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Agony brought to light

Four of Kenji Mizoguchi's films, rescued from obscurity, share a theme: the anguish of women.

October 19, 2008|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

Kenji MIZOGUCHI was one of the three chief ambassadors of Japan's cinematic golden age, along with Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. All came to international prominence in the early 1950s, and though Ozu and Kurosawa remain ensconced in the pantheon, Mizoguchi is now a neglected figure, in part because his films are trickier to define than Ozu's domestic dramas or Kurosawa's genre hybrids. Mizoguchi also started earlier -- he was prolific in the silent era and much of his early work was lost during the war -- and he died younger (of leukemia, at age 58, in 1956).

With good reason, his two best-known films -- and until now the only two available on DVD in the U.S. -- are "Ugetsu," one of the greatest ghost stories in any medium, and the harrowing medieval tragedy "Sansho the Bailiff." "Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women," a new set from Criterion's mid-price line Eclipse, rescues four more films from relative obscurity and highlights the central theme in Mizoguchi's work: the anguish of women in a society set up to exploit and enslave them.

The line on Mizoguchi, especially in the West, is that he is a feminist, a reading that corresponds to certain biographical details. His older sister was sold as a geisha, his long-suffering mother died when he was in his teens and by all accounts he harbored great animosity toward his father. Mizoguchi's movies are conspicuously populated with self-sacrificing women and broken, callous men. He probed the ruinous dynamic between the sexes not just in his contemporary portraits of geisha and prostitutes (all four films in the Eclipse box fall into this category) but also in the samurai period films that dominated his early '40s output.

Some critics, disputing the feminist label, have contended that Mizoguchi is guilty of aestheticizing misery or embracing a fatalist worldview. His insistence on the inevitability of female sacrifice is perhaps questionable, but there is little doubt about his deep compassion toward his resilient heroines or the devastating clarity with which he depicts the social and economic forces that bring about their downfall.

The four films here -- two prewar, two postwar -- chart the evolution of Mizoguchi's fallen-woman theme, which he expressed with varying degrees of fury and resignation, as well as the refinement of his intricate style. A notorious perfectionist who pushed his actors to the limit, he was also a brilliant technician, organizing on- and off-screen space with exquisite precision and choreographing extended takes with a roving yet discreet camera.

In "Osaka Elegy" (1936), a young telephone operator endures a downward spiral into prostitution as she struggles to support her family. At the end of the film, downtrodden and outcast, she walks directly to the camera, holding the audience in an accusatory gaze.

"Sisters of the Gion" (1936) is set in motion by the opposing attitudes of two geisha sisters -- one traditional, the other modern -- but neither outlook offers a way out from their life of servitude. "Women of the Night" (1948), also about two sisters who fall on hard times -- one of them played by the great Kinuyo Tanaka, a Mizoguchi regular -- unfolds in postwar Osaka, where gangs of desperate prostitutes roam the rubble-strewn streets.

With his final film, "Street of Shame" (1956), Mizoguchi offered his most complicated take on prostitution. The vividly drawn characters in this ensemble piece, employees at the ironically named Dreamland club, are a diverse mix: young and old, romantic and jaded, motivated by seemingly selfish and selfless reasons.

"Street of Shame" was made as an anti-prostitution bill was gaining traction, and Mizoguchi used the debate as a topical backdrop (radio broadcasts can be heard throughout). Many of the women at Dreamland wish they could leave, but as the movie demonstrates, the outside world is no kinder or fairer.

Prostitution was outlawed in Japan within a year of the film's release, and it is often credited with playing a part in the decision, reinforcing the notion of Mizoguchi as a feminist crusader. "Street of Shame," in fact, makes the point that the problem of women's subjugation is too complicated to be solved with black-and-white legislation.

To the bitter end, Mizoguchi's cinema offered no easy answers and no escape.

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