Old Master

FOR MANY YEARS now, the wonders wrought on film by Kenji Mizoguchi have existed more as rumor than reality. Anyone interested in Japanese movies before Godzilla or anime has been able to find out about Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai) and, with some searching, Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story). Mizoguchi's haunting and unforgettable ghost parable Ugetsu may have made Sight and Sound magazine's 10-best list two decades in a row, but a household word his name obviously is not.

Now at last comes Mizoguchi the Master, a touring package of new 35mm prints of many of the director's greatest films, from the late 1930s through the mid 1950s, to be screened this month at both the Walker Art Center and the U Film Society. And while more movies would be welcome, 10 guaranteed knockouts is no mean feat.

It wasn't his fault, but maybe one reason Mizoguchi hasn't been on everyone's lips is because he isn't so easily pegged as his contemporaries. Kurosawa had snappy edits, samurai action, and brisk pans. Ozu aimed his unflinching camera at timeless family conflicts and didn't mess much with virtuoso cutting. Mizoguchi, by contrast, is neither there nor here. He made almost all of his films about women. And he didn't have an easily spotted visual gimmick, unless you count his "one scene, one shot" tendency. He was a perfectionist, an obsessive, and apparently a conflicted person in his own right. He doesn't make for easy gossip, even among graduate students.

But the films he made are thick with possibilities of both story and interpretation. For non-Japanese accustomed to expecting some "inscrutable" or "introspective" Japanese otherness, Mizoguchi's movies will be eye-openers. Though visually the films are quite elegant, he approaches harsh realities and cultural myths with an unflinching, even documentary-style frankness. Characters speak openly to each other in long takes that intensify interpersonal tensions. Once the overpraised young actor in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) is finally told he's not really good, his critic (and future lover) calmly says, "Since I've already been rude, I'll go on." In the same vein, the idealistic and doomed Oharu in Life of Oharu (1952) sits painfully by as her father coldly arranges to sell her as a bride to end his family's banishment--caused because she dared to love a man below her social rank.

Like Kurosawa and unlike many other Japanese directors, Mizoguchi told both period and contemporary stories. He got these from classic plays, novels, even from a magazine article. But he is consistent in at least one respect: nearly all his stories approach our American notion of "melodrama," or the exaggerated drama of emotional suffering. The one great twist is that these are not "melodramatic" in form--a young switchboard operator in Osaka Elegy (1936) sacrifices herself as the kept woman of a crude CEO, mainly so she can pay off the family debts caused by her father's embezzling. Yet these tangled and tortured events happen mainly without benefit of weeping strings or lingeringoseups. In fact, as another executive tries to put the moves on her, Mizoguchi dares to cut away, farther from the action, instead of closer to it as Hollywood's patterns would predict.

The effect is nearly voyeuristic. Mizoguchi's storytelling form is based on a curious legacy of his own obsession with women (his love life was primarily with geishas); the studio's need to have a "women's stories" director to complement the "men's stories" it was already selling; and a fixation on suffering and social change as the most appropriate subjects in modern Japan. The women in these stories bear themselves with dignity, yet they are almost always trapped by their culturally imposed ignorance and lack of access to power and money. The desperate prostitutes of Street of Shame (1956) talk constantly of debts, savings, loans, while listening to a boss who reminds them that their's is a 300-year-old family business, and he will take care of them because the government won't.

In this uncharacteristically pointed story (and his last film), Mizoguchi has all this happen while the radio reports yet another attempt to outlaw prostitution. In fact, apparently because of this film, the government accomplished this ban a year later. But he was no social reformer. There's a potentially great argument to be made that he saw women only as masochistic dolls, but I think there's contrary evidence that he specialized in suffering women to explore the victimization of a repressive culture. One simple explanation for this view comes through his other great stylistic trademark, the foreground obstacle. As if to signify the barriers to genuine honesty/love/ambition, he frequently shoots scenes not just in medium or long shot but with screens, door frames, or hanging garments partly -- even entirely -- in the audience's way. With this poetically abstract but clearly rigorous device, Mizoguchi keeps life's pleasures clear, but at an eternally tragic distance.

Mizoguchi The Master runs February 7th through 28th; call 375-7622 for schedule.

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