Kenji Mizoguchi entered the film world as a promoter of Western novelty in Japanese cinema and exited it as an acclaimed international director who exemplified Japan at its most traditional. After The Life of Oharu and Ugetsu won prizes in successive Venice Film Festivals in the early '50s, Mizoguchi became an icon for the nascent French New Wave. His mastery of mise-en-scène was lauded by Jacques Rivette, while Jean-Luc Godard praised his metaphysics and his stylistic elegance, at the same time deriding Akira Kurosawa as a second-rate talent. Mizoguchi is still recognized as one of the 20th century's greatest filmmakers.
Born in Tokyo, in 1898, Mizoguchi was the middle child of a roofer/carpenter. His family's financial situation went from modest to desperate when his erratic, dreamer father (who was the model for the heroine's father in Osaka Elegy) tried to make a killing by selling raincoats to the military during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). By the time he borrowed the money, set up the factory, and produced the coats, the war was over. Not having enough money for food, Mizoguchi's older sister was put up for adoption at age 14. She was later sold to a geisha house. Mizoguchi himself was taken out of elementary school and apprenticed in a pharmacy in northern Iwate prefecture. Later, he returned to Tokyo and studied painting at the Aohashi Western Painting Research Institute. In 1922, Mizoguchi was hired as an assistant director for Osamu Wakayama at Nikkatsu Studios.
The Japanese film industry was changing rapidly when Mizoguchi entered it, Kabuki-inspired movies of the 1910s were giving way to those inspired by Western films. Mizoguchi, who became a full-fledged director in 1923, quickly showed an enthusiasm for novelty and the West. One of his first films, Blood and Soul, employed the kind of exaggerated sets and makeup seen in such German Expressionist films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; his 1929 Metropolitan Symphony was a highpoint in the leftist tendency film genre. As his style matured, his work underwent an astonishing transformation. This former advocate of the faddish and the radical began creating finely crafted period pieces centered on downtrodden women. To be sure, Mizoguchi's metamorphosis was hastened in no small measure by growing political oppression during the 1930s. One of his few contemporary dramas during this time, Osaka Elegy, was banned by the military government in 1940.
Like Mikio Naruse, Mizoguchi populated his films with marginalized women such as geishas, barmaids, and mistreated housewives. But unlike Naruse's proud, willful heroines who toil for an elusive dignity, Mizoguchi's women selflessly devote themselves to the objects of their love. Characters such as Taki in Taki no Shiraito or Otoku in Story of the Late Chrysanthemums willingly destroy themselves to enable success for their men. The Chinese maid in Empress Yang Kwei Fei molds herself into the king's vision of perfection and then calmly walks to her death to save his life. Mizoguchi's heroines blame no one during their headlong trajectory toward destruction; they seem to transcend the horrors they endure in a manner that is simply not possible in Naruse films.
In his later films, Mizoguchi couched these tragic tales in a quiet lyricism that evoked the impermanence of human life. Like a traditional Chinese scroll painting that depicts unfolding human drama in the midst of an overwhelming landscape, Mizoguchi's camera lingers on the stillness of a natural setting or the passing of a moment, rather than on the machinations of plot. Individual humans seem barely consequential: they work, suffer, love, and die beneath a larger, unchanging order.
In the 1950s, Mizoguchi reached his creative zenith with masterpiece after masterpiece, including The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff, Chikamatsu Monogatari, and Ugetsu, often considered one of the most beautiful films ever made. Mizoguchi died, a devout Buddhist, in 1956.