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The subject was women

Empathy suffuses the films of Kenji Mizoguchi.

June 07, 2007|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

JAPANESE director Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) was famous for his sublime, stately pictorial style -- and even more for his compassion for women caught in often cruel circumstances, reflecting their inferior status in Japan's society.

He depicted their plights with beautiful images underlining the injustices they endured with implacable dignity. Even though some critics argue Mizoguchi merely aestheticizes suffering, revelation as a weapon of protest has rarely been so powerful on the screen.

On Friday, the retrospective "Seven Masterpieces by Kenji Mizoguchi" begins at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; it contains several highlights among the 30 extant films that secured Mizoguchi's reputation as one of the greatest directors of all time. (A staggering 55 more of his movies were reportedly lost during World War II.)

The opening-night movie "Sisters of the Gion" (1936) is one of the director's most celebrated yet rarely seen films. It's also possibly the most outspokenly critical of his works exploring the plight of the geisha. Isuzu Yamada plays a cynical modern-minded Kyoto geisha unenthusiastic in pursuing a patron but determined to find a wealthy replacement for the bankrupt protector of her tradition-bound older sister (Yoko Umemura). It is a timeless drama, as subtle as it is devastating, and set off by touches of pitch-dark humor.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 09, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Mizoguchi film: An article in Thursday's Calendar Weekend section about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art film series "Seven Masterpieces by Kenji Mizoguchi" said that "Street of Shame" in 1956 starred actress Kinuyo Tanaka. She is not in the movie.

The gossamer-like "Story of the Late Chrysanthemums" (1939), one of Mizoguchi's most appealing and accessible films, finds a young servant girl (Kakuko Mori) developing a selfless love for a young kabuki actor (Shotaro Hanayagi). Only she dares to tell him, the scion of a prestigious acting family, how bad his work really is -- and then she's fired by his parents, suspicious of her motives. Undeterred, she is determined, as a classic Mizoguchi heroine, to sacrifice everything to ensure his triumph as a great actor.

The remaining five films in LACMA's series all star the great Kinuyo Tanaka (1910-77), with whom the director worked frequently -- and tempestuously. She was a tiny woman of deceptively fragile appearance and seemingly endless range. And when she decided to become a director herself, she did so with success -- and created a five-year rift with Mizoguchi.

"Utamaro and His Five Women" (1946) glimpses at the life of the artist Utamaro (Minosuke Bando) amid an emotion-charged world of courtesans, and Tanaka has a powerful scene that is a precursor to the next decade of collaborations between director and star.

The period film "Ugetsu" (1953) features Tanaka as a potter's wife whose husband (Masayuki Mori) forsakes her for a beautiful ghost. The movie contains the most famous image from all of Mizoguchi's films: a picnic on the grass, viewed from a considerable distance. In fact, a hallmark of Mizoguchi's work was his ability to perfect "emotional intensity at a distance," preferring long shots to close-ups and sustained, fluid sequences to brief scenes and rapid cutting.

In "Sansho the Bailiff" (1954), Tanaka plays an aristocrat kidnapped, imprisoned and so brutally treated that she no longer recognizes her son, when years later he rescues her. And in "Life of Oharu" (1952) she portrays a sheltered lady-in-waiting reduced to streetwalking. One of Mizoguchi's most important works, "Oharu" is unforgettable for Tanaka's quiet assertion of dignity in the face of increasingly desperate circumstances.

"Ugetsu," "Sansho" and "Oharu" all took top prizes at Venice and, along with Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" and Teinosuke Kinugasa's "Gate of Hell," opened Japan's cinema to worldwide audiences.

Fittingly, Tanaka starred in Mizoguchi's final film, "Street of Shame" (1956), playing a tough-minded madam in a gritty evocation of the hard lot of prostitutes in postwar Japan. One last time, Mizoguchi turned to the plight of women -- the topic he may well have known best.

weekend@latimes.com

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`Seven Masterpieces by Kenji Mizoguchi'

"Ugetsu" and "Sisters of the Gion": 7:30 p.m. Friday

* "Sansho the Bailiff": 7:30 p.m. Saturday

* "Story of the Late Chrysanthemums": 7:30 p.m. June 15

* "The Life of Oharu": 7:30 p.m. June 16

* "Utamaro and His Five Women" and "Street of Shame": 7:30 p.m. June 22 and 23

Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

Price: $11

Info: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org

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