10 Essential Kenji Mizoguchi Films You Need To Watch

6. The Life of Oharu (1952)

The life of Oharu

Oharu (Kinoyu Tanaka), who lives in the palace, is expelled when her love affair with a lower class Katsunosuke (Toshirō Mifune) is discovered. She attempts suicide, but life has worse plans for her. She ends up falling from a mistress of a lord, to a courtesan, to a housemaid, to a fan maker’s wife and widow soon after, to a nun who gets sent away, to a prostitute. In the end, she is asked to return to the Lord’s house where she finds her son.

“The morning’s pretty face is a corpse by evening.” Used, abandoned, abused and eventually given no other option than to hope to be dead, this is Oharu’s fate. The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi’s career-redefining film, follows a woman and her fall. This is Mizoguchi at his finest. Kinoyu Tanaka is simply wondrous as Oharu, she is Oharu, she is graceful even in Oharu’s most miserable moments.

This is a film that is guaranteed to leave you heartbroken. It’s Mizoguchi’s powerful statement against the ill-treatment towards women in the feudal Japan. One can’t stop but believe that through his films he must have touched the hearts and lives of many women in Japan at that time, like his films do today. The Life of Oharu is another Mizoguchi film you do not want to miss. Beautifully shot, powerfully acted and exceptionally executed, it will speak to your heart in ways you can’t escape and will make it impossible to hold back a tear drop. That’s the power of Kenji Mizoguchi’s films.


7. Ugetsu (1953)


Genjiro (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) are brothers who live in the 16th century during the civil wars. Genjiro wishes to sell all his wares and make a fortune, while Tobei dreams of buying a samurai outfit and becoming a samurai. When the shibata army raids their village, they flee on a boat to another town with their wives. While fleeing they come across another boat, Genjiro leaves his wife on the river bank, promising to return in 10 days , and Tobei leaves his wife to buy a samurai outfit.

Ugetsu for Kenji Mizoguchi is what Tokyo Story was for Yasujiro Ozu and Rashomon was for Akira Kurosawa. Mizoguchi rose to international acclaim with his magnum opus, an ethereal film experience which stands as one of the greatest achievements in world cinema.

This is the one film anyone interested in cinema must watch before they die. Labeled as a ghost story when released, Ugetsu is both visually breathtaking, enchanting the viewer with the opening shot of the village to the magical “lake scene” (a scene the film is best known for), and emotionally engrossing in equal measures. Again, although the main characters are two men, Mizoguchi’s tender attention is on the women. They are the ones who are left to suffer as their husbands are driven away by their greed.

Ugetsu soars high in the world of cinema for how exemplarily it transcends from a disturbing tale about the brutality of a war, the cruelty of men, their selfishness, to a tale about love, that lives beyond, even defeats death. Watch it for the great visuals, and journey into Kenji Mizoguchi’s world, a place that will continue to haunt you with both the beauty and the horror.


8. Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Sansho the Bailiff

After their father is sent to exile, and the family being scattered with mother Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanak) leaving to work as a courtesan, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) are sent to work for Sansho the Bailiff (Eitaro Shindo).

Sansho the Bailiff, is one of the most rewarding film experiences you will get from Kenji Mizoguchi’s cinema. It’s not an easy thing to follow as the governer’s two children deal with brutal life as slaves, after being separated from their parents. You wish to see them all united again, you pray for a reunion. Mizoguchi powerfully depicts men’s resilience in the face of agony and injustice, the continuous hunt for redemption and it’s in selflessness that one finds peace in a world full of the selfish and the inhuman. Kenji Mizoguchi’s taut yet impeccable direction and the cast’s subtly believable performances make Sansho the Bailiff a film every film lover must watch more than once. The depth of the film, the layers of reality hidden in it are not something you can uncover at one go.


9. The Crucified Lovers (1954)

The Crucified Lovers

Set in 17th century Kyoto, The Crucified Lovers tells the doomed love story of Osan (Kyoko Kagawa), a married woman who, after being accused of having an affair with worker Mohei (Kazuo Hazegawa), flees away with him and eventually declares their love for each other. But Osan’s wealthy husband Ishun (Eitoro Shindo) sends men to capture the two lovers to avoid shame and humiliation.

Two people from two completely different walks of life find something they are never supposed to have, that is love. Another tragic love story from Kenji Mizoguchi, reminiscent of a scroll painting for its exquisite visual style, The Crucified Lovers is a stark portrayal of doomed love that questions the societal perspective of the right and wrong, the acceptable and the unacceptable.

This film, from the latter days of Mizoguchi’s career, will remind you of all the reasons why Mizoguchi is one of the most important filmmakers that ever graced the world of cinema. His ways of looking into the deepest fathoms of human soul and dragging it across a celluloid canvas to paint pictures about fragility of human spirit, how easy it is to crush a woman or a man, and never allow them to be the same again, is unique and exceptional. How he treats his characters is one of the reasons Mizoguchi carries an incomparable legacy.


10. Street of Shame (1956)

Street of Shame

Street of Shame is about a group of women living in a brothel in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district. Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) is married with an unemployed husband. Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) is a widowed woman who spends her earnings to raise her son, the aging Yorie (Hiroko Machida) thinks she’s found her soulmate and wants to marry him, Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) saves money to pay a debt in order to escape from the brothel and Mickey (Machiko Kyo), a freedom-loving girl whose life changes when her father arrives with some bad news.

Five women, different ages, different dreams and different dilemmas, but one common wish – to be able to escape from the shackles of the life they had to choose. Street of Shame is Kenji Mizoguchi’s swan song. Looking back at Mizoguchi’s filmography, Street of Shame is the fitting farewell to a career spent shaping Japanese and world cinema and telling the world stories about women, love, life and death.

Author Bio: Nuwantha is an IT grad student from Sri Lanka. With a passion for Arthouse and Indie cinema from all around the globe.