Mizoguchi Kenji (溝口健二)
Kenji MIZOGUCHI (May 16, 1898 - August 24, 1956) was a film director born in Tokyo. He mostly produced emotional films, featuring female characters. He is one of the greatest filmmakers of Japanese cinema, ranked with Akira KUROSAWA, Yasujiro OZU, and Mikio NARUSE.
Mizoguchi was born in Asakusa Ward, Tokyo City (present-day Asakusa, Taito Ward, Tokyo). During the Russo-Japanese War, his father started the production of military raincoats but failed. As a result, Mizoguchi had experienced both good and bad days to a great degree since his childhood.
After graduating from jinjo elementary school (elementary schools that existed until 1941), Mizoguchi engaged himself in the design of yukata (Japanese summer kimono), and then, sponsored by his sister, he studied at the Aoibashi Western Painting Institute in Tokyo, which was organized by Seiki KURODA. In 1918, he landed a job as an advertising graphic designer at the Kobe Yushin Nippo (a daily newspaper), but resigned after a year. As he lived off his sister, Mizoguchi was fascinated by movies, opera and literature; in 1920, favored by an actor for the Nikkatsu (a movie studio), Tadashi TOMIOKA, he was hired by the Nikkatsu Studio. After having served as an assistant to directors such as Tadashi OGUCHI and Eizo TANAKA, Mizoguchi, at the age of 24, debuted in February, 1923, as a movie director with "Ai ni yomigaeru hi" (The Resurrection of Love), which was based on an original script by a senior director, Osamu WAKAYAMA. However, his depiction of poverty was so realistic that the movie was extensively censored and thus he had no choice but to release the movie with the biwa-geki (a play accompanied by the music of the biwa, or Japanese lute) as a filler. Producing ten films that year, Mizoguchi demonstrated that he was a prolific director: their genres were mixed, ranging from a detective story to an expressionist style. He was hailed as a promising director with the movie 'Haizan no uta wa kanashi' (Failure's Song Is Sad). On September 1 of the same year, Mizoguchi moved to Nikkatsu's Taishogun Studio due to the Great Kanto Earthquake, and made fine films such as 'Toge no uta' (The Song of the Mountain Pass) and 'Daichi wa hohoemu' (The Earth Smiles). In 1925, however, he was temporarily suspended in the middle of shooting 'Akai yuhi ni terasarete' (Shining in the Red Sunset) because of the incident in which he was stabbed in the back with a razor by his girlfriend and, at the same time, live-in housekeeper (who would be forced into prostitution because of poverty after separation) as a result of a quarrel between the couple. Thereafter, he was to have a unique sense of style in his films featuring women.
After he came back from suspension and released the fine films featuring women filled with emotions of a shitamachi (traditional working-class neighborhood), 'Kaminingyo haru no sasayaki' (A Paper Doll's Whisper of Spring) and 'Kyoren no onna shisho' (The Love-Mad Tutoress) in 1926, Mizoguchi further developed his unique sense of expression in portraying women and gained a good reputation for his movies such as 'Tojin Okichi' (Mistress of a Foreigner) of 1930. At the same time, he also focused on realism in the upsurge of left-wing ideology during the early Showa era by directing keiko eiga (tendency film) such as 'Tokai kokyogaku' (Metropolitan Symphony) and 'Shikamo karera wa yuku' (And Yet They Go). He himself, however, did not believe in left-wing ideology; in 1932 after the decline of the proletarian movement, he showed his opportunistic side by being invited by Shinko Kinema to direct the propaganda film called 'Manmo kenkoku no reimei' (Dawn in Manchuria).
In 1933, Mizoguchi left the Nikkatsu and began working for Takako IRIE's Irie Production. His movie 'Taki no shiraito' (Cascading White Threads), which, featuring Takako IRIE, portrayed the expressive world of Kyoka IZUMI's novel, became a big hit, and was ranked second in Kinema Junpo (a film magazine). In 1934, Mizoguchi joined Daiichi Eiga-sha (a production company) established by Masaichi NAGATA, and made his name by releasing movies such as 'Orizuru Osen' (The Downfall of Osen), which, based on Kyoka IZUMI's novel, featured Isuzu YAMADA, 'Naniwa ereji' (Naniwa Elegy), which was produced together with a talented screenwriter Yoshikata YODA for the first time, and 'Gion no shimai' (Sisters of the Gion), a masterpiece set in Gion, Kyoto.
