Film: Darkness on the razor's edge

The National Film Theatre is mounting a rare retrospective of the work of the Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, whose extreme life experiences shaped his ruthless working methods as well as his supreme artistry. Chris Darke assesses the master's work.

Of all the stories told about the great Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956), the most surprising concerns his behaviour in the bath-house. Mizoguchi always wore an undershirt while washing. He did so to conceal his scars. In 1925, he had been attacked by a jealous young geisha, who slit his back open with a razor. The incident not only made him reluctant to bare his own body; according to his colleague Asaka Koji (who witnessed the attack), it also changed his attitude towards his work. Afterwards, Mizoguchi's attention became single-mindedly, almost obsessively, concentrated on women.

It comes as a shock to learn that a film-maker who is renowned for the sensitive way in which he told stories about female suffering in feudal, patriarchal Japanese society, himself drove a woman to an act of violence.

Of the 80 or so films which Mizoguchi made, the great majority feature women protagonists. The Life of Oharu (1952), which won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and first brought its director to the attention of Western audiences, is typical of his work. The story unfolds in flashback, with Oharu, a wizened old prostitute, reminded of her lover from years before by the face on a statue of a Buddha. We see her as a proud, beautiful young woman who is gradually stripped of her pride, and reduced to the level at which she can be bartered for, like a fish on the chopping-board.

Mizoguchi's style famously relied on long takes. He rarely used close- ups or quick cutting, preferring to look at his characters from a discreet distance. Though he admired some Western film-makers and in a rare interview, talked enthusiastically about sneaking into a screening of Chaplin's The Woman of Paris (1923), his work was more influenced by Noh theatre, Japanese painting and printmaking, Marxism and even Buddhism than by Hollywood or European cinema. Still, whatever its inspiration, Oharu's work is as accessible and as moving as any Douglas Sirk melodrama.

Again and again in his films, there are hints that Mizoguchi's preoccupations have their roots in his own youthful experiences. He grew up in poverty; saw his own sister sold to be a geisha, and left school at an early age to work in a menial job in a hospital. His last film, Street of Shame (1956), reveals that he knew only too well how easily economic desperation drives even respectable, hard-working characters to shame themselves. The film is a study of a group of prostitutes in Tokyo's red-light district. As the story unfolds, radio broadcasts, snatches of conversation and newspaper headlines reveal that the parliament is debating anti-prostitution legislation. The businessman who runs the brothel opposes the changes. If the law is passed, he argues, they will all be without work or money. This may be true, but it doesn't lessen the humiliations that the women endure daily, or the money that they make for their boss. Once sold into prostitution (often for trifling sums) they are tied into their profession. "You can wipe away the rouge but not the stain of your trade," a woman is told when she runs away to marry. Sure enough, she soon returns.

It is hard to think of a more unremittingly pessimistic film. Whether the grotesque scene in which a young daughter offers herself to her hypocritical father, who is more concerned with the social stigma she has brought upon him than with her suffering, or the heart-rending encounter between a mother and the adult son who rejects her because of her profession, Street of Shame consists almost exclusively of bleak moments. Mizoguchi doesn't even attempt to make the prostitutes sympathetic. Caught in a fight for survival, they are every bit as deceitful, selfish and venal as their customers. There is a strange mismatch between the grim subject matter and the exquisite craftsmanship with which it is treated. The final shot - one of Mizoguchi's rare close-ups - showing a terrified young girl as she prepares to meet her first male customer, is as bleak a coda to the director's career as anyone could imagine.

In his working methods, Mizoguchi was, to put it bluntly, tyrannical. In an 80-page monograph which accompanies the forthcoming season at the NFT, there are - alongside the usual impenetrable academic essays - interviews with some of his actors, scriptwriters and assistant directors. The master, it seemed, never told them what they were doing wrong. He just insisted they do it again ... and again ... and again. As the scriptwriter Yoda Yoshikata, who worked with him many times, recalls of his experiences with the 1936 film, Osaka Elegy, Mizoguchi tried to squeeze him dry.

"I cringed at the flat note in his voice when he asked me what I intended to do about this or that point," Yoda remembers. "He really wore me down, until I actually wondered whether I would survive." After 10 rewrites, Yoda had written more than 2,000 pages, but still Mizoguchi wasn't happy. "If I was really in utter torment, he would order me to write like mad, telling me he was waiting for the revision. Then he'd thumb through those pages and ask me in that dissatisfied tone of voice if this was really the best I could do."

Yamada Isuzu, the actress who starred in Osaka Elegy, confirms that Mizoguchi was a ruthless taskmaster. He used to rehearse the same scene with her again and again, and tried to make her harness the unhappiness she felt in her own life. "He wanted to use all my pent-up emotions."

Amazingly, most of Mizoguchi's associates were prepared to put up with the brutal treatment meted out to them. They knew that he drove himself as hard as he drove them. They all talk of a relentless desire to go farther than before, his passionate and aggressive drive to learn anything new, his loathing of anything fake or contrived.

Lacking formal education, he had to push himself to acquire knowledge that others might have had as a matter of course. He expected his own zeal and eye for detail to be matched by that of his colleagues. As Yoda Yoshikata put it, some say that Mizoguchi was a malicious egomaniac; but they should also realise that they were able to do their best work while under his direction.

Mizoguchi's vindication lies in the films themselves. Titles spanning 30 years are showing in the NFT retrospective (which will later be touring to the regional film theatres). Anybody who remembers that eerily beautiful scene in Ugetsu Monogatari in which the husband returns to his home village, unaware that his wife his died in his absence, or that image of Oharu walking forlornly across the landscape, will know already that he is a master. He continues to be revered by his peers. Tarkovsky called him one of those exalted figures who soar above the earth. Godard, praising his creative nobility, claimed that poetry was manifest in each second, each shot filmed by him. Even Kurosawa bowed down before him.

Sadly, despite the high regard in which he is held by film-makers and critics, Mizoguchi's work is all too seldom seen on British screens. The current season ought at least to alert a few audiences to what they have been missing.

Mizoguchi's films will be shown at the NFT from 3 to 27 February (0171- 928 3232)

Master works

Osaka Elegy (1936) The first film written for Mizoguchi by Yoshikati Yoda, who went on to script many of his best known works. Boasts a bravura performance by Isuzu Yamada as yet another of Mizoguchi's tormented heroines, a telephone operator forced into prostitution to provide for her family.

Sisters of Gion (1936) A companion piece to Osaka Elegy and, some believe, an even greater film. Again, this is a story of women reduced to prostitution. Two geishas, supposedly musicians, eke out a living in Kyoto's Gion entertainment district.

The Life of Oharu (1952) The film that introduced Mizoguchi to Western audiences, a heart-rending tale of a woman in 17th-century Japan who loses the man she loves, is shamed, forced into exile, separated from her son, and eventually - surprise, surprise - forced into prostitution.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) A masterly epic from late in Mizoguchi's career. War looms, but a village potter is so keen to sell his wares in the city that he fails to provide for his family. Separated from his wife, he begins an affair with a wraith-like princess. Years later he returns home, unaware of tragic happenings in his absence.

Geoffrey Macnab

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