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Kenji Mizoguchi

Kenji Mizoguchi

Mizoguchi Kenji was a Japanese film director and screenwriter.

Early Years

Mizoguchi was born in Tokyo, the son of a carpenter. His early family circumstances were abject and they had to sell his older sister as a geisha, an event which profoundly affected Mizoguchi's outlook on life. Between this and his father's brutal treatment of his mother and sister, he maintained a fierce resistance against him throughout his life. He quit school at the age of 13 to work and to study graphic arts, and his first job was as an advertising designer in Kobe. He later entered the filming industry as an actor in Tokyo in 1920; three years later he would become a full-fledged director, at the Nikkatsu Company.

Film Career

Later in his life Mizoguchi maintained that his career as a serious director did not begin until Sisters of Gion and Naniwa Elegy, both dating from 1936. Prior to that his works had been exploratory, mainly genre works like adaptations of Eugene O'Neill, Tolstoy and remakes of German Expressionism. In his early films Mizoguchi worked quickly, sometimes churning out a film in weeks. These would account for some over seventy films from the 1920s and 1930s, the majority of which are now lost. Several of the late ones were keiko eiga or tendency films, in which Mizoguchi first explored his socialist tendencies and mould his famous signature preoccupations.

In his middle films Mizoguchi began to be hailed as a director of new realism: social documents of a Japan that is making its transition from feudalism into modernism. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) won a prize with the Education Department; like the two films above it explores the deprecatory role of women in a unfairly male-centered society. During this time Mizoguchi also developed his famous one-scene-one-shot approach to cinema. The meticulousness and authencity of his set designer Hiroshi Mizutani would contribute to Mizoguchi's frequent use of wide-angled lensing.

During the war Mizoguchi was forced to make compromises for the military government as propaganda; the most famous is a retelling of the Samurai Bushido classic The Loyal 47 Ronin (1941), an epic rekishi geki (dramatic history).

Post-War Recognition

Mizoguchi was rediscovered in the West after the war particularly by critics like Jacques Rivette. After a phase inspired by Japanese women suffrage and which produced radical films like Victory of the Women (1946) and My Love Has Been Burning (1949), Mizoguchi took a turn to the jidai-geki or period drama, re-made from stories from Japanese folklore or period history, together with long-time screenwriter and collaborator Yoshikata Yoda. It was to be his most celebrated series of works, including Ugetsu Monotagari (1953), which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and The Life of Oharu (1951), which won him international recognition and which he considered his best film. Sansho Dayu (1954) takes a premise from pre-feudal Japan and reworks it as a Confucian morality tale. Of his nearly 100 films, only two--Tales of the Taira Clan (1955) and Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955)--were made in colour.

Mizgochui died in Kyoto of leukemia at the age of 58, by which time he had become recognized as one of the three masters of Japanese cinema, together with Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa.

Themes, Aesthetics, Trivia

Mizoguchi's films are well known for its championing of women. He has been called the first major feminist director. Typically he revealed the women's position in the Japanese society as downtrodden and oppressed, and showed that they may be capable of greater nobility between the sexes. He made many films on the plight of the geisha, but his protagonists could derive from anywhere: prostitutes, workers, street activists, housewives and feudal princesses.

His films have an aesthetic that is reminiscent of Japanese art. He favours long takes and rich, painterly mise-en-scene, seldom with the Western-favoured device of the close-up; a typical scene can take a few minutes, and places emphasis on lighting and placement much like in von Sternberg. Its formalized beauty is balanced by its involvement with the audience through the subject-matter which invites skilful sympathy of the main characters; in his finest works the emotionalism can be extraordinarily moving.

Mizoguchi's obssession with rehearsals is infamous, and could become a nightmare for his actresses. His preference for a long take meant there are little room for errors: there are stories of him rehearsing one take for nearly a hundred times. Kinuyo Tanaka, Mizoguchi's regular actress, once recounted a story that Mizoguchi asked her to read a whole library in preparation of a role.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2004.

Kenji Mizoguchi Facts

BirthdayMay 16, 1898
Date of deathAugust 24, 1956 (age 58)

Selected Filmography

Ugetsu Monogatari
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum
Sansho the Bailiff
The Life of Oharu
The Mizoguchi Collection
Eclipse Series 13: Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women
Story of the Last Chrysanthemum
The 47 Ronin
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