Kenji Mizoguchi is one of the three directors considered as the greatest Japanese filmmakers ever, alongside Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Mizoguchi is known for his unparalleled mastery of long takes and mise-en-scene, for his films which are reminiscent of a traditional Japanese scroll painting due to his infamous atmospheric long static shots and above all, he’s known and acclaimed for his confrontation of the society’s cruelty against women through Cinema.
Kenji Mizoguchi’s childhood was not ideal, this life and its effect is clearly visible in his films, especially his statements against geisha, after having seen his own sister sent away as a geisha. The agony of such childhood shaped this artist and later he will turn his scars into his strengths and inspire generations of filmmakers. Astute political and social commentaries, vividly captured moments of sheer pain and stories that have the ability to stand the test of time, all define Kenji Mizoguchi’s cinema. To explore his oeuvre is to wander into absolution, to catch life at its best and worst in moving pictures, it is evidence to the towering legacy of this great director, the likes of which we are not likely to see ever again.
1. The Water Magician (1933)
Taki no Shiraito (Takako Irie) is famous for her water bending act in a group of carnival performers. Her life changes when she meets Kin-san (Tokihiko Otada), a carriage driver, on a bridge. When Kin-san leaves for Tokyo in search of education, Shiraito starts sending him money as they continue to communicate through letters. But as work for this group of performers begins to decrease, it becomes increasingly hard for Shiraito to send money to Kin-san anymore.
According to Aleichem, “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.” So begins the story. A soul-crushing tragedy brought to life by Kenji Mizoguchi, the legendary Japanese director who is known, and therefore loved and admired for infusing beauty into the tragedy. “I had to help the man I love.” She says – Shiraito’s story is an ode to the women who had to face pain and injustice, becoming a victim of the dominion of their male counterparts in the society.
One of the earliest from Mizoguchi’s filmography as he will later continue to speak for the ones who have lost their voice, or were left to be unheard or unspoken of. If you still haven’t watched a film by Kenji Mizoguchi, then this is where you need to start. With note-perfect performances from the cast led by Takako Irie as Shiraito, and Mizoguchi’s ability to bring poetry to screen, The Water Magician is truly a classic.
2. Sisters of the Gion (1936)
Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) and Omocha (Izusu Yamada) have one thing in common: they are geisha living in an okiya of theirs in the pleasure town Gion, Kyoto. Except for that simple destined similarity, the sisters have opposite ideas of life. Umekichi, the elder sister who wears kimono, grew up learning to be a geisha and believes in the loyalty to her patron. Omocha, the younger sister, loves to dress up in Western style, what she believes in is that the men, their patrons, will only use them like a toy and discard them later.
Umekichi’s patron is the bankrupt businessman Shimbei (Benkei Shiganoya). Omocha wants him out of her sister’s life as Umekichi takes the responsibility of taking care of Shimbei, and Omocha believes that doing this will not help her geisha sister. Life takes unexpected turns as the sisters begin to learn about the cruelty of the society and the cost of loving in vein, and the pain of being a geisha.
Isuzu Yamada and Yoko Umemura deliver sublime performances, making Sisters of the Gion another outstanding offering from Kenji Mizoguchi. “Why there has to be such thing as Geisha?” says the wounded Omocha, there’s so much pain in her voice, pain caused not by her physical wounds but by the one in her maimed heart. “I wish they never existed……”, with her final wish Mizoguchi leaves us with the suffering of the two sisters etched in our heart. The sense of depression that is ignited after a Mizoguchi film ends is something you learn to embrace as you get familiar with the works of the director, it’s the realism of his films, and their social relevance, even in our times, has been the reason behind the celebration of the works of the Japanese master.
3. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939)
Kikunosuke Onoe (Shotaro Hanayagi), the adoptive son of a famous Kabuki actor, aspires to be better than his father. Otoku (Kakuko Mori), the young wet-nurse of Onoe’s adoptive father’s infant son, encourages him and teaches him about his weaknesses. Otoku is then sent away for being too close to Onoe, the outraged son leaves Tokyo and decides to pursue a bigger career than that of his father.
Widely accepted as the greatest pre-war achievement of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (originally titled Zangiku Monogatari) is another must-see. Mizoguchi treats his scenes like a mother does to her child. He caresses them with so much delicacy, the lighting and the depth of focus, they make you feel for his characters, they feel so close, so vulnerable and more so personal. Mizoguchi will later come to master the art of long takes, and this is confirmation for that, instead of flashing between the lives of these characters, he invests so much time in them, therein lies the artist behind the director.
Onoe may be the main character in this film, but there’s no denying that Mizoguchi wants the audience to look through Otoku’s perspective of it. She continues to make sacrifices, (yes, when you carefully think about it, each Mizoguchi film is really about sacrifices) until her husband achieves the success while her life becomes a chrysanthemum, fading with each petal that touches the ground. By the time this remarkable film is over, Mizoguchi has raised harrowing questions about the role of women in a man’s life, that may be the reason why Mizoguchi remains one of cinema’s iconic directors whose legacy still lives on, even after 50 years of his death.
4. 47 Ronin (1941)
In 1701, Lord Takuminokami Asano (Yoshizaburo Arashi) is sentenced to commit seppuku after he’s charged with the attempt murder of Lord Kira. The Shogun takes palace and lands from his clan, A year later Lord Asano’s samurais return as ronin to avenge their Lord.
An epic set in the 18th century Japan, 47 Ronin is a must watch Jidaigeki (Japanese term for “period dramas”) film. It’s a slow-paced film running for nearly 230 minutes, and is absolutely rewarding for the most ardent Mizoguchi fans. It’s about bravery, loyalty, honor and vengeance – with a lot of patience required, Mizoguchi takes us through the legendary tale as it also dredges into a disturbing yet thoughtful study of the Japanese practice “Seppuku” (or Ritual Suicide) in the end. 47 Ronin is truly a landmark in Mizoguchi’s exceptional career.
5. Miss Oyu (1951)
Shinnosuke (Yuji Hori) is to marry Shizu (Nobuko Otowa), but he falls in love with her sister Oyu (Kinuyo Tanaka), a widowed woman with a son. Traditions have forbade Oyu to marry again because her duty now is to raise her son to become the head of deceased husband’s family. Oyu convinces her sister Shizu to marry Shinnosuke, hoping that it will help her to be close to Shinnosuke. Shizu agrees to marry him but decides not to consummate their marriage so Shinnosuke’s love for Oyu can remain pure.
Three people entangled in a complex relationship with dire consequences. Mizoguchi’s interpretation of love in Miss Oyu is bleak and depressing. You want Oyu to finally be with Shinnosuke but you also wish he give the love Shizu deserves, the beauty lies in how complex Mizoguchi makes his film become. The cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who will later become a pivotal part of Mizoguchi’s films, offers serene visuals for us to get close to Mizoguchi’s characters in their search for love. It is said that Kenji Mizoguchi was not really proud of this film, but if he was alive today, he has all the reasons to be proud of Miss Oyu, a gentle film that will leave you with a bittersweet truth about the nature of love and happiness.