Kenji Mizoguchi | Osaka Elegy | The 47 Ronin | Utamaro and His Five Women | Gion Festival Music / A Geisha

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Kenji Mizoguchi

Kenji Mizoguchi is the greatest of Japanese filmmakers. He has a remarkable visual style. His work was inspired by that of Josef von Sternberg, which emphasized elaborate, complex compositions of great beauty.

Osaka Elegy

Links to The 47 Ronin

Osaka Elegy (1936) shows many features in common with the later 47 Ronin (1941). It is much faster paced than the later film, being only one quarter as long; and is far more gripping dramatically, but it shares many approaches and world views. Both films open with a series of static shots, showing the world empty of people. These shots are of buildings and courtyards. They show walkways, paths where later people will be walking, but which are now completely empty of people. They look completely peaceful. Soon, however, people emerge on them, and nastiness immediately starts, with the characters we see being totally despicable and vicious. There is a misanthropic quality to this: the world is a beautiful place, the film is saying, except for the disgusting human beings in it. There is also a sense of determinism to it: the pathways are the ones which the characters walk everyday. They are the homes of the characters in the film. The nasty behavior of the characters is controlled and channeled by their familiar routine. One senses that, just as the characters' daily physical movements are along these paths, so are the characters' social interactions, feelings and behavior also conditioned to flow along well worn grooves of behavior.

Immediately after this, we see the first humans in person. Their loathsome behavior is both typical of their daily lives, and apparently casual and petty. But it also announces the themes of the films. In Osaka Elegy, we see the rich factory owner being abusive of his women servants. He is pouring out a stream of malice over them; the viewer just wants to reach out and slug him one. This is the theme of men's mistreatment of women that is the subject of the film. In The 47 Ronin, we see the lives of the feudal court, and the struggles of the nobles to one up one another, and gain status at each other's expense. This is a fight to the death, all for the pettiest of rewards, and one that will take the lives of the 47 loyal ronin of the title.

Several scenes in Osaka Elegy and The 47 Ronin show similar techniques. Much of the opening of The 47 Ronin shows the deadly confrontation of two nobles in a corridor of the castle. These recall the confrontation in Osaka Elegy between the factory owner Asai, his wife and his mistress, in the corridor outside the puppet theater. In both stories, the confrontation attracts public attention, and more and more people intervene and get involved. Both of these fights are mainly about struggles for power and social prestige. Both women derive their status from their relationship to Asai, and they are going to fight over it. They are like the feudal nobles in the court of The 47 Ronin, all of whose social standing comes from their position at court. Suggesting that all relations between men and women are the equivalent the social system of a feudal society is a startling position for someone to take. However, the main business of Osaka Elegy is to propose exactly such a view.

Hardly anyone in Osaka Elegy has any real feelings. The heroine tries to help her family, and wants a relationship with her boyfriend, but no one else in the movie has any real feelings strong enough to act on. It is a world colder than death, where there are no true feelings at all. Similarly in The 47 Ronin, only the loyalty of the ronin to their dead master shows any true warmth. (One should also mention the loyal woman who loves one of the ronin.) Everyone else in this world is entirely looking out for number one, in a feudal world dominated by arbitrary, vicious rules.


Several of Mizoguchi's 1930's films recreate traditional theatrical experiences: I thought all of this was fascinating. I do not know enough about this to comment intelligently, in terms of what traditions Mizoguchi was invoking from these worlds, and what kinds of emphasis he brought to it. But getting a chance to see these dramatic forms I had read about was an excellent experience.

Sternberg and An American Tragedy

The visuals of Osaka Elegy are often fascinating. Like all of Mizoguchi's 1930's films, it has a unique look. He did not have one style he applied uniformly to all films, but rather he came up with a different visual approach to each movie. In all films, he stressed elaborate compositions, and camera movement. In this, and other matters, he reveals the influence of Sternberg.

The scene where the father walks along, carrying his fishing pole, reminds one of the early scene in Sternberg's The Last Command (1928), where all the extras, made up as soldiers, carry a rifle with a bayonet. In each case, the figure is carrying a long, tall stick, something the director factors into the screen's composition.

