Screened Saturday January 17 2008 on .avi format on Continental Flight from Tokyo to Newark
One of Kenji Mizoguchi’s most lavish productions, this chronicle of the rise of the samurai amidst the oppression of 12th century Japan is heavy on plot and crowd scenes, but strangely inert at the center. The Mizoguchi themes of class and authoritarian injustice, the burden of family legacies, and female bondage are all present to varying degrees, but seem at odds with an implicit samurai movie imperative to move the proceedings along briskly and noisily. The film isn’t stuffed to the gills with swordfights; the sparring takes place mostly in terms of political maneuverings between the samurai, the ruling court and a powerful order of monks, with screen-cluttering armies being mustered less to wage combat than to intimidate (the viewer as well as their opponents).
Perhaps in this light Mizoguchi is subverting the genre, shifting his emphasis away from bloodshed to the hero’s pseudo-Oedipal angst-ridden search for his true patrilineage involving the three factions. Most of the thematic richness that emerges from this scenario can be traced to the script, adapted from a serialized novel by Eiji Yoshikawa. For his part Mizoguchi seems to be preoccupied with making tentative forays in color (this being one of two color films he directed in his career; the other, The Empress Yang Kwei Fei [TSPDT #617], also from 1955, achieves a more expressive palette), and with keeping the proceedings lively through a brisk editing scheme and a variety of compositions and camera movements that animate rather than contemplate. An effective, meaningful effort by most standards, it registers as a kowtow to prestige picture impulses when considering the singular achievements of Mizoguchi’s earlier works.
Want to go deeper?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Shin Heike Monogatari among the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? list of the 1000 Greatest Films:
Bernard Cohn, Positif (1991)
George Robinson, Miscellaneous (2003)
Ian Cameron, Sight & Sound (1972)
John Davies, Senses of Cinema (2004)
Mike Wallington, Sight & Sound (1972)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Adventure (1993)
Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998)
One of Mizoguchi’s two late films in colour, this describes a conflict between three power groups in feudal Japan: the priests, the court, and a clan of samurai. The samurai embody ideals of individual integrity, just service, and male prowess; the court, ideals of rightful authority, but equally, the faults of ministerial corruption; the clerics, the degeneration of institutionalised religion into factional Fascism (gang-like violence in support of political ends). Characteristically, the tale of the conflict is hinged round a courtesan figure’s relations with the three groups (‘mother’ for the samurai, ‘mistress’ for the court, ‘whore’ for the priests). Needless to say, the ‘personal’ virtues of the samurai win out, the hero becomes superman. Shot with all the sensitivity and stylish trappings to be expected from Mizoguchi; also, some sharp observation of social relations, and some acute insights into the vagaries of the power boys’ shit-games.
– Time Out
The same year he crafted the intimate period romance of Princess Yang Kwei-fei, Kenji Mizoguchi tackled the sprawling spectacle genre with this color epic — virtually a ying/yang of cinematic storytelling, although with the two halves harmonized musically by the same artistic delicacy. Set in 1137 A.D., the narrative is a tapestry of feudalistic intrigue and decadent official cabals against which the director stages the spiritual growth of his impetuous young hero (Raizo Ichikawa), the son of dignified samurai leader Ichijiro Oya and heir to the Taira clan. Returning triumphantly from quelling the unrest of a divided nation, Oya and his warriors are humiliatingly denied any rewards by the cloistered government (for, as one palatial wag asserts, “only poor samurai are useful”), one in a series of episodes landing the Tairas in the middle of a power struggle between the aristocracy and the rebellious monks tearing up the land. The screen is scarcely less than bustling with conflict, all scrupulously captured by the majestically sweeping camera, but the genre’s inherent muscularity is subtly (even subversively) femininized by Mizoguchi’s emphasis on the moral and emotional quandaries of the characters — even the most physical of confrontations (an ambush to foil an assassination plot, a melee erupting out of the spring festival) are painted not in Kurosawa’s crossed-katana close-up of brawniness but in the long-shot of spiritual contemplation. To Mizoguchi, the expressive epiphanies of the hero’s relationships with his warrior father and courtesan mother (pieced together via contrasting flashbacks; maybe a dig at Rashomon, one of the director’s famous bêtes noires?) are no less epic than the historical shifts bringing a country together.
– Fernando Croce, Cinepassion
Unlike his contemporaries Kurosawa and Kinugasa (whose Gate of Hell was the sensation of the 1954 Cannes festival), Mizoguchi never mastered the use of colour. New Tales, the most famous of his two end-of-career colour films, is shot on what looks like soiled stock, a muddy yellowed Eastmancolor; faces, grass, buildings, skies all processed in the same pastel shade – pure laziness on the part of the cinematographer. It is a busy film in which nothing very much happens, and in which all but all the action takes place off screen. Stock actors in stock roles strike wide-eyed poses and they huff and they puff; the exception being Kogure as the classy and vulgar mistress of the Emperor, the mother of the stand-taking samurai, the whore of the declining aristocracy (silk dress swishing in gesiha-role cliche). The music score is grand and effective throughout and particularly striking during an atmospheric flashback processed in green.
– Paul Sutton, Cambridge University Camera Journal
Shin Heike Monogatari, a reasonably rare film among Mizoguchi’s late period works in not being centrally concerned with the social situation of victimised women figures (though this is peripherally present), dramatises an incident in the life of future Taira clan head, Kiyomori. He discovers that instead of being the son of a samurai as he had always thought to be the case, he may in fact be the son of either the current emperor or a monk. The three factions to which the young protagonist could be linked are those that are in conflict throughout the film, and each can be seen to represent a specific position: the monasteries and warrior monks emblematise the degeneration of institutionalised religion into politically-motivated violence and the oppression of the people; the Imperial court crystallise notions of (perceived) rightful rule and the self-preservation of authority; the samurai embody honour and individual integrity.
