Tribute to Kenji Mizoguchi 

He died more than sixty years ago, but the Japanese director Mizoguchi Kenji (1898–1956) is still a towering figure in film history. Thanks to restorations and DVD/blu-ray releases a new generation has discovered what made him great, and books and retrospectives have kept his reputation high. But he worked in a culture that prides itself on being “different,” so there’s always room for fresh looks at his life and achievements. This selection of ten of his finest films spans much of his career and allows viewers to discover how his style evolved and his themes grew richer. Anyone coming to these films for the first time can expect one of the great experiences that cinema has to offer.


Like many filmmakers of the pioneering generation – John Ford or Raoul Walsh, for example – he stumbled into the nascent film industry more or less by accident and learned his craft on the job. He’d been denied a secondary education by his hated father, a carpenter who had bankrupted the family through an ill-judged venture to supply the troops during the Russo-Japanese War, and so he read voraciously – including some Western fiction in translation – and took a course in painting and a job in lay-out design. In his adolescence he was greatly supported by his elder sister Suzu, who’d been sold as a geisha by their father but who married a viscount; the motif of a woman sacrificing her own happiness to help an impoverished man recurs throughout Mizoguchi’s work. Through a musician friend he met directors and actors at Nikkatsu film studios and was taken on by the company as a very menial production assistant in 1920, aged 22.

The film industry in the 1920s was a young man’s world. Films were silent and made very quickly; formulas were strong but not entrenched. Directing up to nine films a year in the social and economic chaos that followed the devastating Kanto earthquake of 1923, Mizoguchi made everything from tragic melodramas to an anti-Chinese satire, from an Arsène Lupin mystery to an experiment with expressionism. He also made several “proletarian” dramas, probably less from deep Marxist convictions than from his constant need to challenge authority figures. By the end of the decade, though, he was turning his back on modernist styles and gravitating towards historical dramas, often inflected with the spirit of romantic tragedy found in stage melodramas of the time. Angry social protest resurfaced in his work in the mid-1930s and the years after WWII, but as he settled into middle age he concentrated more on film aesthetics and was driven by a search for “perfection.” In his final years he alternated elegiac historical dramas and films about the moral and emotional problems of women set in the present day.

On our way to what Mizoguchi meant by perfection, let’s examine some of the key tenets of his reputation. These are the clichés that come up time and again when the director is discussed: his “feminism,” his tyrannical behaviour on set, and his dedication to long takes and sequence shots.

Was Mizoguchi a feminist? Most Japanese critics would say he was, because the Japanese concept of feminism is in essence a concern for the sufferings of women rather than an assertion of female/male equality or a struggle for women’s rights. Mizoguchi was robustly heterosexual and he took a non-moralistic view (usual in Japan) of prostitution. His own relationships with women were never straightforward. An incident in 1925 brought him notoriety in the newspapers: he was cohabiting with a prostitute who one evening furiously attacked him with a cut-throat razor. He was left with life-long scars across his back, but the episode didn’t stop him from pursuing the woman and trying to resume their liaison, which ended only when he married a dance-hall girl in 1926. Some fifteen years later there was more scandal-sheet gossip about Mizoguchi’s infatuation with his favourite actress Tanaka Kinuyo, but in his capacity as chair of the Directors’ Guild it was Mizoguchi who tried to prevent Tanaka from becoming a director in her own right.

The off-screen contradictions in Mizoguchi’s life suggest that his feminism was as unstable and compromised as his earlier leftism. But it’s a fact that much of his work is imbued with a piercing empathy with victimised and exploited women, and that at least five of his films – Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both 1936), Victory of Women (1946), Women of the Night (1948) and My Love Has Been Burning (1949) – go way beyond empathy to far more militant attacks on the oppression of women. The two 1936 films secured Mizoguchi’s critical reputation in Japan; if they’d been seen in the West at the time, they might well have short-circuited much Western thinking about women’s issues.

Was Mizoguchi a tyrant on set? There are countless anecdotes about his intransigence in matters of performance and set-decoration, and plenty of actors have testified to the hard times they endured during his shoots. I suspect that some of his reported behaviour was related to a lingering personal insecurity about his lack of higher education: after a rivalry with the highly intellectual Murata Minoru in the early 1920s, Mizoguchi was intent on establishing himself as at least the equal of better-educated contemporaries. But he was also modelling himself on one his heroes, the Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg, often noted as the most demanding talent at Paramount. Mizoguchi spoke of his admiration for Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) in particular, and was delighted to meet the director during his visit to Japan in 1936.

