January 2020, arsenal cinema

Kenji Mizoguchi Retrospective

AKASEN CHITAI, 1956

In January, we pursue our Kenji Mizoguchi retrospective with nine more films, including some, which are – unjustifiably – less known, as well as works made during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war era. Up to 1945, the Japanese government maintained control over the film industry. After the war, the US occupiers promoted “de-mocracy” and “emancipation” through film. Mizoguchi, for his part, developed a radical and acute criticism of Japan’s rigid social conventions, its patriarchal structures, and the oppression of women early on in his career. However, the harshness and drama of some of the scenes in his post-war films are particularly striking – they are the eloquent expression of the profound uncertainty that prevailed in Japanese society.

ZANGIKU MONOGATARI (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, Japan 1939, 8.1.) Set in the Kabuki world at the end of the 19th century, this key work of the geidomono genre tells the story of the spineless young actor Kikunosuke who becomes a celebrated onnagata at the expense of his lover Otoku. Mizoguchi depicts the fatal relationship between the rise of the one and the fall of the other with 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).

JOYU SUMAKO NO KOI (The Love of Sumako the Actress, Japan 1947, 9. & 23.1.) Lead actress Sumako Matsui and director Hogetsu Shimamura live for the theater, both on and off stage. Inspired by real people with the same names - she was one of Japan's first great modern actresses and he is considered to contributed significantly to the modernization of Japanese theater - Mizoguchi's protagonists break with social conventions and pursue their shared passion for progressive theater. Their love story develops, between scenes from Ibsen's "Nora" and a theatrical version of “Carmen”, as does a mosaic of successes and defeats, of bourgeois morality and human sincerity, of drab tour venues and the hope of making a brilliant return to Tokyo. Kinuyo Tanaka excels in the title role as a self-assured and combative actress.

GENROKU CHUSHINGURA (The 47 Ronin, Japan 1941, Part 1, 13.1., Part 2, 14.1.) Shot during the war, Mizoguchi’s version of the popular chambara genre, a sub-category of the jidai-geki period film, goes against the grain: dramatic battle scenes give way to artistic choreographies of characters and spaces; Mizoguchi replaces the more usual fast-paced sequences with his characteristic long takes, transforming speed into controlled solemnity, even bringing it to a standstill in his efforts to relieve the pressure. Propaganda seems to collide with the film’s restraint. The starting point of this two-part epic is the misconduct of the Japanese prince Asano, who is sentenced to perform ritual suicide after an impulsive attack on another prince. His followers become ronin. They seek revenge to restore their master’s honor and thus their own. But in early 18th-century Japan, vengeance too is subject to a code of honor.

UTAMARO O MEGURU GONIN NO ONNA (Utamaro and His Five Women, Japan 1946, 17.1.) Despite the strict conditions imposed by the US occupying forces in Japan, especially with regard to the filming of historical material, Mizoguchi chose to devote his first post-war work to the legendary 18th-century woodblock printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro. The film focuses on the artist's life and the sometimes tragic fate of his models, whom he finds mainly in Tokyo's red-light districts. The film is regarded as Mizoguchi's most autobiographical work; his longstanding screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda wrote that Utamaro's "aesthetic perfectionism, his personal weaknesses and his emotional distance were modeled on Mizoguchi's personality. Just as Utamaro finds consolation in the chaos of his surroundings when he thinks of the pictures he did not realize, Mizoguchi defies the artistic restrictions imposed on him in his only film of the period. Through it, he gained an unshakeable determination and an unparalleled technical maturity that would continue until his untimely death in 1956."

YORU NO ONNA TACHI (Women of the Night, Japan 1948, 17. & 24.1.) Shot on location in Shinsekai, Osaka’s notorious red-light and yakuza district, and inspired by neorealism, this film presents a country destroyed by war and a society, which is as maimed as it is insecure. It focuses on the war widow Fusako (Kinuyo Tanaka), her sister Natsuko, who dances in a local nightclub, and the naive Kumiko, who falls into the hands of a small-time criminal and his gang. When it turns out that Fusako’s boyfriend is also after Natsuko, a dramatic downward spiral that will inevitably end in prostitution begins. Mizoguchi’s adaptation of a novel is an unsparing and in parts wild indictment of the oppression and exploitation of women in post-war Japan.

WAGA KOI WA MOENU (My Love Has Been Burning, Japan 1949, 18. & 23.1.) The last part of Mizoguchi’s “Women’s Liberation Trilogy”, after Victory of Women (1946) and THE LOVE OF SUMAKO THE ACTRESS (1948), was described by the contemporary Japanese critics as the film “of a wild animal”. Mizoguchi himself said it was “a barbaric film”. Unrelenting with at times brutal scenes, this biographical film about Fukuda Hideko, one of Japan’s first women’s rights activists, reveals the complacency and hypocrisy of the country’s liberal politicians at the end of the 19th century. Eiko leaves her family to join her husband who is a political activist in Tokyo. When she realizes that he is corrupt and not interested in women’s rights, she leaves him and sets up a school for women.

CHIKAMATSU MONOGATARI (The Crucified Lovers, Japan 1954, 18. & 24.1.) Kyoto, 1684. Osan is unfairly suspected of adultery. She is accused of cheating on her husband Ishun, who is a wealthy and brutal purveyor to the court, with his assistant Mohee. Since an unauthorized relationship undermines the rigid rules of feudal society and is severely punished, Osan and Mohee both flee. It is only on the run that they confess their love for each other. Mizoguchi surrounds the central love story with a multitude of characters and vignettes - around which the cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, with whom Mozoguchi often worked, revolves in a flowing and precise manner.

YOKIHI (Princess Yang Kwei-fei, Japan 1955, 19. & 25.1.)Hoping for an international audience, Mizoguchi made his first color film in co-production with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, who in turn were counting on the director’s name to give them a cultural seal of approval. All expectations were dashed. The audience was confused by the Chinese subject matter, while the producers were not enamored of Mizoguchi’s poetic flourish. In the melodrama, Mizoguchi transposed his pet theme - a woman’s self-sacrifice - to an imperial court in 8th-century China. The widowed emperor falls in love with a young servant, who becomes his mistress. This leads to political disaster.

AKASEN CHITAI (Street of Shame, Japan 1956, 22. & 26.1.) After making two monumental period dramas, Mizoguchi returned to contemporary matters in his legacy-making final film, as well as to the familiar world of the red-light district. Adopting a comparatively cooler and harsher tone, he brought together five prostitutes of different origins and with very different personalities, not least with regard to their work. They are linked by the fact that they all work at the same bar in Tokyo, as well as by the fact that parliament is currently debating an anti-prostitution law. They try to find alternative ways of making a living, but this is difficult in a world dominated by men and money. Whereas in the film the bill does not pass, in real life it did – in May 1956, after the film’s premiere, coming into effect a year later. (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.