Kenji Mizoguchi is the most revered of the classic triumvirate of Japanese directors—better than Akira Kurosawa, though samurai fans and those with short memories may pout, and more interesting than Yasujiro Ozu (who had a retrospective at Northwest Film Forum last year), though Ozu had a comic streak and a respect for domesticity that Mizoguchi lacked. Mizoguchi's films (the fraction of his output that has survived, anyway) are tragic, brutal, and gorgeous. They frequently tumble toward melodrama, but only to drive at a point—and that point is almost without exception the oppression of women. Famously ambivalent in his personal life (he's said to have broken up with his muse, the great actress Kinuyo Tanaka, around the time she became the first Japanese woman to direct a film in 1953), his films are unequivocally feminist. They're also despairing about the possibility of social change.
Northwest Film Forum is kicking off its series on the director with Ugetsu, an uncharacteristic film from late in his career. The programming is a little sloppy: The schedule isn't chronological or thematic, and it lacks some newly available prints from the series organized last summer by Cinematheque Ontario.
Ugetsu (1953) is, nonetheless, the pinnacle of Mizoguchi's achievement, so it's a good thing it's getting a weeklong run. A cautionary tale about war profiteering and sexy lady ghosts, the script is based on an 18th-century story by Akinari Ueda, with some echoes of Guy de Maupassant's "How He Got the Legion of Honor." During a civil war, two men want more than what their village and wives can offer them. One aspires to become a famous samurai; the other wants to be known for his pottery. Worldly temptation leads them both into dangerous waters, but the antic puffery of the wannabe samurai has nothing on the potter, whose thirst for flattery pushes him into the arms of a phantom seductress. The cinematography is exquisite, and the keening score will send shivers down your back, but these pleasures are battered by the tragedies that befall the abandoned wives. Even if you've seen the DVD, you'll want to experience Ugetsu as it was meant to be seen: on a silvery print floating like a vision on a theater screen.
Most of the rest of the series is currently available only on inferior-quality VHS or non–Region 1 DVD. Sansho the Bailiff (1954)—which plays Monday, January 29, and Tuesday, January 30—stars Tanaka as a mother who takes her children across the countryside to visit their exiled father, only to see them snatched up by slave traders. It's easy to read details from Mizoguchi's biography into the story of children longing to be reunited with a beloved mother, but the film is equally fascinating for its conception of a medieval Japan where the imperial governors had no control over private property and humanitarian reform was as likely to ignite chaos as it was to spread freedom.
Many of Mizoguchi's films deal with prostitution and the travails of life as a geisha. The theme is represented in this series by The Life of Oharu (1952), which describes the descent of a woman from court lady to unhappy daughter to exalted concubine to cast-off shell of a baby machine to geisha and beggar and worse. It's the inverse of Moll Flanders, and it is relentless. Utamaro and His Five Women (1946) is about an artist who wants to paint geisha (only slightly lighter in tone); Street of Shame (1956), Mizoguchi's final film, is a tough movie about prostitutes in contemporary Japan; and Sisters of the Gion (1936) is an argument movie pitting a conservative, dependent geisha against her feisty, man-hating sister (doesn't end well). Wrapping up the series at the end of February is the lovely The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), about a privileged but untalented kabuki actor who falls for his family's servant, then achieves success at her expense.
He triumphs. She doesn't. That's pure Mizoguchi.