December 2019, arsenal cinema

Kenji Mizoguchi Retrospective

OYU-SAMA, 1951

Famed for the free-flowing glide of his camera movements and the striking beauty of his visual composition; celebrated for the complexity of his minute-long plan sequences and the extraordinary care and precision with which he made landscapes, architectures, and décor into the protagonists of his films; honored both for his early, unflinching social studies as well as his moving, historical melodramas: Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956) is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors ever to work in Japanese cinema. He actually only became famous outside Japanese with his later works, following numerous awards at European film festivals for SAIKAKU ICHIDAI ONNA (The Life of Oharu, 1952), UGETSU MONOGATARI (Tales of the Rain and Moon, 1953), and SANSHO DAYU (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954). The possibility of gaining a more comprehensive insight into Mizoguchi’s comprehensive oeuvre – his first films are from the 20s, with his having made over 80 films as a director – thus only offered itself late on and remains only partially possible to this day, as a large part of his early works are lost. Regardless of this, the section of his oeuvre still accessible made Mizoguchi a fixed great within international film history, able to be grasped in numerous ways, zig-zagging through different genres and film studios, and making use of a wide range of formal approaches and themes. In terms of the importance and influence of his filmmaking, Mizoguchi is often mentioned in the same breath as his directorial colleagues Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa. Yet Mizoguchi’s films are screened comparatively rarely in cinemas. That’s why we’re all the happier to present a long overdue 22-film Mizoguchi retrospective at Arsenal with the help of funding from the Federal Capital Cultural Fund and are thus able to tap into a body of work of singular directorial, visual, and narrative richness as well as great emotional depth.

UGETSU MONOGATARI (Tales of the Rain and Moon, Japan 1953, 6.12., with an introduction by Mark Le Fanu & 13.12.) In 16th century Japan, the Sengoku era, the turmoil of a merciless civil war marks the life of the people. Potters Genjuro and Tobei want to make use of the unrest to sells their wares at the markets of the nearest big towns. Despite a ghostly vision that warns them while crossing the river, both men follow their ambitions, while their wives become the victims of war violence. Mizoguchi adapted two tales from a collection of 18th century ghost stories and drew on his comprehensive knowledge of No theater in his staging of the lyrical, fantastical elements. UGETSU MONOGaTARI celebrates the possibilities of black and white film and camerawork – a quintessential part of the hypnotic density of Mizoguchi’s directorial art.

GION NO KYODAI (Sisters of the Gion, Japan 1936, 7. & 20.12.) Sisters Umekichi und Omocha work as geishas in Gion, the tea house and establishment district of Kyoto. “The elder sister embodies the imperative of tradition, which extends all the way into the reserved grace of her movements: self-restraint, falling in line, reliability, compassion, freedom to not be free. The younger sister regards tradition as a burden, sees her profession as a means to an end, is sober, independent, and what one used to refer to “moga” (a corruption of modern girl), with a tinge of contempt”. (Harry Tomicek). For all the conflicting nature of their stances, both sisters end in conflict with their surroundings. With GION NO KYODAI (whose previous standard title was GION NO SHIMAI) and NANIWA EREJI, which was made directly before it, Mizoguchi finally gained recognition as one of Japan’s great directors after 13 years of intensive directorial work: he creates a cinema of huge narrative focus that clearly grasps social reality and couches its final, bitter accusation in abstract, atmospheric images.

GION BAYASHI (A Geisha / Gion Festival Music, Japan 1953, 7. & 20.12.) Eiko, a girl from the country, would like to start an apprenticeship with experienced geisha Miyoharu. The latter tries to explain to her that the life of a geisha doesn’t just consist of art (gei), jewelry, and grace, but that one also becomes a person (sha) who must be at the disposal of men as an object of their sexual satisfaction. Despite this, Elko manages to get her way and becomes a meiko, a geisha in learning, with the name Miyoei. Picking up on a centuries-old genre of Japanese art, Mizoguchi reflected upon the fatal Janus-faced nature of the geisha profession in ever new variations over the course of his career. Unlike the thematically similar GION NO KYODAI, GION BAYASHI comes across as more humorous, less dark, and is a thrilling example of the development of a director whose films were also always hugely personal works.

OYU-SAMA (Miss Oyu, Japan 1951, 8. & 16.12.) The young Shizu is chosen as a bride for Shinnosuke. Yet on the day of their formal introduction, he falls in love with Shizu’s older sister Oyu at first sight, a widow with a child who is forbidden from remarrying according to the traditions of the Meiji era. When Shizu realizes that Shinnosuke actually loves her sister, she suggests to him a solution as bold as it is self-denying: they will pretend to marry so that Shinnosuke can remain close to Oyu. A love triangle develops from this, which oscillates between unconditional love and powerlessness against social conventions. Unlike most directors, Mizoguchi at least gave his female characters clear words to describe their situation and desire to rebel. OYU-SAMA, which has thus far been unfairly overshowed by other films by Mizoguchi, is probably the most intensive film about love in his oeuvre and ends in one of the most poetic shots in film history.

UWASA NO ONNA (The Woman of Rumor, Japan 1954, 9.12., with an introduction by Claudia Siefen-Leitich & 13.12.) In Kyoto’s Shimabara area, the city’s historical entertainment district, the widowed Hatsuko runs a flourishing geisha house. Her daughter Yukiko returns there shortly after trying to take her own life because of an unhappy love affair. A young doctor with whom the mother is conducting a secret relationship falls in love with Yukiko and plans to move to Tokyo with her. Actress Kinuyo Tanaka shines in the role of the rejected lover, who is simultaneously a modern, pragmatic businesswoman and a worried mother. She worked with Mizoguchi on 16 films and created a variety of incomparable portraits of women. When she moved into directing, Mizoguchi broke off contact with her. UWASA NO ONNA is their final collaboration – despite its seeming levity, a deeply melancholy gem of Japanese cinema.

