KENJI MIZOGUCHI presented by Cinematheque Ontario, from Friday (July 28) to August 17, at various times. See Indie & Rep Cinema Listings, page 104. 416-968-FILM. Rating: NNNNN
The program notes for the cinematheque's Kenji Mizoguchi series are littered with quotes comparing the Japanese director to Bach and Shakespeare, and putting him on the short list of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
It's a canny form of promotion, and I don't disagree with that assessment, but you have to ask what it means to put someone on that list.
What is a great director?
First, I suspect, you need to have a handful of titles that most people can agree on as indisputably great films by any standard one cares to use: emotional impact, visual style, internal continuity.
Mizoguchi has that. His three late masterpieces from the 1950s all qualify. In an era when little was known in the West about Japanese cinema, Ugetsu Monogatari (Friday, July 28, 6:30 pm), Sansho The Bailiff (Saturday, July 29, 8:45 pm) and The Life Of Oharu (Tuesday, August 1, 8 pm) won major prizes in consecutive years at the Venice Film Festival and consistently turn up on serious greatest-films lists. By serious I mean lists that don't include The Shawshank Redemption or Forrest Gump.
This trio of films has everything you could ask for, with the possible exception of car chases. In Ugetsu, a ghost story set on the edge of a great war, two insignificant men are driven mad by their ambition, and two women are forced to pay the price for that ambition. Sansho The Bailiff in which the title character barely appears is the story of a family destroyed by political turmoil. The Life Of Oharu is about a woman who sacrifices her life on the altar of love, a courtesan who pays the price for loving below her station. One can argue that Mizoguchi is a proto-feminist attuned to the way social strictures oppressed women in Japanese culture from feudal times to the present. One can also argue that as a dramatist, he's a connoisseur of feminine agony.
Second, you need longevity. A lot of directors we think of as great are directors with a great decade of work when they were completely attuned to the zeitgeist. People keep expecting Woody Allen to revert to the quality of work he did in his great decade (1975-1985). He won't he's no longer attuned to his times.
Mizoguchi, like Kurosawa, Renoir, Hitchcock, Ford, Rivette, Bergman and Fellini, made great films across several decades. He produced masterpieces in the 1930s, like the matchless one-two punch of Sisters Of Gion (Tuesday, August 1, 6:30 pm) and Osaka Elegy (August 5, 6:30 pm), two portraits of life in the declining world of the geisha. In the 40s, he made his monumental and contemplative action film, The 47 Ronin (Monday, July 31, 6:30 pm). We've already covered the 50s.
A great director is also a distinctive stylist. Whether in period or contemporary films, Mizoguchi disliked the cut, preferring to move his characters in real time through relatively real sets, large and highly detailed worlds, often designed by Hiroshi Mizutani. One scene, one shot is not an ironclad rule, but it's almost the standard, which must have been hell on his actors. The emotional climax of Miss Oyu (August 17, 6:30 pm), wherein the protagonist accuses her husband of having married her to get to her more attractive sister, is more than five minutes long, without a cut, through three rooms and six or seven set camera positions.
The climactic moment of Ugetsu, when the potter Tobei returns to his apparently empty house in his village, is one of the most jaw-dropping effects shots in all of cinema, and it wouldn't work if Mizoguchi had to make a cut in the scene. (When you think about it, it's easy to see how it was done, but while you're watching it, it beats the hell out of any digital effect you care to name.)
On the one hand, Mizoguchi was a great humanist with an uncanny understanding of emotional dynamics. On the other, he was a perfectionist and a tyrant who demanded multiple takes and terrorized the people who worked for him. It's telling that these collaborators kept coming back.
Yoshitaka Yoda has at least partial screenplay credit on every film from Sisters Of Gion to Street Of Shame. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Floating Weeds) shot most of Mizoguchi's greatest and most visually complex films in the 50s, including Ugetsu, Sansho and Oharu. Kinuyo Tanaka, arguably the greatest female actor of postwar Japanese cinema, worked with Mizoguchi eight times. Of course, actors will endure a lot of abuse for a great part, and he gave her one of the greatest in the history of cinema, the disgraced courtesan in The Life Of Oharu.
There is no director with a stronger compositional sense than Mizoguchi. (Ford and Antonioni are on the same plane, and perhaps the Soviet director Dovzhenko.) The two shots that mark Anju's death in Sansho The Bailiff can make one weep at their beauty, and the film ends with the most devastating crane shot in the history of cinema. Mizoguchi loved the three-dimensional mobility of the crane; according to Miyagawa, 80 per cent of Ugetsu was shot from the crane. That mobility and the movement of the characters continually deny the existence of the frame. Mizoguchi's cinema does not exist in the world. It is the world .
By the way, these films are pretty much unavailable on home video. There's a good recent Criterion issue of Ugetsu, but that's it, unless you look to the European releases. If you want to see these and if you love cinema you need to see them this is your shot. Mizoguchi retrospectives don't come around regularly. This is the first in Toronto in two decades.