I can’t remember the first Japanese movie that I saw, but the first director I heard of was Akira Kurosawa, and I saw The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Rashomon before seeing anything by Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Of these three masters, I saw Mizoguchi next (Sansho the Bailiff–based exclusively on Roger Ebert’s strong praise for the film), then Ozu’s Tokyo Story, which stunned me (I have still not seen anything like it–as if I was there, in Tokyo, with that family). Next came Rashomon again, then A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds by Ozu (again due to Ebert’s recommendation–as Floating Weeds is his favorite Ozu movie–and due to the effect that Tokyo Story had on me).
Of the three, I like Ozu the best and Kurosawa second. Sansho the Bailiff has a beautiful melancholic ending (one of the best I’ve seen), but left me feeling nothing until that point–something that Kurosawa’s movies and Ozu’s movies never left me feeling. I was willing, though, to give Mizoguchi another try, as Sansho the Bailiff is a difficult movie to like, even though it’s an easy one to admire. So much cruelty is in that story, but over such a long period of time that no one act of cruelty provokes a stronger reaction than another. I felt no joy, no sadness as I watched this film, just a deep-seated hatred for the cruelty inherent in mankind. If Kurosawa is the most cinematic of Japanese directors and Ozu the most universal in his themes, then Mizoguchi is the most willing to show us the cruelty that men inflict upon women. Even in such early films as Sisters of the Gion (which I really think should be called Sisters of Gion), the cruelty shown to women, and the amazingly realistic portrayals of male/female relationships, are shocking. And since I felt that I should give Mizoguchi another chance, I began with that film, and then moved on to Ugetsu. Perhaps, some day, when I am older, I shall go back to Sansho the Bailiff, and be moved. But, with Sisters of the Gion and Ugetsu, Mizoguchi showed me that his films can be loved as well as appreciated. Indeed, since Mizoguchi’s career is a series of highs and lows, I may come to prefer the masterpieces of his middle period over his late period, as Osaka Elegy (1936), The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) and A Woman of Osaka (1940) are still waiting to be seen. Nor have I seen all of the great movies of his late period, as The Life of Oharu (1952) and Street of Shame (1956) still await.
So, having seen Sansho the Bailiff twice, Sisters of the Gion and Ugetsu once, and a number of features about Mizoguchi as a director (including Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, which was released in 1975–21 years after his death), here is my take on Kenji Mizoguchi as an artist and a filmmaker:
That he is one of the greatest of all directors should be obvious to anyone who sees and studies his movies. Of course, with Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, he also had one of the greatest of all cinematographers working with him: Kazuo Miyagawa, who also did Rashomon with Kurosawa and Floating Weeds with Ozu (and which is one of the most beautiful Ozu films ever, which is to say that it’s one of the most beautiful ever). In black and white, Sansho the Bailiff is his crowning achievement, just as Floating Weeds is his crowning achievement in color, though Ugetsu and Rashomon are also quite beautiful.
Mizoguchi’s movies often center around fallen women (in Sansho the Bailiff, it’s a bit more complicated), who are the way they are because of men. This point is made explicitly in Sisters of the Gion, and again through the men’s mistreatment of their wives in Ugetsu. Mizoguchi himself loved to frequent brothels, and once was stabbed by a yatona (a prostitute who makes house calls) named Yuriko Ichijo. In referring to the scar that it left, he once told Seeichiro Uchikawa, one of his assistant directors, that, “You can’t understand women if you don’t have one of these” (Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director). It may well explain the violent relationships between men and women that appear in his films.
So, was Mizoguchi an early feminist? No. His empathy with the plight of women and their role in society was born out of guilt, guilt at having mistreated them himself, guilt at all men having mistreated women. As Omocha exclaims at the end of Sisters of the Gion, “Why is there such a thing as geisha?” The answer is: because there is such a thing as men. In the end, Mizoguchi was not a feminist. He was, simply, a humanist.
Note: I have since seen Street of Shame, and while I shall not furnish a review here, I enjoyed it as much, if not more, than Mizoguchi’s period-specific movies. His modern dramatizations seem more relaxed than Ugetsu or Sansho the Bailiff in tone and mood, as this movie and Sisters of the Gion proved. Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff may be great masterpieces, but his “lesser” masterpieces may be easier to watch, and love.