Kenji Mizoguchi

If you would do a poll on the greatest Japanese directors most people would usually site Akira Kurosawa as number one and Yasujiro Ozu as number two. Kenji Mizoguchi usually ends up at number three and is less discussed in film circles. It’s unfortunate that Mizoguchi isn’t as known in the west as Kurosawa and Ozu because his films are just as important, poetic and say as much about Japanese culture then the other two filmmakers. Mizoguchi was loved by the French critics of Cahiers du cinema, describing him as not only the greatest of Japanese masters but high in the ranks of the filmmakers who have ever practiced the art. Director Jean-Luc Godard declared him as “The greatest of Japanese filmmakers,” and French critic Jean Douchet stated, “Kenji Mitzoguchi: Like Bach, Titian, and Shakespeare, is the greatest in his art.” Mizoguchi began his career in the silent era and had various early successes throughout the 30’s and 40’s with Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939) and The 47 Ronin (1941). It was in the 50’s where Mizoguchi, working under the Daiei production company, began making most of his cinematic masterpieces including The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and Street of Shame (1956). Mizoguchi had his own personal themes that he continuously focused on in his work which included poverty, greed, morality, redemption and a women’s place in Japanese society. He is known for the elegance of his compositions, the tact of his camera movement, and of his famous ‘one scene, one shot’ theory. His style avoids close-ups and instead links the characters to their environment which creates tension and psychological density. Ozu had a similar technique in his films but the difference with Ozu was that he never moved his camera, unlike Mizoguchi which was a more fluid poetic style. Some critics have questioned Mizoguchi’s feminism, as many have speculated that he harbored feelings of guilt regarding women and sought their forgiveness through the messages of his films. However that may be, he was a critic of male hierarchy and Japanese society, whose wrongs were for him most evident in the wrongs done to women. Mizoguchi made the subject of prostitution into a frequent theme throughout his work and it has been claimed that The Life of Oharu was one of Mizoguchi’s favorite projects, probably because it drew from roots in his own life. Mizoguchi was known to frequent brothels, not simply to purchase favors, but to socialize with their workers. These brothels made a great impression on the director, and that even his own sister Suzo, who raised him, was ultimately sold by their father as a geisha, which frightfully mirrors the tragic fate of the main protagonist in the film.

Kenji Mizoguchi
Kenji Mizoguchi Featured Films
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Articles and Essays on Kenji Mizoguchi

Life of Oharu, The (1952)

The film begins on a chill dawn in the dark outskirts of Kyoto, while the heroine named Oharu, her face hidden behind a fan, encounters some of her fellow prostitutes. “It’s hard for 50-year-old women to pass as 20,” she observes. The women ultimately find a friend who has built a fire, and huddle around […]


Ugetsu (1953)

“Akinari Ueda’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain continues to enchant modern readers with its mysterious fantasies. This film is a new refashioning of those fantasies.” Legendary Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpiece Ugetsu is the greatest of all ghost stories and is a cautionary tale on two characters who are consumed by greed and envy. At a violent […]


Reuniting with Mother



Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

“An era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings, it has been retold by the people for centuries and it is treasured today as one of the world’s great folk tales full of grief…” Sansho the Bailiff is the greatest of all Japanese films, and is one of the most tragic and emotionally shattering […]