Unconventional Japan

This Friday marks the beginning of a run of films by Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. Mizoguchi, while perhaps less well known than a director such as Akira Kurosawa, has been widely hailed as one of Japan’s greatest directors.

This Friday marks the beginning of a run of films by Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. Mizoguchi, while perhaps less well known than a director such as Akira Kurosawa, has been widely hailed as one of Japan’s greatest directors.

Where Kurosawa’s films would influence filmmakers such as Sergio Leone, and thus the entire western genre, Mizoguchi’s films were embraced by the directors of the French New Wave. These directors borrowed heavily from Mizoguchi’s distinctive aesthetics. But the measure of a filmmaker is hardly limited to their influence, and Mizoguchi’s films stand, regardless of critical hype and awards (of which he had plenty), as some of the most visually artful films ever.

Both in this sense and thematically, Mizoguchi was unconventional for his time in the hyper-nationalistic, prewar Japan of the 1930s. In this environment, he began to explore the themes that would come to define his career; namely, that of women’s role in his society. As a young man, financial problems motivated Mizoguchi’s father to sell the young boy’s sister as a geisha. This would come to have a profound effect on Mizoguchi’s empathetic portrayal of women. Many of his films deal with the hardships faced by women, often geisha, casting them as exploited by society and oppressed, yet still exhibiting remarkable strength, sacrifice and nobility. Not only was this kind of attitude uncommon in film, but the aesthetic constructions of Mizoguchi’s films themselves are forward-looking, not to mention exquisite and uniquely Japanese. Action in his films occur in long takes, framed by horizontals and rectangular shapes, inside which the camera acts as a spectator to the action. Possessed of an avid distaste for close-ups, Mizoguchi wastes no motion, and doesn’t insert a single wasted cut. In today’s cut-happy film world, this kind of visual style forces the viewer to pay attention closely to the subtleties of scene and layout, which is when Mizoguchi’s aesthetic muscularly asserts its linear beauty. These are no art films; rather, they are films that are art, executed with a painterly feel for composition that is without equal.

Sisters of Gion

Whitsell AuditoriumMay 11 and 13 7 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Sisters of Gion is one of Mizoguchi’s earlier works. The story follows two sisters, both geisha, who live in Kyoto’s red light district, Gion. The two have opposite ideas about men, with the younger seeing all interactions with them as a kind of warfare. The elder is of a more traditional bent, going at her relationships with a sense of obligation and duty that her sister resents. Eventually, the younger’s wheeling, dealing and conning of men lands her in the hospital, and the older’s devotion to a flaky, penniless man sees her alone. Of the films showing, this perhaps is the clearest expression of Mizoguchi’s perception of the cruelty of Japanese society towards women. No matter which way the sisters turn, because they are Geisha they cannot free themselves from the destructive attention of men. This theme is portrayed with a detached yet sympathetic style that favors neither sister’s perspective, but allows both to play out unmolested. Although its realistic portrayal of the lot of geisha at the time earned it censorship from Japan’s prewar government, later judges were more favorable and granted it the Kinema Jumpo award, Japan’s most prestigious film honor.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum

Whitsell AuditoriumMay 11 and 128:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

The Last Chrysanthemum is the tale of Kikunosuke, the youngest son of a prestigious family of Kabuki actors. After falling in love with a lowly maid, he is disowned and flees Tokyo in shame. His lover Otoku accompanies him to the provinces, where he painstakingly acts his way up from the bottom. Otoku’s hard work at various menial jobs and self-sacrifice, per Mizoguchi’s usual themes, help Kikunosuke reach the pinnacle of his craft. Thus he is able to again prove his worth to his family. While naturally exploring Otoku’s contributions and the suffering she endures, this film also brings Mizoguchi’s eye to bear on the dynamics of the traditional Japanese family and society. The restrictions these institutions placed on the freedom of individuals, especially artists, would emerge as another of Mizoguchi’s favored themes in later films. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, in its long-distance, long-duration shots of kabuki performances and personal drama alike, shows the maturation of Mizoguchi’s visual style even from a year earlier.

Utamaro and His Five WomenWhitsell AuditoriumMay 13 7:00 p.m.

Utamaro and His Five Women is about, naturally, the great woodblock print artist Utamaro and the five women who inspire him. Utamaro, although one of the finest artists of his time, begins attracting unwanted attention due to his loose style and disregard for tradition. After gaining a disciple through a bizarre run-in with a rival art student, Utamaro develops a sort of artist’s block. On top of that, he’s placed under house arrest for a print that insults the local Daimyo. Now, with his hands shackled for 50 days, the five beauties that inspire Utamaro experience a variety of hardships and dramas. Of course, since Utamaro is bound at the hands, he is unable to document any of the happenings. When the cuffs are removed he finds that his inspiration has returned, and then some. This film takes the theme of societal convention versus the individual, especially the artist, that is found in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum and develops it even further. Mizoguchi’s female sacrifice is present but almost secondary, in that they serve to inspire Utamaro rather than being the meat of the story themselves. In this sense, the film can be seen as Mizoguchi’s most autobiographical work.