After the company was dissolved due to poor management, Mizoguchi moved to Shinko Kinema and then to Shochiku's Shimogamo Studio, and there he produced a series of excellent films such as 'Zangiku monogatari' (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums) based on Shofu MURAMATSU's novel, 'Naniwa Onna' (A Woman of Osaka) featuring Kinuyo TANAKA in his own movie for the first time, 'Geido ichidai otoko' (The Life of an Actor) based on the novel of his old friend from elementary school, Matsutaro KAWAGUCHI. From 1941 to 1942, he directed the two-part epic film based on Seika MAYAMA's work, 'Genroku chushingura' (The 47 Ronin), which he spent a long period and an extremely large sum of money producing. Although the large-scale set that perfectly reproduced the matsu no roka (the large corridor with pictures of pine trees on the wall in Edo-jo Castle) received attention and the film won a Special Award of the Minister of Education, Mizoguchi was upset by the huge commercial failure of the film.
In 1946 after World War II, he came back with the democracy film 'Josei no shori' (The Victory of Women) featuring Kinuyo, but his movies remained unsuccessful, possibly affected by his utter failure of 'Genroku chushingura.'
After a long slump, he finally turned things around in 1949 with the movie 'Yoru no onnatachi' (Women of the Night) portraying the women who lost their husbands in a war and were forced into prostitution due to poor living conditions. Afterward, Mizoguchi created literary films such as Seiichi FUNAHASHI's 'Yuki fujin ezu' (A Picture of Madame Yuki), Junichiro TANIZAKI's 'Oyu-sama' (Lady Oyu), and Shohei OOKA's 'Musashino fujin' (Lady Musashino). In 1952, he produced 'Saikaku ichidai onna' (The Life of Oharu), which, based on Saikaku IHARA's 'Koshoku ichidai onna' (The Life of an Amorous Woman and Other Writings), featured Kinuyo. Initially, the film was ranked ninth in Japan, but when it was screened at the Venice Film Festival, it was highly praised by people in the film industry and won the Silver Lion. After the award, Mizoguchi was reevaluated in Japan. In 1953, he won first place in the Silver Lion award at the same festival with his proudly directed film 'Ugetsu Monogatari' (Tales of Moon and Rain), which portrayed the mysterious beauty of Akinari UEDA's original story (his film practically won the highest prize since no film won the Golden Lion in this year). Around this time, his enthusiasts began to emerge even internationally, and at the same festival in 1954, he won the Silver Lion again with 'Sansho dayu' (Sansho the Bailiff), which was based on Ogai MORI's novel. Mizoguchi achieved the feat of being awarded at the same festival for three consecutive years, and immediately became an internationally renowned director. His winning of the award at the festival for three consecutive years has been an unprecedented achievement in Japan.
In 1954, Mizoguchi won the Art Encouragement Prize and the Blue Ribbon Award for Best Director with 'Chikamatsu monogatari' (A Story from Chikamatsu). Subsequently, he made excellent films such as 'Gion bayashi' (A Geisha), 'Uwasa no onna' (The Crucified Woman), 'Yokihi' (Empress Yank Kwei Fei), 'Shin heike monogatari' (The New Tale of the Heike), and finally, the film 'Akasen chitai' (Street of Shame), which depicted the women in Yoshiwara (a red-light district) before the enactment of the Anti-Prostitution Law, became his posthumous work.
Mizoguchi became ill when preparing for his next film 'Osaka monogatari' (An Osaka Story), and went to the hospital saying, 'Hey, I'm going to hospital.'
He was diagnosed with leukemia and immediately admitted to the hospital, but there was nothing the medicine at that time could do to cure leukemia; he passed away without any sign of recovery. He died at the age of 58.
He greatly influenced European film directors in the generation of the Nouvelle Vague, including Jean-Luc GODARD as well as Francois TRUFFAUT, Eric ROHMER, Bernardo BERTOLUCCI, Jacques RIVETTE, Pier Paolo PASOLINI, and Victor ERICE.
In particular, Godard, who had even visited Mizoguchi's grave, was famous for idolizing him: he said, 'Mizoguchi, Mizoguchi, and Mizoguchi,' when he was asked, 'Could you tell me three of your favorite directors?'