The scenes are the office are original. Like Sternberg, Mizoguchi was able to take a place of business, and stylize its activity so that it turns into a series of elegant, complex visual patterns. These scenes recall the factory in Sternberg's An American Tragedy (1932). Sternberg's factory shows a sense of rhythm, with the slow steady, repeated movements of the factory workers and the cloth forming a rhythmic motif or pulse running through the film. However, in both Sternberg and Mizoguchi's vision, the fact that the business place is reimagined as a complex series of visual imagery does not preclude a detailed look at its business operation. Sternberg's factory is a real place of work, where real young women struggle hard to make product for low wages. And Mizoguchi's office is a place where a working woman cannot even take a break to talk to a colleague, but has to sneak a communication with him over the phone so that her supervisor will not come down on her neck.

Both this Sternberg film, and Mizoguchi's, deal with the sexual harassment of a poor female employee by her boss, and the devastating long term consequences it has on the woman's life. However, the poor girl in Sternberg is more seduced and emotionally manipulated by her handsome but worthless boss, whereas Mizoguchi's heroine is pressured financially by poverty, her rotten family, and ultimately, by the low economic and social status of women in Japanese society. The factory owner in Mizoguchi is such a pig, that one cannot imagine any woman sleeping with him voluntarily under any circumstances other than extreme financial distress and coercion.

Paired Scenes: the Woman's Apartment

Mizoguchi's film has double scenes in it. For example, the opening shots of Osaka buildings return at the end.

There are two scenes in the woman's apartment, the first with her boss, who is keeping her there, the second with her boyfriend, whom she is pleading to marry her. Only on the second scene do we see the apartment as a spatial whole. The earlier scenes shows a beautifully composed series of shots, some including tracking. The apartment looks like a lovely series of geometric shapes, including an impressive circular window. The place is an Art Deco love nest, at once sophisticated, chic, and totally cheap, as befits the back street home of a kept woman. But in these earlier shots, it is impossible to get a sense of the layout of the apartment, how the various rooms and shots interconnect. Later, when her boyfriend visits, we get a very different visual approach to the apartment, with long shots and deep focus scenes that show the geometric layout of the apartment as a whole. One can assign some glib thematic meanings to this: when the heroine is with her keeper, we see the elegant surface of things; when she is with the man she loves, we see the underlying reality in a plain way. However, this is shortchanging a complex visual experience.

One might also note that both scenes begin with the men going up the stairs and along corridors to the apartment, where the heroine is waiting. These two shots are the most elaborate camera movements in the film. Both cover the same territory, and show the hero taking the same path. However, they are full of subtle differences. The young boyfriend moves much faster that the older factory owner. He is sincere about hurrying to see her, whereas the factory owner is simply motivated by his lechery. On a purely technical level, Mizoguchi can stage the second scene faster than the first: the first shot must move slowly, so that the audience can absorb and study the details of the apartment building; while the second shot can proceed swiftly, as the audience is familiar with its terrain. However, there are may other subtle differences of angle and staging.


Osaka Elegy is astonishingly dark. The scenes at the office are supposed to be taking place in the day time; they are murkier than the night scenes in most films. Much of the film is etched in darkness. Whole regions of the screen will be blacked out, with just a streak of light here or there to form a contrast. Many of the screens look as if they have been painted with light: as if someone took a paint brush, and painted a brush stroke of white pigment on a black canvas.

Circles: the Confession Scene

Ayako's confession scene takes place under a semicircle. Such circular lines are fairly rare in pictures. The heroine is standing up right in the center, along a radius of the circle. Both this radius and the heroine's body form a vertical line, bisecting the semicircle. It is a position of honor within the shot. Although the heroine is allegedly confessing to misdeeds, the film's visual style proclaims her as a person of worth and substance. We see the heroine's entire body, standing straight and tall. This reminds one of Sternberg's treatment of Marlene Dietrich: even when the plot is proclaiming her to be a fallen woman, the visuals are suggesting she has transcendental moral value. By contrast, her boyfriend Fujino's body is hunched up, and twisted around. This treatment suggests he is somewhat contemptible, a person lacking substance. There is also a small circular table in the foreground of the shot; its shape echoes the large semicircle of the window. Circles are traditional female symbols, just as straight lines evoke men. The prominent circles here associated with the heroine suggest we are in the presence of a central primacy of women.

