The label ‘master filmmaker’ is often overused, but in the case of prolific Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, it is totally justified. Ranked among the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirô Ozu, Mizoguchi had a directing career spanning 33 years and over 50 films, beginning with what he considered his first ‘serious’ effort, Sisters of Goin, in 1936, which is included in this excellent new Artificial Eye collection focusing on his middle period.
Sisters of Goin possesses all the telltale qualities that established Mizoguchi as a great director, especially the long tracking shots filmed on wide angle lenses. Umekichi, a Japanese Geisha, feels obliged to help down-on-his-luck Furusawa who has recently lost his wife after becoming bankrupt. Umekichi’s sister Omocha is outraged by her behaviour, believing that she is behaving foolishly. Deciding that she must act to improve her situation, she schemes to secure her sister’s and her own future, a plan that results in disastrous consequences. A fine film brimming with quality, Sisters of Goin demonstrates some of the early themes that the director became famous for.
Osaka Elegy (1936), made in the same year as Sisters of Goin and using some of the same cast, contains many similar themes to the previous work but in a much-refined manner. Ayako is tired of her economic situation, made worse by her father’s recent bankruptcy, so becomes her employer’s mistress – a plan that results in her ultimate downfall.
Osaka Elegy explores the economic hardships faced by women who are trapped by a male dominated society, and manipulate the men around them in order to make their way out of their circumstances. The story is full of treachery, hardship and injustice, blended together in a gripping story culminating in an incredibly emotive final scene, with a remarkable performance from Isuzu Yamada who plays Ayako.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939) is a majestically shot and emotive film that grips for the entire 142 minutes. The first of the two historical dramas in the collection details the life of a wife who sacrifices her own future for the sake of her husband. It is exemplary of Mizoguchi’s refusal to use close-ups, preferring wide angled shots over long takes. Such a technique imbues the scenes with restrained yet agonising emotion, contained in a twisting and well-constructed plot. A truly remarkable film that is a joy to watch from beginning to end.
The last film, Utamaro and His Five Women (1946), is not only the most autobiographical but also the most enjoyable and remarkable in the collection. Again, a historical drama packed full of complex emotions, it tells the story of a renowned 19th century artist and his many relationships with the women that inspired his work. This film has all the trademarks of a labour of love whereby the challenges the artist faces reflect those of Mizoguchi’s life. Not only do we witness the well established themes of the suffering of women, but we also given an artist whose sole goal is dedication to his art, explored in the context of a rapidly changing Japan moving away from traditional feudal life.
This collection is essential viewing for any fan of Japanese cinema and an opportunity to watch a master at work. The themes of feminism feel incredibly modern, but as well as acting as a sharp critique of Japanese society, all the films in the collection are thoroughly enjoyable stories that will move the hardest of hearts.