during the early 1950s. Mizoguchi had been making movies since 1923, though only 30 of his 85+ ones survive.

His older sister, Suzu, was given up for adoption when she was fourteen and then was sold to a geisha house. Many of Mizoguchi’s movies portray geishas and prostitutes indentured into one of those professions, especially the keikô-eiga (tendency) pictures from the 1930s (such as “Sisters of the Gion”).

During the war the purported leftist embraced the feudal values celebrated by the fascist warmakers, especially in his very tedious portrays of “The 47 Ronin” (1941). He turned on another dime to break the occupiers’ ban on period films (jidai-geki) with the anti-feudal portrayal of the artist Utamaro (and his women) in 1946.


After the exceptionally grim portrayal of the declining fortunes of a 17th-century prostate in “The Life of Ohau” (1952), Mizoguchi made his jidai-geki masterpieces: Ugestsu, Sanshô the Bailiff, and The Crucified Lovers in 1953-54. He also made more movies about suffering geishas and prostitutes (Gion Festival Music, The Women of the Rumor, Street of Shame (1953-56) before succumbing to leukemia in Kyoto.

Although his last movie has something of the visual style of an Ozu movie, his earlier ones are the antithesis of the fixed-camera, short-take Ozu visual style, notable for long takes and frequent tracking shots. His mise-en-scène was celebrated by French New Wave critics-turning-directors, notably Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard (also Russian Andre Tarkovsky, and later Japanese fimmakers Shinoda Masahiro and Shindo Kaneto).

I highly recommend the chapter on Mizoguchi’s political incoherence and ambivalent portrayals of women in Audie Bock’s Japanese Film Directors. She points out that along with celebrating the stoicism and quasi-martyrdom of his older sister, Suzu, he was quite willing to exploit her generosity and in general avoided showing women rebelling aginst their social constraints. She also discusses how difficult (she says “demonic”) he was to work for/with. Like Ozu, Mizoguchi did not (could not?) articulate what he wanted, but demanded that others intuit it. His best films were all scripted by Yoda Yoshikita.


Even of the relatively few extant Mizoguchi movies, I have seen few—none of the silent movies, but most of his postwar jidai-geki ones. My ratings on a 1-10 scale of those I have seen follows:

1936 Sisters of the Gion 7

1941 The Loyal 47 Ronin 3

1946 Utamaro and His Five Women 5.5

1948 Women of the Night 3.5

1952 The Life of Oharu 6.5

1953 Ugetsu 9

1954 Sanshô, the Bailiff 9.5

1954 The Crucified Lovers 8.5

1955 Princess Yang Kwe-Fei  5

1956 Street of Shame 7



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