Tuesday, 8 April 2008

SANSHO DAYU (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

One of Mizoguchi's many pictorial compositions showing the depth of the physical world.

The final shot: the mother and son reunited

The final shot continued: camera moves away to another character at work

Very few directors in the history of cinema have received the amount of critical attention and almost unanimous praise as the Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi. Although he died fairly young at the age of 58 from leukemia, Mizoguchi had a vast career spanning many the first half of the 20th century and its various social upheavals in Japan. Mizoguchi is perhaps the director most influential on the style of "Asian minimalism" that developed in the past two decades in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. He is most well-known today for the films he made in the 1950s, many of which appeared in European festivals at the time. Of these films, the two most acclaimed are Ugetsu Monogotari (1953), winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff) (1954), also a Silver Lion winner at Venice. These are also the only two Mizoguchi films currently available through the Criterion Collection.

However, high-brow critics have often championed Mizoguchi's earlier work. The formalist critic Fred Camper considers Mizoguchi's war-time film Genroku Chushingura (The Loyal 47 Ronin) (1941), made or at least commissioned for propaganda purposes, his masterpiece. Jonathan Rosenbaum calls Mizoguchi's The Story of the Late Chrysanthemum (1939) one of the ten greatest Japanese films of all-time. And modernist film theorist Noel Burch, in his study of Japanese cinema, To the Distant Observer (1979), makes the case that Mizoguchi's most distinctive work was made in the 1930s, before he "westernized" his aesthetics and made films designed to be praised in international festivals.

What are the differences between Mizoguchi's later films and his work in the 30s? Most of Mizoguchi's work shows an interest in the long take, but in the later work, these long takes often are combined with elaborate camera movement that presents the scene to the viewer in a way familiar to viewers of western cinema. The Mizoguchi of the 1950s bares a certain resemblance to the work of Jean Renoir, using a long take approach to his sequences but not breaking radically with classical norms. Mizoguchi's 50s films use deep space compositions to reveal the world to the spectator and position the viewer at the center of the gaze. In the 1930s, starting with Osaka Elegy (1935) and Sisters of the Gion (1935), Mizoguchi employs a style that uses the long take to flatten the screen space, much like Godard would later do in films like Weekend (1967). Film theorist Brian Henderson called this "non-bourgeois" camera style, which he describes as follows:

"What are the implications of these shifts from three dimensions to two, from depth to flatness? An ideological interpretation suggests itself -- composition-in-depth projects a bourgeois world infinitely deep, rich, complex, ambiguous, mysterious. Godard's flat frames collapse this world into two-dimensional actuality; thus reversion to a cinema of one plane is a demystification, an assault on the bourgeois world-view and self-image. Weekend's bourgeois figures scurry along without mystery toward mundane goals of money and pornographic fulfillment. There is no ambiguity and no moral complexity. That space in which the viewer could lose himself, make distinctions and alliances, comparisons and judgments, has been abrogated -- the viewer is presented with a single flat picture of the world that he must examine, criticize, accept or reject."

Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion is an exemplary example of this flatness, and it is probably not coincidental that Mizoguchi was a follower of Marxism at the time. Sisters of the Gion is also set in contemporary times, and like Weekend shows its characters pursuing goals of money and pornographic fulfillment within this bourgeois milieu. There are few close-ups and very little identification with characters. One of the few close-ups occurs at the conclusion, with a character almost directly speaking to the audience the views of Mizoguchi himself. There is little depth or complexity on display in terms of the film's thematics.

Sansho Dayu, however, is a very different film. Its ideology is not Marxist but rather Buddhist, and it is the film that makes Mizoguchi's conversion to Buddhism most explicit. It is also a period drama with a long take style that includes many depth of field compositions. In other words, a film perfect for festival consumption. The beauty of the compositions and photography in the film are, as the stills above give some indication, almost overwhelming. But they are also contained within a film that has a very contemporary humanist message. In fact, the film it immediately reminded me of was The Grave of the Fireflies. Although set in the distant past, it is hard not to view Sansho Dayu without thinking about World War II.

The politics of these later Mizoguchi films have been debated. Are they essentially about passive acceptance of suffering and sacrifice, and thus potentially conservative? Perhaps, but the rage of Mizoguchi's 30s work, especially regarding the treatment of women in society, is not absent. It is rather combined with a worldview that no longer sees violent resistance as a cure. It sees the world more complexly. Is this a positive? Maybe not. But a certain humanist brand of Marxism seems to remain in these works. For example, the last shot of this film, like his earlier Ugetsu, moves from the central characters of the drama to a shot that shows other people going about their work. There is a communal component to depth of field long take compositions that can be seen as an alternative to the individual centered dramas of Hollywood. Of course, you can still view this as too reliant on bourgeois concepts of depth, richness, complexity and ambiguity.

For further discussion of Mizoguchi, I would recommend Robin Wood's essays in his books Personal Views and Sexual Politics and Narrative Cinema, which includes a career overview I have drawn upon for this piece.

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