And was Mizoguchi’s style defined by long takes and sequence shots? As someone who learned the grammar of silent film, he knew the value of close-ups and of montage. But in the talkie era he came to feel that his actors – and the emotional pull of the film as a whole – could be better served by avoiding editing whenever possible. From the mid-1930s onwards the average shot in his films became noticeably longer and he began experimenting with shooting entire scenes without a cut. This new aesthetic approach peaked in his 1939 film Tale of the Late Chrysanthemums, where his mise en scène is strikingly different from other Japanese films of the time (although that film includes three scenes on the kabuki theatre stage which are shot and edited very differently). But this was never an approach that he pursued as doggedly as, say, Jancsó later did in Hungary. The later films integrate long takes and occasional sequence shots into a mise en scène which is skilfully balanced between the needs of the actors and the imperatives of storytelling.

Some of Mizoguchi’s best films are set in the Meiji era (1868-1912), which saw not only the restoration of imperial rule but also the opening-up of Japan to the outside world, and his perfectionism was often a matter of recreating that time with scrupulous accuracy. But his greatest insights were into the vagaries of human relationships – whether romantic, economic or constrained by gender and class. As much as any other great director, and more than most, he remains a filmmaker who put the full resources of his medium to use to lay bare human truths.

Tony Rayns


Ai ni yomigaeru hi / Ai ni jomigaeru hi / The Resurrection of Love, 1922

Kantô / Kantó / Kanto, 1923 (short documentary)

Kokyô (Furusato) / Kokjó (Furusato) / Home Town, 1923

Seishun no yumeji / Seišun no jumedži / Dreams of Youth, 1923

Jôen no chimata / Džóen no čimata / City of Desire, 1923

Haizan no uta wa kanashi / Haizan no uta wa kanaši / Failure’s Song Is Sad, 1923

Hachi ichi san (Rupimono) / Hači iči san / The Adventures of Arsène Lupin, 1923

Kiri no minato / Kiri no minato / Foggy Harbour, 1923

Haikyo no naka / Haikjo no naka / Among the Ruins, 1923

Yorû / Jorú / The Night, 1923

Chî to reî / Čí to reí / Blood and Soul, 1923

Toge no uta / Toge no uta / The Song of the Mountain Pass, 1923

Kanashiki hakuchi / Kanašiki hakuči / The Sad Idiot, 1924

Akatsuki no shi / Akacuki no ši / Death at Dawn, 1924

Gendai no joô / Gendai no džoó / The Queen of Modern Times, 1924

Josei wa tsuyoshi / Džosei wa cujoši / Women Are Strong, 1924

Jinkyô / Džinkjó / This Dusty World / Tenhle ubohý svět, 1924

Shichimenchô no yukue / Šičimenčó no jukue / Turkeys in a Row, 1924

Samidare sôshi / Samidare sóši / A Chronicle of May Rain, 1924

Koi o tatsu ono / Koi o tacu ono / The Axe That Severed Love, 1924 (co-dir. Kiyomatsu Hosoyama)

Kanraku no onna / Kanraku no onna / A Woman of Pleasure, 1924

Kyokubadan no joô / Kjokubadan no džoó / Queen of the Circus, 1924

Itô junsa no shi / Itó džunsa no ši / The Death of Officer Ito, 1924 (co-dir. Kensaku Suzuki, Iyokichi Konda)

 tokumukan Kantô / Á tokumukan Kantó / Oh, the Special Duty Boat Kanto, 1925 (co-dir. Wakayama Osuma, Kensaku Suzuki)

Musen fusen / Musen fusen / No Money, No Fight, 1925

Gakuso o idete / Gakuso o idete / Out of College, 1925

Daichi wa hohoemu / Daiči wa hohoemu / The Earth Smiles, 1925

Shirayuri wa nageku / Širajuri wa nageku / The White Lily Laments, 1925

Akai yûhi ni terasarete / Akai júhi ni terasarete / Shining in the Red Sunset, 1925

Gaijô no sukechi / Gaidžó no sukeči / Street Scenes, 1925

Ningen / Ningen / The Human Being, 1925

Furusato no uta / Furusato no uta / The Song of Home, 1925

Nogi taishô to Kuma-san (Nogi shôgun to Kuma-san) / General Nogi and Kuma-san, 1925

Dôka-ô / Dóka-ó / The Copper Coin King, 1926 (medium-length)

Kami-ningyô haru no sasayaki / Kami-ningjó haru no sasajaki / A Paper Doll’s Whisper of Spring, 1926

Shin ono ga tsumi / Šin ono ga cumi / My Fault, new version, 1926

Kyôren no onna shishô / Kjóren no onna šišó / The Passion of a Woman Teacher, 1926

