Obituary: Kazuo Miyagawa

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The Independent Culture
IF EVER a cameraman was the true intellect behind the films he shot, it was Kazuo Miyagawa, an artist almost totally ignored.

He worked for all the great Japanese directors in a new, sensitive, yet revolutionary style. Yet, in Tadao Sato's two-volume history of the Japanese cinema, he receives only fleeting references, name only, with no attempt to define the high quality of his art. Shigehiko Hasumi's almost unreadable work on Yasujiro Ozu devotes several pages to the academic analysis of the striking pictorial effects in Floating Weeds yet never once mentions the creative talent of Miyagawa that made them possible.

Kazuo Miyagawa was born in Kyoto, an ancient capital city whose pre-war refinement had an enduring influence on his cinematography. As a youth, he was a gifted artist in sumi-o Chinese ink painting, whose very subtle tones and shadings of grey illuminated his later work in films. In the black-and-white of the world-famous Rashomon (1950), in which he was the first cameraman to shoot deliberately into the sun, his rich varieties of light and shade actually suggest colour, as classic ink paintings do. The characteristic slow fluid movements of his camera remind us of the force and delicacy of brush-strokes.

In 1926 he graduated from Kyoto Commercial School and was hired by the Kyoto Nikkatsu Studios as apprentice technician, then assistant cameraman. He tried his hand at all types of entertainment, and after moving to Kyoto Daiei Movie Company his work on Hiroshi Inagaki's 1943 film about a rickshaw man, The Life of Matsu the Untamed, won him critical acclaim. It was wartime, and the movie was censored by the authorities. After the defeat, it was again censored by MacArthur's General Headquarters officials in Tokyo. Inagaki was not allowed to finish a remake of it starring Toshiro Mifune until 1958.

Meanwhile, Miyagawa had started working in 1953 for a very great film- maker, Kenji Mizoguchi, whose Ugetsu Monogatari in that year became an enduring classic, followed in 1954 by Sansho Dayu and The Crucified Lovers, based on a drama by the 18th-century playwright Chikamatsu. In 1955 Miyagawa filmed a period spectacle in colour, The Sacrilegious Hero, and in 1956 Street of Shame, Mizoguchi's last work.

Miyagawa then started collaborating with another great film-maker, Kon Ichikawa, in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1958, in colour and wide- screen), based on the novel by Yukio Mishima, followed by other literary features: The Key (1959) based on the Tanizaki novels, and The Broken Commandment (1962), derived from Shimazaki Toson's memorable novel about Japan's outcast people.

In 1965, Miyagawa found fresh filming freedom in using a hand-held camera (as did Ichikawa) to make a fine documentary about the Tokyo Olympics, Tokyo Orinpikku. In this film, Miyagawa's improvisatory camera movements often resemble brush strokes, and allowed him to establish a unique intimacy with both athletes and crowds of spectators.

In his later films, Yasujiro Ozu had the same cameraman in nearly all his works, his devoted follower Yuharu Atsuta. But it was Kazuo Miyagawa who filmed the hauntingly beautiful Floating Weeds (1959). In later years, when the great classic film-makers had passed away, Miyagawa worked on many more commercial movies like the superbly scenographic yakuza and blind swordsman Zatoichi features of Shintaro Katsu.

In the 1980s he started working with a good younger director, Masahiro Shinoda, and long after retirement, at the age of 91 and the end of his life, he was supervising Shinoda's new movie Fukuro no Shiro ("Castle of Owls"), based on the celebrated historical novel by Ryotaro Shiba which won the Aoki Prize in 1959, and is set in ninja country round the birthplace of the haiku poet Matsuo Basho, Iga Uono. It will reach Japanese screens in autumn, and help to gain wider public recognition for Miyagawa's work. In all, he made 130 films.

But he will always be remembered best for his electrifying camera work on Rashomon. Kurosawa in his autobiography Something like an Autobiography (1983) rather grudgingly pays tribute to his cameraman's skills, which brought world-wide attention to the Japanese film industry and won him the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival of 1951.

While Kurosawa was in every way a big man, "the Emperor" of Japanese film, Miyagawa was a small man physically, always neatly dressed in a business suit and bow tie, and it may be that it was his short stature that caused him to be so often overlooked. Even Shinoda made jokes about his having to stand on a box to reach the camera. But he was awarded the Purple Ribbon of Artistic Merit by the Emperor, the Kyoto Cultural Merit Prize and one or two minor tributes like the Unesco Picasso Medal. In 1981, he was honoured with a retrospective screening by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But he has still had no retrospective in Japan.

Kazuo Miyagawa, cinematographer: born Kyoto, Japan 1908; married (two sons, one daughter); died Kyoto 7 August 1999.