When Kaneto Shindo, director of CHILDREN OF HIROSHIMA (1952) and ONIBABA (1964), died at the age of 100 last month, obituaries everywhere acknowledged the debt his films owed to Kenji Mizoguchi. Shindo’s was a humanist cinema that shared many of Mizoguchi’s stylistic trademarks, but it was in his frequent depiction of strong female characters who, in one way or another, eventually set their male counterparts back on the straight and narrow that Mizoguchi’s influence can be most plainly seen. ONIBABA is the story of a woman and her daughter who live in a swamp and make their living by killing passing samurai. Like UGETSU it has the sense of taking place in a kind of dream world or, occasionally, waking nightmare.
Mizoguchi, Kurosawa and Ozu: for three generations it has been difficult for Japanese filmmakers to escape the gravitational pull of their holy trinity. Every emerging talent worth his or her salt has to be referred to as the natural successor of one of the three at some point. Even Kurosawa acknowledged, though, that Mizoguchi was the master of the “jidaigeki”, or period film. Before the war it was a genre that Mizoguchi dabbled in only occasionally and then often under duress: military censorship had become so strict that Mizoguchi was forbidden from making many of his more experimental contemporary films and, according to him, “virtually forced” to make Edo-period historicals like THE LOYAL FORTY-SEVEN RONIN (1941). After the Occupation had ended, however, free to choose his own projects Mizoguchi embraced the genre and would go on to define the style of the postwar jidaigeki. It was not swordfights and samurai that Mizoguchi focussed on: though they did feature, his battle scenes had none of the precisely choreographed sweeping camera movement and fast editing that would characterise Kurosawa’s samurai films. In a sense Mizoguchi was a more old-fashioned filmmaker because he composed his scenes like a painting and had a literary edge that meant he focussed on character more than camera. As Donald Richie said:
To remember Mizoguchi’s films is often to remember a series of beautiful stills: the lovers on the lawn in UGETSU, the couple in the boat in THE STORY OF CHIKAMATSU (a.k.a. THE CRUCIFIED LOVERS)(1954), the aged woman sitting in the sun in THE LIFE OF OHARU (1952), the mother and her children in the forest in SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954).
Like Ozu, Mizoguchi tried to adhere to the principle that “one scene should equal one cut”, although unlike Ozu’s often completely static shots, Mizoguchi’s trademark was gentle, flowing camera movement.
UGETSU MONOGATARI (monogatari meaning “the tale of” and ugetsu “the pale moon obscured by rain clouds”, which is impressive for six letters) was the film that revealed Mizoguchi as a major artist to the West, as RASHOMON had done four years earlier for Kurosawa. It is a ghost story, and a chillingly effective one. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), a potter, and his brother are separated from their wives and families when they are caught between opposing armies in a violent civil war. In town trying to sell the last of his wares, Genjuro is seduced by a beautiful and mysterious noblewoman, Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyo, also “the woman” in RASHOMON). Abandoning all thoughts of his stranded wife, he marries her and lives in blissful happiness for a few precious days (“I never dreamed such pleasures existed”), until one morning he wakes in the open air amidst the ruins of a burnt-down mansion. He has been enchanted; the Lady Wasaka was a ghost. Genjuro returns to his wife who accepts him back. We suspect from the beginning that Wasaka is not of this world so this doesn’t come as much of a surprise: she appears white-faced and cloaked, often hidden by veils, but Mizoguchi manages to wrongfoot the viewer brilliantly with a later twist which I won’t give away here. Is Genjuro’s story a statement by Mizoguchi on the whole process of filmmaking and the search for aesthetic beauty? Lady Wakasa represents the beautiful, the mysterious, the erotic and a life of riches. At one point she apparently shows him one of his own pots, a finely-detailed masterpiece that is completely unlike the rough earthenware shapes we saw him making back in his village. Genjuro gets what he wants only fleetingly, and has to abandon reality to get it.
In a secondary story thread, Genjuro’s brother Tobei has achieved his lifelong desire to become a samurai warrior by stealing the severed head of an executed general and presenting it as his own work to a rival warlord. At long last arriving home triumphant in his new armour, he discovers his wife has been raped by soldiers and is working in a brothel to survive. Mizoguchi weaves these two threads seamlessly, always taking care to avoid easy moralising: no character is without human flaws here.
“Haunting” is a word that would trivially apply to any ghost story, but it applies as much to the composition of images on the screen here as it does to the subject matter. UGETSU is one of those works of arts that seems ancient, like it always existed and was just waiting for someone to come along and pluck it out of the air.