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Journals: New York

On Japan House’s 1981 retrospective of Kenji Mizoguchi

The saddest moment during the recent Kenji Mizoguchi retrospective at Japan House was news in early June of the death of Nagamasa Kawakita, the preeminent patron-mogul of Japanese-American film exchanges throughout the postwar era. Mr. Kawakita had been the industry figure who most intimately shared Mizoguchi’s first international recognition in the winning of the Silver Lion by The Lion of Oharu at the 1952 Venice Film Festival. Kawakita, with Venice as his first love on the festival circuit, was a tireless champion of his country’s cinema. When Mizoguchi was further lionized in silver for two more consecutive wins by Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, an awards milestone that is not likely to be beaten in the annals of ranking world festivals was set, and the international critics led by New Wave adherents began the task of “discovering” a director in the last half-decade of his thirty-four-year-old film career.

One discovery early on was that Japanese film preservation was as disgraceful—if not a little more so—as the rest of its sister nations. The present retrospective of twenty-nine Mizoguchi films and one fragment represents virtually all that exists of his eighty-five directed works. (A canny, private owner of the only known print of the 1937 The Straits of Love and Hate withheld this one film from the retrospective as a bargaining card to add more Mizoguchi prints to his collection.) The series has been further subdivided into a core of eleven rare Mizoguchi features never before shown together in the United States nor picked up by distributors and a two-hour-plus, 35-mm documentary by Kaneto Shindo, Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director. This elite package played Venice last year and, typically enough, has arrived here through the instrumentality of Mrs. Kawakita (Kashiko) and her preservation efforts at Tokyo’s Japan Film Library Council.

My happiest moment in the retrospective, oddly enough, was in March on Friday the Thirteenth with the arrival of the cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, looking exceptionally well and cheerful following news of his withdrawal from Kurosawa’s Kagemusha because of a serious illness. The game of the moment may be just how good Mizoguchi was and how he ranks within Japanese and world cinema. Well, I started the series with Mizoguchi ranked further behind Shohei Imamura, Yasujiro Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa, and only one of the “new” films, A Woman of Rumor, has budged me towards reevaluation. Ducking through one of Mizoguchi’s perverse, loophole pronouncements that it takes thirty years of acquaintance with film to make a true evaluation of values, I intend happily to foster my indecision for another two decades.

But meeting the towering little man Miyagawa—that’s another kind of confirmation and benediction of everything that’s good about saint cinema. In his own field of photography, he is the undisputed champion and true cutting edge of the debate on Japanese cinema, and he has the sweetest way of denying responsibility when someone in 1981 points out to him that perhaps more than coincidence was involved in the fact that the first two Oscars for Japan (Rashomon, Gate of Hell) and the second and third Silver Lions (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff) were all shot by him.

Miyagawa began photographing during the war with old beat-up Mitchells and Bell & Howells and pulling focus with fingertip guesses. He never rushed into new equipment. Nevertheless, he had been defining for me, before I was even aware of the connection, the artistic parameters of widescreen black and white in films like Conflagration (Enjo) and the most subtle possibilities of color from Gate of Hell to The Ballad of Orin. He must drive his university students to distraction when, Zen-like, he says with utter conviction, “Forget the expensive equipment. Only a beautiful person can take beautiful pictures.” That’s a motto I’d like to see engraved on the view finders of Zsigmond, Chapman, and Willis before they engrave waves of amber gloss, spit and grit, and architectural paranoia on their next megabuck productions.

Programming the films of Miyagawa as the vestibule to those of Mizoguchi was inspired on the part of the Japan Society as well as an organic link with the eight Mizoguchi-Miyagawa collaborations. Mizoguchi is a select option of the Japanese cinema. Miyagawa is the Japanese cinema. He has earned an impressive range of credits among a wide range of important Japanese directors and, if nothing else, he has got the numbers. Structuralists may begin the debate on Japanese Cinema with why Miyagawa’s one Ozu film, Floating Weeds, has 962 shots; and why he only averaged 300 shots a film with Mizoguchi, and found a 400-500 range with Kurosawa.