In the year 2006, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of his death, Mizoguchi's films received public attention again through the release of a DVD box set and the commemorative special of his films at the Meigaza (a classic film theater).
Selected filmography as director
It is agreed that the period of copyright protection for his films prior to 1953 has been completely expired (they meet the criteria of both 50 years after the release and 38 years after the death of a director). Accordingly, some of his works have been released to the public domain as DVDs.
Saikaku ichidai onna (The Life of Oharu): 'International Prize' at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, and 'THE BBC 100' selected by BBC
Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moon and Rain): 'Silver Lion' at the Venice Film Festival in 1953, nominated for Academy Award for Costume Design, 'Career Achievement Award' from the National Board of Review
Chikamatsu monogatari (A Story from Chikamatsu): Screened at the 8th Cannes International Film Festival
Shin heike monogatari (The New Tale of the Heike): Screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1955
Yokihi (Empress Yank Kwei Fei): Screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1955
Akasen chitai (Street of Shame): Screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1956
Mizoguchi hated halting the flow of action with the camera blocking, and often used a long single shot of several-minutes in his later films, in particular. Consequently, his fluid and tense style came to fruition, and coupled with the filming of the camera operator, Kazuo MIYAGAWA, his films were highly regarded.
Mizoguchi are known not only for his skill in directing intense stories featuring female characters as described above, but also for his rigorous research for the production of historical dramas. When filming "Genroku chushingura," he had the full-scale replica of the matsu no roka built (with the participation of Kaneto SHINDO as a building supervisor). In "Yokihi," Mizoguchi requested assistance from the Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University, a top research institute on the study of the Tang Dynasty at that time, and he used scores of the Tang Dynasty in the film score with the kind help of the Gagakubu (Music Department) of the Imperial Household Ministry. As shown in these examples, he directed films without compromise. Additionally, he is known for handpicking Tadaoto KAINOSHO as a researcher on the setting of a movie and its customs.
When actors, who were puzzled when Mizoguchi asked them for retakes without telling them how to act, requested for his help, Mizoguchi never gave any advice, saying, 'It is the actor's job to act.'
Although his directing style placed a burden on actors and caused stress in them, some actors gave positive comments as Kyoko KAGAWA said, 'What the director says is that actors can act naturally if they come to the set with getting into the mind of the character after much thought. I think he is right.'
When directing, Mizoguchi often asked around, 'Are you reflecting?'
It is believed that what he meant to say was 'does an actor "reflect" his/her act back to the other actors after their act.'
This was a crucial aspect of Mizoguchi's direction known for the use of many long shots.
Mizoguchi was nicknamed 'Gote Ken' due to these directing styles of reprimanding actors and staff without compromise.
Gote-ru' was a catchword at that time, meaning 'to complain.'
When a row of houses were built for the set of "Saikaku ichidai onna," Mizoguchi came and ordered, 'Move the houses on stage right 1.82 meters to the front!'
The set, used just for one scene, was not so important. The assistant director bowed his head to reluctant staff in charge of props and had them rebuild the set all night.
When he saw the set on the following day, the director said, 'Put the houses on stage left 1.82 meters to the back.'
In other words, what Mizoguchi said was to put them back to the original position; outraged by this, the assistant director went home. These unreasonable orders, however, are believed to have been his last resort to buy time when he was distressed with the difficulty in directing a film.
Talented staff such as Kazuo MIYAGAWA (camera operator), Yoshikata YODA (screenwriter), Hiroshi MIZUTANI (art director) and Fumio HAYASAKA (musical Director) had joined Mizoguchi's group. Among them, Mizutani is less known than the others in Japan, but on the other hand, he is most famous in France. Mizoguchi's death mask made by him is kept even today.
Mizoguchi rarely had personal relationships with people in the film industry, but he formed a friendship with Kinuyo TANAKA both personally and professionally.
There is a story to show his friendship with Tanaka: When filming "Oyu-sama," he said to Tanaka, who had been often described as 'not beautiful (but good at acting)' since childhood, 'I will film you most beautifully.'
Then, he even let slip his intention to propose to Tanaka to Ozu and Shindo.
The relationship with Tanaka is said to have turned sour because Mizoguchi said, 'With her knowledge, Tanaka can not be a director,' when he was informed of Tanaka's directing a movie. It is said, however, that this comment was made out of jealousy for the fact that Tanaka was leaving him for a new career. After his death, Tanaka said, 'I have some feeling towards him, which can not be explained by the simple fact that we are not related' (from "Aru eiga-kantoku no shogai," or Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director).