Much of the light here falls on two sets of white curtains, extending from the floor to the top of the semicircle. Just as a sensuous experience, these two sets of curtains are dazzling. The photography of Osaka Elegy looks like no other film. Here the curtains look like a very shimmering piece of fabric, and also as a curtain of light. Through the window, we can barely see the lights of Naniwa at night. The lights are shining through the curtains themselves. These lights have been a visual motif throughout the whole film. They open and close the film, and appear also through the window at the department store, when the heroine and her boyfriend are discussing marriage. They partly suggest the false world of corrupt night life which fatally draws in the heroine. But their sheer fragility, of small white lights against an immense darkness, suggest the heroine's attempt to flourish spiritually in a dark world.

Ayako goes into a second room. Here she stands by a circular window: a complete circle this time. We see her from further away than before. The effect is of a priest performing some religious ritual. She looks like a saint, being canonized in a religion of circles. A shaft of light pours on her from one side, like saints in religious pictures.

The 47 Ronin

The 47 Ronin (1941) is a two-part historical drama. It was made long before Mizoguchi's masterpieces of the 1950's, and has a different visual style. Still, it has some remarkable features.

The camera work in several of the scenes is outstanding. They show genuine originality, from a point of view of composition and camera movement. The most important of these scenes are:

Visual Style

The scenes are notable for the sheer number of people in their composition - often 8 or more. These people are often scattered around the frame completely separately. Each seems to move independently, and to be placed independently in the composition. They seem virtually to be filling the points of a compass. Occasionally, as in one of the scenes of Lady Asano at her toilet table at the beginning, the characters are actually spread in a circular pattern, disposed against the rectilinear corner of a room. More often, the effect is of more subtle geometric regularity. The characters seem to move in a complex harmony. Their geometric disposition, and their movements, make up one complete visual pattern that has been pre-planned in the mind of Mizoguchi to make up a harmonious whole. The effect is of the pre-planned monads in the philosophy of Leibnitz, all carefully thought through in advance so that their independent movements work together.

Many of the shots feature people standing up. This recalls such films as Sternberg's The Last Command (1927), which also features vertical figures as the basis of Sternberg's compositions. Sternberg's figures tend to be a little closer together, and to be more overlapping in their placement, while Mizoguchi's are often separated by blank spaces on the screen.

Already at this date, Mizoguchi is favoring the slightly elevated angle. This allows him to include a panoramic composition on the screen. The individual people are never lost in these large panoramas, however. It also shows in precise detail, the floor plan of a room or courtyard, including what is going on on both sides of a courtyard wall, or both sides of a folding screen. These scenes show imagination; the elevated scenes in the Pine Room are especially beautiful. Yet Mizoguchi's technique is less magical here than it will be in the 1950's. One thinks of the overwhelming scenes with the overhead traveling shot in The Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955), where the Emperor and the heroine travel through the bazaar, and it represents them discovering all the joy and visual interest of life.

Subject Matter

Mizoguchi's film is carefully anchored in its historical era, that of the fairly early Tokugawa Shogunate. It is filled with the art of the era: castles in the countryside, and interiors with the large mural wall paintings and folding screens so celebrated in the period. These are perhaps more typical of the Momoyama era of transition, than of the Tokugawa era itself.

This film is choked with militaristic propaganda. It constantly glorifies the idea of revenge, and uses it to encourage World War II era Japanese people to violence and warfare. In many ways it is just a bad movie. It was sponsored by the Japanese government of the era as a primer in traditional samurai values. But the Japanese public didn't like this film, and it was a box office flop. It would be deservedly forgotten today, except for its visual qualities.

In addition, Part II has a long sequence towards its end where a young woman suddenly becomes the center of the drama. This is a welcome change over to the sort of love scenes that Mizoguchi does so well, and here at last, the film turns on its emotional electricity.