TAKI NO SHIRAITO (The Water Magician, Japan 1933, 10. & 21.12., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) A young woman appears under the name Taki no Shiraito, the water magician, as the main attraction of a travelling fair. One day, she falls in love with a coachman. In order to enable the young man to study, she takes a fatal decision and turns to a moneylender. The film is based on a story in the socially critical, melodramatic shinpa style, which Japanese silent cinema adopted from theatre. Mizoguchi shot a total of 57 silent films, of which only six were able to be preserved: TAKI NO SHIRAITO is often referred to as the outstanding work of this first career phase. We are presenting the seldom-screened 35mm print of the restored version from the National Film Archive of Japan.

SAIKAKU ICHIDAI ONNA (The Life of Oharu, Japan 1952, 14. & 26.12.) The story of Oharu takes place when the 17th century is giving way to the 18th century: even as an adolescent, Oharu aroused the interest of men due to her beauty, yet one relationship after another just plunges her deeper and deeper into unhappiness. Mizoguchi had to wait many years to be able to adapt this classic story of pre-modern Japanese literature. “The film from Mizoguchi’s oeuvre that he himself preferred most – and perhaps Kinuyo Tanaka’s greatest performance: a gaze full of glassy cruelty at the Genroku period, the feudal era, the Japanese world as a whole. The realism, the precision of social observation, the delicacy of the elliptical narration reach in SAIKAKU ICHIDAI ONNA a highpoint of control.” (Harry Tomicek)

SANSHO DAYU (Sansho the Bailiff, Japan 1954, 15.12., with an introduction by Kayo Adachi-Rabe & 29.12.) A legend from the 11th century: In Japan, a feudal system dominates, which enslaves and harasses those subordinate within it. Governor Masauji refuses to do as the others in power do and is known instead for his mildness. He falls out of favor as a result and his wife (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their two children end up under the control of cruel land steward Sansho. SANSHO DAYU depicts both a passion as well as brave resistance against the prevailing conditions. The humanistic power of this epic work and its perfectly executed design left their mark on generations of filmmakers. “Mizoguchi is capable of transcending the boundaries of coherent logic and conveying the profound complexity and truth of the connections that cannot be felt in life and its hidden phenomena.” (Andrei Tarkovsky)

NANIWA EREJI (Osaka Elegy, Japan 1936, 18. & 27.12.) Young Ayako works as a switchboard operator in a pharmaceutical company. In order to save her father, who has been accused of embezzling company money, she agrees to have a relationship with her boss and is rejected by her family as a result. Mizoguchi referred to this film as the first work in which he found his own cinematic language. NANIWA EREJI is also his first collaboration with Yoshikata Yoda, who consequently became the screenwriter for all his central works.

AIEN KYO (The Straits of Love and Hate, Japan 1937, 19. & 27.12.) Young Kenkichi, owner of a hotel in the Japanese provinces, has an affair with maid Ofumi. They travel together to Tokyo, where he idly lives from her savings. After his parents force him to return, he leaves Ofumi back in Tokyo, alone. Loosely inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novel “Resurrection”, Mizoguchi and his screenwriter Yoda send the female protagonist through a long series of tests in order to ultimately let her triumph over the patriarchal world with a force seen in few of their later films.

FURUSATO NO UTA (Song of Home, Japan 1925, 21.12., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Mizoguchi’s earliest still extant film is an account of the conflicts between tradition and modernity in a village: while many of his contemporaries are going to Tokyo to study, the young Naotaro stays behind and supposed to become a farmer. Created as a commission for the Ministry of Education, FURUSATO NO UTA offers a fascinating glimpse into Mizoguchi’s cinematic beginnings: instead of long shots, avant-garde montage and expressive close-ups dominate. We are showing a restored 35mm print from the National Film Archive of Japan.

FUJIWARA YOSHIE NO FURUSATO (Hometown, Japan 1930, 22.12.) After considerable effort, a poor singer finally finds fame with the song “Furusato”. At the height of his success, he leaves his wife for the wife of another man. Following a severe accident which causes him to lose his voice, he wants to return to his wife. Mizoguchi’s first sound film and production for Nikkatsu Studio was also a star vehicle for the then up-and-coming tenor singer Yoshie Fujiwara. The few silent scenes captivate due to the detached camera movements, while the sound design does so due to the great desire to experiment paired with its documentary quality.

ZANGIKU MONOGATARI (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, Japan 1939, 28.12. & 8.1.) Set in the Kabuki world at the end of the 19th century, this key work in the geidomono film genre tells the story of spineless young actor Kikunosuke, who becomes a celebrated onnagata at the expense of his lover Otoku. Mizoguchi shows the fatal independence between the rise of the one and the renunciation of the other via breathtaking crane shots and outstandingly composed long shots. “When over the course of a scene of increasing density, a mental chord is struck, I’m not able to cut away suddenly. I try to intensify the moment by letting the scene run as long as possible. The directorial style one can observe in my work came about this way – neither based on conscious thought, nor on being addicted to the tendency.” (Kenji Mizoguchi). (mg/gv)

The retrospective was made possible with funding from Federal Capital Cultural Fund. We would like to thank the Japan Foundation in Tokyo, the National Film Archive of Japan/Tokyo, and the Japanisches Kulturinstitut in Cologne for their comprehensive support.