Mizoguchi was famous for using abusive language against women as he once provoked his lover to stab him. He was abusive to Ayako WAKAO, calling her 'Hey, Kid!' without ever calling her name when directing "Gion bayashi," and also saying to her, 'You have ugly features' when filming "Akasen chitai."
When directing "Yokihi," Mizoguchi even insulted in front of the crowd Takako IRIE, his old supporter who had hired him to work at Irie Production and paved the way for his being called a great director, by saying 'You can't act gracefully because you have been playing cat monsters too much.'
He also rudely said to Mitsuko MITO during the filming of "Ugetsu Monogatari," 'Are you saying you've never been gang raped before?'
He treated only Kinuyo TANAKA in a gentlemanly manner all the time except when he made the remark 'with her head....'
During the filming of "Waga koi wa moenu" (Flame of My Love), moreover, Mizoguchi said to Ichiro SUGAI, 'You are suffering from brain syphilis! You should see the doctor!'
When directing "Sansho dayu," he said to a child actor, 'This kid is hopelessly stupid!' upsetting his mother nearby.
During the filming of "Ugetsu Monogatari," on the other hand, Mizoguchi is said to have shown his appreciation by being the first to offer and light a cigarette when Masayuki MORI delivered a superb performance and asked 'Would anybody give me a cigarette?'
His staff as well as Mori himself were greatly surprised by this incident.
According to Eisei KOI, who was the producer of "Saikaku ichidai onna," Director Mizoguchi was selfish, obedient to authority figures, and cruel to inferiors; and that is why he was hated by actors and staff. Moreover, Mizoguchi sometimes pocketed props used for films secretly and added part of his living expenses to film production costs.
Some people such as Kaneto SHINDO, who admired Mizoguchi, yet considers him decent in terms of his character.
Although he did not have many friends, Mizoguchi had a long friendship with his childhood friends, Matsutaro KAWAGUCHI and Shotaro HANAYAGI.
When "Ukigumo" (Floating Clouds) directed by Mikio NARUSE was much talked about, Mizoguchi, strongly recommended by his assistant director at that time, saw the movie and remarked to the assistant director, 'Does he have balls?'
This episode illustrates the difference in style and personality between the two directors.
Tazuko SAKANE, the first female director in Japanese cinema, worked as an assistant director for Mizoguchi's films before World War II. Also, the second female director was Kinuyo TANAKA, and this means that Mizoguchi was closely related to the first and second female directors.
Mizoguchi was enraged when he was ordered by a film studio to use a rookie named Kazuo MIYAGAWA. Once he worked with Miyagawa, however, Mizoguchi, recognizing his talent, trusted him as his right-hand man and even accepted many of his suggestions for shooting in particular.
Later, when Miyagawa was unable to join the next scheduled film directed by Mizoguchi due to the delay of the film by a different director, Mizoguchi protested against the studio, saying, 'Are you going to break us up?'
When Mizoguchi was excited about the performance of actors, his hands tended to tremble, so much so that their vibrations were transmitted to the video camera next to him. Thus, when a film was shot from an unstable position such as from high above, iron plates as heavy as his weight were placed next to the camera during a take and he was asked to move to another location. One picture shows that Mizoguchi, who liked to see from the position as close to the camera as possible, sat on the zabuton (Japanese floor cushion) placed on top of a ladder as if on horseback. Initially, Mizoguchi did not take it seriously when Kazuo MIYAGAWA told him about his habit of trembling.
When he noticed the picture in the rushes (unedited print for checking) shaking, however, he laughed shyly and honestly admitted his fault, saying, 'Did my hands tremble this much?'
After "Akasen chitai" was completed, Mizoguchi fell ill and was hospitalized. The filming of his next work scripted by Yoda "Osaka monogatari," however, had already begun. The movie was based on Saikaku IHARA's story as "Saikaku ichidai onna." Mizoguchi was hospitalized right after the staff for the movie were recruited and the shooting started. He was particularly eager to film this story because he highly regarded Saikaku for his vitality full of emotions. He even said to his staff including Kaneto SHINDO who had hurried to the hospital, 'I figured out how to direct the final scene,' but he died shortly thereafter. Kozaburo YOSHIMURA took over as director and completed the film.