Utamaro and His Five Women


The heroes of Utamaro and His Five Women (1946) are artists. This is one of a series of Mizoguchi films, dealing with the struggles of artists with their careers, with society, and their romances with women. These also include The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939) and Ugetsu (1953). Most of these artists are young, talented, but struggling to develop a reputation. They are often members of dysfunctional societies, which come in for social criticism. They often are disapproved of and rejected by their families, due to their career choices. The young men, while protagonists of the films, are not necessarily idealized heroes. They often reject caring decent females in their lives, decisions that end in tragedy. Just as Osaka Elegy is a story of a woman who goes wrong, and whose decisions lead her to a tragic end, so do these male artists' wrong choices also lead to grim finales. Both the woman in Osaka Elegy and the artists are under huge pressures from bad societies, and the director has great sympathy with them. But he also shows that they make wrong choices, and share a personal responsibility as well for their problems.

Utamaro and His Five Women has a highly formal plot structure. Utamaro keeps being overwhelmingly attracted to some woman, who he struggles to get an opportunity to paint. Meanwhile, his hot-heated young follower, Seinosuke, immediately is attracted to the same woman, but starts a real life love affair with her. Utamaro's painting is considered a pleasant, socially harmless activity, and causes no problems, while Seinosuke's romancing makes his life messier and messier. At the end, Seinosuke's actions lead to tragedy, while Utamaro has created a stream of great art. This parallel saga of the two men can be looked at from two perspectives. On the one hand, Utamaro is satirized. He has romantic impulses, but they are entirely sublimated in his art, and he never has any relationship with a woman. There are suggestions that he is a romantic failure, a man who should be using some of the real life passion of Seinosuke. By contrast, Seinosuke is criticized, compared to Utamaro, for lacking control, maturity and common sense. Human beings cannot act out every romantic impulse they have, without their lives degenerating into total chaos, with tragedy for everyone around them.

All of this sounds good on paper. In practice, it seems a bit schematic and uninvolving. It also simply criticizes everyone in the film, without giving us any character we can completely admire. However, Utamaro is the only artist character in Mizoguchi's three films that does not harm anyone. He is much closer to a genuine hero and good person than any of the others.

The finale of Utamaro is much imitated. Films about artists often end with a display of their works.

Visual Style

The most beautiful scene in Utamaro and His Five Women is the opening. Mizoguchi tracks down long processions of people, who seem to be standing in line. These images are strikingly beautiful. The camera is at a 45 degree angle to the line, so each person is seen in a rounded, profile view.

When Utamaro paints the model indoors, the scene is lit at night with a solemn looking candle-light. This recalls equally solemn and somber scenes in The 47 Ronin, towards the end of that film, at the widow's house. These scenes emphasized loyalty to an ideal cause, and to the widow of the murdered liege. There are suggestions that Utamaro's devotion to women's beauty is also an ideal, highly noble calling. Both scenes have a unique quality of melancholy. The feelings of the heroes are symbolized by the light in the darkness, frail but all-important in the world.

One suspects that Mizoguchi lacked a crane while filming Utamaro and His Five Women. There are tracking shots in the ground, but none that zoom through the air. The recreation of the past through large scale sets also seems a bit more low budget here than in other Mizoguchi works.

Gion Festival Music / A Geisha

A Geisha (1954) is a great film. It takes place in three acts:

  1. The training and life of a geisha. Very beautiful and upbeat. The scenes where the geishas move as a group are especially visually inventive and beautiful. They remind one of the scene in Alain Resnais' Stavisky (1974) where the flowers are brought out and spread in a circle. The geishas often move in similar rings, in scenes that are complexly choreographed. Geishas, as the film reminds us, practice an ancient art form. Here Mizoguchi recreates it. Not all is sunny and light here - we also learn about the financial end of the business, and its stresses.
  2. Men put pressure on the geishas to exploit them sexually. The geishas resist. The subject matter of these scenes is much darker. But the visual beauty remains.
  3. The emotional climax. One of the great feminist passages in movies. Like that other great Mizoguchi film, Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954), it centers around a declaration of love.
Mizoguchi's visual style is superb throughout the film, with every scene involving an elaborate composition. It can be compared to Naruse. In Naruse, the visuals often present images of flattened, 2 D space, broken down into rectangular regions that make up beautiful patterns. In this film, by contrast, the street scenes emphasize deep perspectives. These deep, Renaissance perspective images conjure up emotions of a spread to infinity, a sense of passage through space. There is a thrilling quality to the visual style.