The most disheartening revelation at the Japan House in March was Miyagawa’s slide presentation of sparkling bright color stills on location with Floating Weeds, followed by a lousy gone-to-purple print of the film and the information in private that until recently all those knockout colors of first-time-viewed Japanese films were the result of prints struck straight from the original negative without protecting the only existing stock for future generations. Another enlightening moment was Miyagawa’s description of his close following of Kurosawa’s storyboard on the rowdy Yojimbo and the resultant conviction that the very wise Sergio Leone not only ripped off a plot but a whole aesthetic of off-the-cuff delirium.

Miyagawa, when working with such protean eclectics as Kon Ichikawa and Mashiro Shinoda, was turned loose to his own devices, which, in brief, resulted in great cinematography and not-so-great direction. Miyagawa plus Kurosawa resulted in frenzied, close collaboration. Miyagawa plus Ozu or Mizoguchi, however, meant toeing the line in subservience to two great practitioners of a rigid, personal style: the first, warmly intimate; the second, chillingly distant. Miyagawa’s career should be studied in every cinematography class in the world where students of photography are puzzling over how big a slice of the pie they deserve in the collaborative effort known as making films.

As to the Mizoguchi mini-series now traveling the country, the Shinoda documentary, Kenji Mizoguchi, is an important jump-off place for both beginners and the initiated. Like Kevin Brownlow’s oral histories, the film is drenched in an obsessional, penitential hunger to record for history all surviving collaborators of the director as well as the homes, neighborhoods, film locations, and artifacts of Mizoguchi’s life and art—the extreme examples being his hospital death ward and the glass, portable urinal that allowed him to stay on the set without breaking concentration. There is an overkill of admiring, almost fawning, testimony, with the most guileless voice, of course, being Miyagawa’s, and the most ambivalent being Kinuyo Tanaka, Mizoguchi’s last and foremost feminine icon, who is gauchely pestered about her maybe romantic involvement with the director. Here are many Mizoguchis laid out for every point of the critical spectrum: martinet perfectionist (von Stroheim), objet d’art intellectual (Wyler), inspired transcendentalist (Bresson), and profound conservative (Ford).

For years, Ozu has been my Japanese Ford, but that was a shallow judgment based simply on the end result that both directors stroked a bias toward humanistic and conservative values. If one needs the crutch of cultural parallels—and I do with Japanese cinema—there is only one Japanese John Ford and that’s Mizoguchi. And a mighty sour Ford at that. There’s a retreat to history to reaffirm traditional values, but without the exhilaration of martial heroism. There are waiting, suffering, sacrificing women, but without strong men worth the pain. There’s also wild visual experimentation and leftist sensibilities in youth and simplistic formalism and right-wing tendencies in old age. There’s a civic personality able to be seduced by governmental honors and service. And they share trilogies of films, a stock company, and long-time screenwriter collaborations.

In this perspective, Mizoguchi’s unveiled 1954 A Woman of Rumor is almost his only bittersweet movie. The personal motifs and tastes are all here. The increasingly supple long-shot, long-take camerawork. A geisha house not quite a brothel. Scenes of national music and theatre. Barbaric, grousing, new-breed businessmen. Ravishing ensemble scenes of women in their boudoirs. A female Mizoguchi icon (Tanaka) destroying herself for a greedy, worthless, manipulative man. And—the difference—there is Yoshiko Kuga as the daughter, who grows from suicide attempts over a jilting man and disgust with her mother’s work to a woman who discovers her self-worth and the communal support of women working together in a cultural institution. The film is a revelatory glimmer of hope in a career cut short by leukemia four films and seven downtrodden heroines later.

The mini-retrospective is scheduled to travel to the Pacific Film Archives from the end of July to mid-August; the UCLA Film Archive in the latter part of August; the Art Institute of Chicago from September 11 to 19; the Center Screen of Boston at the end of September; the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis in the late fall; and the Universities of Iowa and Wisconsin in early winter, among presently booked locations.