Japanese Master's Works Tour US
Kenji Mizoguchi is known for strong ethics, empathy with women
NEW YORK — Many moviegoers are thirsting for more attention to moral values on the screen. And many are equally concerned with the second-class position Hollywood usually gives to female characters.
Cinema hasn't always been as stingy in these areas as American films are today, however. A healthy reminder of this is provided by one of the year's most important motion-picture events: a wide-ranging tour of movies by Kenji Mizoguchi, a Japanese master celebrated since the 1930s for his abiding interest in morality and his deep-rooted empathy with the women in his stories.
Mizoguchi directed his first movie in 1922, but he didn't gain international renown until his masterpiece "Life of Oharu" won a top prize at the Venice Film Festival, where audiences applauded its story of a woman who undergoes many ordeals after her village exiles her for falling in love with a man of lower rank.
This was quickly followed by the classic ghost story "Ugetsu" and the medieval melodrama "Sansho the Bailiff," both of which took similar honors. In conjunction with Akira Kurosawa's acclaimed "Rashomon," which conquered the Cannes filmfest in 1950, these movies played a major role in putting Japan on the map of world culture, dominated before then by Eurocentric outlooks.
Mizoguchi's concern with moral and ethical issues doesn't mean he takes a rose-colored view of human nature or social structures. His female characters are often as downtrodden as they are sympathetic, and prostitution is a recurring subject in his stories - never sensationalized, much less glamorized, but treated as a metaphor for the subjection and exploitation of women throughout the ages.
By contrast, his male characters are often selfish and domineering. Some have traced this to Mizoguchi's own childhood, in a family where a bullying father shamelessly mistreated his mother and older sister. But the exploration of such themes in his movies has a resonance and complexity that go far beyond autobiographical ax-grinding.
As fascinating as Mizoguchi's subject matter is, his admirers give equal importance to the sheer beauty of his films. His most celebrated trademark is his use of long uninterrupted shots - the very opposite of Hollywood's hyperactive, cut-every-few-seconds approach - that allow the audience not only to observe but almost to inhabit the moods and atmospheres of his stories.
Explaining his methods, Mizoguchi emphasized his desire for the performances to reach a psychological intensity that ordinary "cutting" would interrupt and dilute.
But some critics have noted that he often imposes a great distance between the characters and the camera, which suggests that personal psychology is less interesting to him than larger cultural and spiritual concerns.
In her excellent new book "Cinema and Painting: How Art Is Used in Film" (University of Texas Press), critic Angela Dalle Vacche says that his "lack of interest in the faces of his main characters emphasizes their status as agents of a wider social organization" that limits their freedom of thought and action.
In a story like the ghostly "Ugetsu," it may be added, this combines with skepticism about materialistic values to portray a world in which spiritual growth is the most important consideration.
Different commentators have different opinions as to which Mizoguchi films are the greatest of all. Acclaimed titles not already mentioned range from "Osaka Elegy" and "The 47 Ronin" to "Princess Yang Kwei Fei" and "A Geisha," as well as "Street of Shame," his last completed film. "Mizoguchi-The Master," his first major retrospective in 15 years, will allow experts to reassess his career and, more important, will invite new audiences to discover the riches his movies contain.
*'Mizoguchi-The Master' includes new subtitled prints of 'Ugetsu' and 'Life of Oharu' as well as 'Utamaro and His Five Women' and 'The Story of Last Chrysanthemums,' all among his most respected works.
The full program of 26 films is on view through Oct. 24 at Film Forum in New York and at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Calif., through October. The tour then continues early next year at the UCLA Film Archive in Los Angeles; the Film Center at the Art Institute of Chicago; the Cleveland Cinematheque; the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.; and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Stops in Toronto; Edmonton, Alberta; and Vancouver, British Columbia are also scheduled. The tour is organized by Cinematheque Ontario and Tokyo's Japan Foundation.
Many of Mizoguchi's films are available on video, and 'Life of Oharu' will soon be released in a restored version by Milestone Film and Video.