When the National Film Theatre mounted a retrospective of the work of Kenji Mizoguchi, it was so well attended that several of the Japanese director’s most notable films were successfully released commercially. The retrospective even beat the record set by the Howard Hawks season. Unlike Hawks, however, only about a third of Mizoguchi’s work survives, since the Japanese were for many years careless about their extraordinary cinematic legacy (though, in their defence, it is certain some of these losses were a result of war-time raids on Tokyo). Mizoguchi himself said he made “only about 75 films or so, not really very many”.
Ugetsu Monogatari is the Mizoguchi film in many critics’ 10-best lists, while The Life of Oharu is the epic thought to express best his sympathy for women. My favourite, though, is 1939’s Zangiku Monogatari (The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums), possibly because it was the first of his films I saw, and it has stuck in my mind ever since.
This is the sad tale of a woman from a lower social class than her actor lover, who sustains his faltering career and then sacrifices herself to ensure his success. Donald Ritchie, the critic who was among the first to tell the west about Mizoguchi, says the Japanese director identified with his actresses. He got superb performances from them but at a price – he was a perfectionist who sometimes caused them great pain.
He was nicknamed “the Demon”, and it was often said that he only made films in order to have enough money to entertain geishas. He was fascinated all his life by demimondaines, and some critics have suggested there was something suspect about his compassion for the often tragic fate of such women. However, in Late Chrysanthemums he remorselessly shows the selfishness of the actor and the innate snobbery of the kabuki world.
The actor falls for the wet nurse in his wealthy household – perhaps because she is the only one to tell him his acting is terrible. They enter the wilderness of third-rate acting companies and, thanks to her, his talent develops and Tokyo beckons.
The sequence in which the woman, now dying, watches the actor’s triumph as he passes her by on a carnival riverboat, is one of the most moving in all cinema, as we see first the actor’s bows to the applauding crowds and then his face suddenly filled with guilt.
If Mizoguchi was the poet of women, he was also the poet of houses, rooms, landscape and urban vistas. His period detail and sumptuous camera style lent his stories a fantastic naturalism, heightened by an almost musical editing style. He was capable of everything from waspish comedy to tenderness to epic battle scenes. He was a director for all seasons, and Kurosawa – far better known in the west – freely acknowledged Mizoguchi as his master.