[This post originally appeared in Film Alert 101 in February]
KENJI MIZOGUCHI was a Japanese director who made some of the twentieth century cinema’s greatest films. All of his work is important but the late masterpieces from the 50s – Ugetsu, Oharu(1952), Sansho (1954), Chikamatsu (1954), Miss Oyu (1951) and many others are especially multi-faceted and may be read on several levels, as historical spectacle, myth, melodrama, metaphysical meditation and social statement. Stylistically he created images of extraordinary beauty and expressiveness with an ever fluid camera following his characters, often in long takes, with both compassion and detachment. He is not only my favourite Japanese director but my favourite director period. Like so many of my obsessive film companions, I was first introduced to Mizo’s graceful universe by Ugetsu Monogatari, a sublime period piece telling of a potter (Masayuki Mori) who, leaving his family to the ravages of a brutal civil war, goes off to peddle his wares, is taken in and seduced by a ghost (Machiko Kyo in eerily beautiful makeup), is finally released from her thrall and returns to his village where he imagines a night of reconciliation and redemption as his wife materializes in an interior domestic space, previously dark and empty, now mysteriously lit by a glowing fire as she sits in his imagination.
Exquisitely played by Mizo’s muse Kinuyo Tanaka, his wife has actually been ravaged and killed by marauding soldiers and is herself a ghost. Left in bewilderment and grief the next morning in the shattered remains of his home, the potter Genjuro’s plight is universalised in Mizo’s sweeping camera up and away in serene humanistic contemplation of the ravaged village/landscape, creating one of the most powerful sequences in film history. Mizoguchi was, incidentally, one of the few male directors to subtly and sympathetically climb inside women’s skins and create rounded complex characters out of them.