94. Kenji Mizoguchi
SANSHO THE BAILIFF, UGETSU, THE LIFE OF OHARU
Now thought the saturnine, unrestrained counterpart to the contemplative domestic calmness of his contemporary Yasujirō Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi produced a body of work that both shares many of the best formal qualities of and departs vastly from that of the other, slightly younger, master of midcentury Japanese cinema. (Considering Mikio Naruse, the third point of this filmmaking triangle, seriously complicates the conversation.) With pictures like Ugetsu, Sanshō the Bailiff, and The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, Mizoguchi made his name as a teller of highly and immaculately aestheticized fables, influencing younger directors from Jean-Luc Godard to Orson Welles, from Akira Kurosawa to Andrei Tarkovsky.
Sometimes called a modernist, sometimes called a realist, sometimes called a socialist, and sometimes called a feminist, Mizoguchi explored the underbelly of Japanese society past (sometimes quite far into the past indeed) and present in the variously overlapping milieus of peasants, housewives, prostitutes, thugs, and princesses. Not only did he set his films where few of his colleagues dared venture, he gazed upon these sub-societies with the caliber of observant, all-absorbing gaze that, decades later, would move film scholars to consider him perhaps the most important pioneer of the “long-take aesthetic.” Other directors shot single scenes in single takes before, but he lifted the method to a new level.
Mizoguchi’s particular — and some might say peculiar — social interests combined with the intensity of his cinematic sensibility made him something of a Japanese Stanley Kubrick back when Kubrick himself was still dodging his elementary-school homework. Called a “monument to impatience” by Japanese film authority Donald Richie and well known for demanding scores upon scores of takes after seemingly endless time spent in rehearsal — these often inflicted on his long-suffering actresses meant to portray his signature self-sacrificing women — he also took a relatively early and almost harshly decisive stance for perfectionism in cinema. Given the long life and undiminished vitality his pictures have enjoyed through the decades across all national borders, who could say it wasn’t worth it?
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