- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

It’s been exactly a decade since the last major Washington retrospective devoted to the great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956), who excelled at historical evocation, contemplative imagery, the downfalls of wronged women and the incorrigible shortcomings of humans.

In February and March of 1997, the Freer Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art shared a touring, more or less centennial series called “Mizoguchi the Master,” consisting of about two-dozen features. The approaching tribute at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, “Mizoguchi Masterworks,” scales down the number of titles to seven, but this revival also offers most of them at least three times in new 35 mm prints. It also preserves a near-chronological order while joining the theater’s repertory for the next several weeks. So, even if we’re talking of a Mizoguchi sampler on this anniversary, it remains a uniquely formidable and profound sampler.

Approximately half of the Mizoguchi filmography consists of “lost titles.” All but a handful of these derive from his prolific output during the silent period, which lasted until about 1935 in Japan. A promotion from assistant to full director occurred in 1923. Since movies were often made within a week or 10 days when he was young and ambitious, the four dozen or so titles credited to his pre-talkie career may be a significant undercount.

However, the filmmaker himself felt scant regard for much of this backlog. He associated two pivotal talkies of 1936, “Osaka Elegy” and “Sisters of the Gion,” with a thematic and stylistic turning point for his work. The characteristic — and sometimes obsessive — Mizoguchi subject matter dates from these pictures. The latter begins the “Masterworks” series this weekend.

Evidently, Mr. Mizoguchi had tired of period movies at some point before recharging himself with the bleakly contemporary, lovelorn stories of “Elegy” and “Sisters,” which also brought him a trusted screenwriting collaborator, Yoshikata Yoda. He reversed tendencies in a similar respect at the very end of his career, when filming “Street of Shame” (or “Red Light District” in Japan), a sobering account of Tokyo prostitutes in a nominal “teahouse” called Dreamland.

Sardonically set against the backdrop of a parliamentary bill to outlaw prostitution, the film treats reform as an exercise in futility. Only the aspirations of the dishiest deceiver in the house stand a chance of transcending misfortune or delusion. And she’s sort of polemically lucky to get out alive, because a sap of a client tries to murder her. The picture ends with a stunning fadeout, as Dreamland’s newest recruit, an ignorant country girl, is dolled up for her first night on the job but struggles to get in the mood for active solicitation. Half a century later she’d have a vast popular culture clamoring to show her the ropes — and tune in on the results.

There was some autobiographical baggage behind the Mizoguchi preoccupation with twilight heroines. He blamed a profligate father for the early death of his mother and the indenture of an elder sister, Suzuko, to a geisha house. Her relative good fortune — she actually married a fond client — helped subsidize Kenji’s upbringing and schooling. He was destined to survive a razor-slashing from a geisha girlfriend named Yuriko. Later, he committed his first wife to a mental hospital, then took up housekeeping with a sister-in-law on the rebound.

The Criterion Collection’s recent edition of “Ugetsu,” the allegorical ghost story that first put Mr. Mizoguchi on the art-house map in the United States, includes a number of interviews with colleagues compiled for a 1975 biographical chronicle. The Yuriko episode figures in a number of recollections. Evidently, the scar she left became a conversation piece sometimes when he was drinking. A former assistant recalls Mr. Mizoguchi displaying it and confiding, “You can’t understand women if you don’t have one of these.”

It would be imprudent to jump to strictly misogynistic conclusions. There was a decided self-incriminating element for the memoirist. The old wound recalled not only what an enraged woman was capable of but also what a man provoked while consorting with her. Perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising that fictionalized assaults can take perversely distinctive forms in Mizoguchi films. They also tend to shatter facades of social propriety and traditional deference. An awful lot of bowing and scraping in costume can set the stage for acts of violence and despair.

In “Utamaro and His Five Women,” violence is even linked to artistic inspiration. A vengeful courtesan pursues a faithless patron and his new lover, then slashes both of them. The title character, a famous woodblock illustrator of the early 19th century, is so affected by this calamity, which involves two of his ex-models, that he can barely wait to get a brush in his hand. In “The Life of Oharu,” the disgraced heroine believes she has found shelter in the home of a merchant, only to encounter a jealous wife. The women exchange hair-butchering reprisals. The cruelties inflicted on a noble family in “Sansho the Bailiff” rival the trials of Job. Concluding acts of mercy and redemption seem painfully inadequate to the burdens of suffering.

The depiction of blighted lives in historical settings coincided with Mr. Mizoguchi’s most celebrated period, the early 1950s. “Oharu,” “Ugetsu” and “Sansho” were a mighty threesome from 1952-54 and remain imposing to this day. When new, they won consecutive grand prizes at the Venice Film Festival, which became an annual showcase for Japanese classics after Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” won in 1951. The festival titles are four good reasons why the 1950s became the greatest international decade in movie history.

Exceptionally active despite failing health, Mr. Mizoguchi completed 10 features during the first half of the 1950s. There are weak spots or miscalculations in all of his parables of folly and loss, but you know you’ve been through something wrenching and overwhelming after seeing them through. He contrived a brilliant last act, outlasting mortality while repeatedly brooding about it as a film artist.

SERIES: “Kenji Mizoguchi Masterworks”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: Schedule of showings: “Sisters of the Gion” (1936): Friday at 6 p.m., Saturday at 5:45 p.m., Tuesday at 7 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum” (1939): March 23 and 24. “Utamaro and His Five Women” (1946): March 31, April 1 and 4. “Ugetsu” (1953) March 31, April 1, 3 and 5. “The Life of Oharu” (1952): April 6, 7 and 10. “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954): April 13, 14 and 16. “Street of Shame” (1956): April 21, 22 and 26. All movies in Japanese with English subtitles.

ADMISSION: $9.25 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over); $6.75 for weekday matinees before 6 p.m.

PHONE: 301/495-6700

WEB SITE: www.afi.com /silver/new/

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