Kaikoku danji / Kaikoku dandži / The Boy of the Sea, 1926

Kane / Kane / Money, 1926

Kô-on / Kó-on / The Imperial Grace, 1927

Jihi shinchô / Džihi šinčó / The Cuckoo, 1927 (short)

Hito no isshô / Hito no isšó / A Man’s Life, 1928

Musume kawaiya / Musume kawaija / My Lovely Daughter, 1928

Nihonbashi / Nihonbaši / The Nihon Bridge, 1929

Asahi wa kagayaku / Asahi wa kagajaku / The Morning Sun Shines, 1929 (short)

Tôkyô kôshinkyoku / Tókjó kóšinkjoku / Tokyo March, 1929

Tokai kôkyôgaku / Tokai kókjógaku / Metropolitan Symphony, 1929

Furusato / Furusato / Home Town, 1930

Tôjin Okichi / Tódžin Okiči / Mistress of a Foreigner, 1930

Shikamo karera wa yuku / Šikamo karera wa juku / And Yet They Go, 1931

Toki no ujigami / Toki no udžigami / The Man of the Moment, 1932

Manmô kenkoku no reimei / Manmó kenkoku no reimei / The Dawn of Manchukuo and Mongolia, 1932

Taki no Shiraito / Taki no Širaito / Taki no Shiraito, the Water Magician, 1933

Gion matsuri / Gion macuri / Gion Festival, 1933

Jinpû-ren / Džinpú-ren / The Jinpu Group, 1933

Aizô tôge / Aizó tóge / The Mountain Pass of Love and Hate, 1934

Orizuru Osen / Orizuru Osen / The Downfall of Osen, 1934

Maria no Oyuki / Maria no Ojuki / Oyuki the Madonna, 1935

Gubijinsô / Gubidžinsó / Poppy, 1935

Naniwa erejî / Naniwa eredží / Osaka Elegy, 1936

Gion no shimai / Gion no šimai / Sisters of the Gion, 1936

Aien kyô / Aien kjó / The Straits of Love and Hate, 1937

Roei no uta / Roei no uta / The Song of the Camp, 1938

Aa kokyô (Aa furusato) / Aa kokjó (Aa furusato) / Ah, My Home Town, 1938

Zangiku monogatari / Zangiku monogatari / The Tale of the Late Chrysanthemums, 1939

Naniwa onna / Naniwa onna / The Woman of Osaka, 1940

Geidô ichidai otoko / Geidó ičidai otoko / The Life of an Actor, 1940

Genroku chûshingura I-II / Genroku Čúšingura I-II / The Loyal 47 Ronin I-II, 1942

Danjûrô sandai / Dandžúró sandai / Three Generations of Danjuro, 1944

Miyamoto Musashi / Mijamoto Musaši / Musashi Miyamoto, 1944

Meitô bijomaru / Meitó bidžomaru / The Famous Sword Bijomaru, 1945

Hisshôka / Hisšóka / Victory Song, 1945 (co-dir. Masahirô Makino, Hiroshi Shimizu, Tomotaka Tasaka)

Josei no shôri / Džosei no šóri / Victory of Women, 1946

Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna / Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna / Utamaro and His Five Women, 1946

Joyû Sumako no koi / Džojú Sumako no koi / The Love of Sumako the Actress, 1947

Yoru no onnatachi / Joru no onnatači / Women of the Night, 1948

Waga koi wa moenu / Waga koi wa moenu / My Love Has Been Burning, 1949

Yuki fujin ezu / Juki fudžin ezu / Portrait of Madame Yuki, 1950

Oyû-sama / Ojú-sama / Miss Oyu, 1951

Musashino fujin / Musašino fudžin / The Lady of Musashino, 1951

Saikaku ichidai onna / Saikaku ičidai onna / The Life of Oharu, 1952

Ugetsu monogatari / Ugecu monogatari / Tales of the Moon and the Rain, 1953

Gion bayashi / Gion bajaši / Gion Festival Music, 1953

Sanshô dayû / Sanšó dajú / Sansho, the Bailiff, 1954

Uwasa no onna / Uwasa no onna / The Woman of the Rumor, 1954

Chikamatsu monogatari / Čikamacu monogatari / A Story from Chikamatsu, 1954

Yôkihi / Jókihi / Empress Yank Kwei Fei, 1955

Shin Heike monogatari / Šin Heike monogatari / New Tales of the Taira Clan, 1955

Akasen chitai / Akasen čitai / Street of Shame, 1956

  • The Downfall of Osen Osenina zkáza / Orizuru Osen
    Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
    Japan, 1934, 78 min

    A maid named Osen prostitutes herself to support messenger Sokichi’s education. In later life he’s a prosperous doctor who has forgotten his benefactor, until one night on a rain-swept station platform… This deeply poignant love-tragedy has the richly expressive visuals of a late silent movie and a daringly convoluted flashback structure.

  • Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director Život filmového režiséra / Aru eiga-kantoku no shogai
    Directed by: Kaneto Shindo
    Japan, 1975, 132 min

    This documentary (shot over two years) recounts the master’s life and career across some 36 interviews with actors, producers and crew members from the films. It describes the trajectory of Mizoguchi’s long career clearly and accurately, and provides a lot of anecdotal testimony about his aims and working methods.

  • The Life of Oharu Život milostnice Oharu / Saikaku ichidai onna
    Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
    Japan, 1952, 137 min

    A 17th-century story cycle unified into the tale of Oharu’s decline from lady-in-waiting to common prostitute. The film balances sympathy for Oharu with a broader, Buddhist perspective, which sees sexual pleasures and social injustices alike as aspects of the evanescent material world. The stately pace and exquisitely controlled images and sounds won Mizoguchi a Venice prize, launching his reputation in the West.

  • Miss Oyu Slečna Oju / Oyû-sama
    Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
    Japan, 1951, 95 min

    Oyu is a young widow with a child, flattered by attention from Shinnosuke but unable to marry him because social propriety dictates that she should remain faithful to her late husband. So Shinnosuke seeks out and marries Oyu’s sister Oshizu instead and the three begin living together. The scandalous ménage à trois of Tanizaki’s celebrated novel Ashikari brings a certain wit to its account of the emotional manoeuvring between the three main characters.

  • My Love Has Been Burning Plameny mé lásky / Waga koi wa moenu
    Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
    Japan, 1949, 84 min

    Inspired by the autobiography of Kageyama Hideko, a late 19th-century feminist pioneer, the picture follows a young woman who rebels against her parents and begins to work for a fledgling political party in Tokyo. There are scenes of astonishing violence but the film’s real power lies in its political analysis and fiery performances.

  • New Tales of the Taira Clan Nový příběh rodu Taira / Shin Heike monogatari
    Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
    Japan, 1955, 108 min

    A young samurai rises to power in the 12th-century struggles between land-owning nobles and the Buddhist clergy – only to be undone by his own arrogance and vanity. The control of colour and design (scrupulously researched, as usual) and vivid performances from a large ensemble cast make sense of the complicated historiography.

  • Osaka Elegy Ósacká elegie / Naniwa ereji
    Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
    Japan, 1936, 71 min

    Ayako, a company telephone operator, needs to cover her father’s drinking bills and her brother’s school fees, although neither thanks her for her efforts. She pins her hopes on eloping with her fiancé. The film marked the start of a lifelong collaboration with screenwriter Yoda Yoshikata and made Mizoguchi the most famous director in Japan.

  • Sansho, the Bailiff Správce Sanšó / Sanshô dayû
    Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
    Japan, 1954, 125 min

    The wife, son and daughter of an exiled provincial governor are seized by slave traders. The mother Tamaki is sent to Sado Island, while the children are indentured in a work camp run by the cruel bailiff Sansho. The son Zushio submits to the harsh regime, but his sister Anju refuses; when they reach adolescence, she succeeds in persuading him to escape. But righting past wrongs proves severely challenging.

  • Street of Shame Ulice hanby / Akasen chitai
    Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
    Japan, 1956, 85 min

    In a series of interwoven storylines, the film explores the lives of the women who work in a brothel, from the mother who’s trying to support her child and sick husband and the man-eater who’s looking for a rich husband, to the young novice who’s terrified by the prospect of selling herself. The film’s up-to-date sociology is underlined by the electronic score from modernist composer Mayuzumi Toshiro, providing a tonality that’s new in Mizoguchi’s work.

  • The Tale of the Late Chrysanthemums Příběh odkvetlých chryzantém / Zangiku monogatari
    Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
    Japan, 1939, 142 min

    Kikunosuke is expelled from the Onoe family of kabuki stars and only the maid Otoku supports him while he joins a traveling theatre group. But by the time he’s ready to return to Osaka, she has sacrificed her own health… Based on fact, the story is a sublime meditation on artistry and the space between performance and life.

  • Tales of the Moon and the Rain Povídky o bledé luně po dešti / Ugetsu monogatari
    Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
    Japan, 1953, 96 min

    Rural potters Genjuro and Tobei set off to Kyoto to sell their wares, unaware that their village has been sacked by marauding samurai. Heading home, their paths diverge and, as events take their course, both men receive salutary shocks. Simple human values come up against transient follies and vanities, to supremely moving effect.


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