The relevance of such a scenario to mid-1950s Japan is manifold. Firstly, the forces of antagonism in the film are markedly anti-democratic (the monasteries and Imperial Court both wish to impose themselves politically and control the masses), a theme common to many films of the 1950s. Following the occupation period, democracy came to be widely regarded by the Japanese as the true way forward for the nation, and the government had swiftly banned anything transgressing this, even songs.
Kiyomori’s victory is, then, one of family, democratic idealism and altruistic action over elitism and the corruption of those in power. This chimes with Japan’s attempt in the post-war period to reinvent itself as a nation, to put its recent indiscretions behind it, move forward and open itself to the international community (something that would climax in the highly symbolic 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo). In other words, the trajectory of Kiyomori in overcoming a crisis in his identity and finding his true self amid social chaos, is a microcosm for Japan as a whole in the 1950s, caught between itself and its traditions on the one hand and the Western values fostered by the occupying SCAP forces on the other.
This is the situation explored in the film. Indeed, it is made clear from the very beginning: the opening shot – a virtuoso mobile long take of the kind for which Mizoguchi has long been celebrated (and criticised – see Noël Burch) – details peasants bemoaning the state of the nation. The most prominent complaint is that Japan has two rulers, two courts: the official Imperial court and the cloistered court exerting influence from behind the scenes through the puppet emperor.
– Adam Bingham, Senses of Cinema
ABOUT KENJI MIZOGUCHI
“The comparisons are as inevitable as they are unfashionable,” wrote James Quandt, introducing the centenary retrospective of the films of Kenji Mizoguchi. “Mizoguchi is cinema’s Shakespeare, its Bach or Beethoven, its Rembrant, Titian or Picasso.” (1) If this remains a minority opinion, it’s not because others have tried him and found him wanting. Mizoguchi is either admired or ignored. If he is, as I believe, the greatest of Japanese directors, then he has eluded general recognition as such only through unpropitious circumstances.
The first circumstance was historical. The bulk of Mizoguchi’s work was produced years before Japanese films were widely shown in the West. When a handful of Japanese movies did play in France and Germany in the late ’20s, Mizoguchi’s Passion of a Woman Teacher(1926) received considerable praise. But whereas its contemporary, Crossways (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1928) became (and remains) a staple repertory item in Europe, all trace of Mizoguchi’s film has long since disappeared. Only in the ’50s, as Japanese films again began to make their way into European festivals, did Mizoguchi win a belated international recognition for his late, bleak, yet beautiful and serenely moving period films. When he died, relatively young, in 1956, attention passed to such younger filmmakers as Kurosawa and Ichikawa, very much less distinguished artists who both profited from a fashionable brand of sentimental humanism and an obtrusive emphatic visual style consisting predominantly of rhetorical close ups and generally at the service of simplistic emotions.
The other circumstance, then, was artistic. Although a much more profound humanist than Kurosawa, Mizoguchi rarely, if ever, advertised his social concerns with the sort of condescending didacticsm which appealed to the message-hungry middlebrows of Sight and Sound and its ilk. As for his style, with its extraordinary elaboration, delicacy, beauty and grace, it must have struck the puritans who then dictated taste as decadent aestheticism. Naturally this sort of thing went down rather better in France, where Godard and Rohmer, then the Young Turk critics of Cahiers of Cinéma, hailed Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) as one of the cinema’s supreme achievements and evoked comparisons with Homeric and Arthurian legend. But Mizoguchi’s art eludes easy auteurist categorisation in a way that, say, Ozu’s films do not. He vacilated politically between feudalism and feminism, militarism and Marxism. The essential features of his style – long takes, the rejection of close ups – remained constant for the last 20 years of his career, but the gulf between the stasis and austerity of Sisters of Gion (1936) and the roving camera and elaborate choreography of actors inSansho Dayu (1954) is wide indeed. In consequence, critical opinion has often been divided: the traditional liberal humanist line, as exemplified by the criticism of Donald Richie, exalts the postwar period films, while the Marxist formalist school of Noel Burch prefers the prewar work for its supposedly more radical formal qualities.
My own feeling is that masterpieces were produced throughout Mizoguchi’s career, that a commitment to feminism and progressive politics is, despite his occasional flirtations with the right, the single most consistent trait of his oeuvre; and that the visible transformations in his style obscure a more profound integrity of method and meaning.
– Alexander Jacoby, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Bio
The roots of artistry are often sought in autobiography, and for filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, this seems an especially appropriate place to start. Mizoguchi, with Ozu and Kurosawa one of the three undisputed masters from the golden age of Japanese cinema, was born in 1898 in the middle class district of Hongo, in Tokyo. Two events occurred when the future director was seven that may have played a pivotal role in the kinds of films he would make. In the first, his family’s fortunes were reversed when his overly ambitious father lost their money in a failed business scheme, forcing their move to the poorer district of Asakusa. In the second, which resulted from the first, his 14-year-old sister Suzu was put up for adoption and eventually sold to a geisha house. Mizoguchi’s adoration of Suzu and of his mother, who died when he was 17, was balanced by an intense hatred of his father. The senior Mizoguchi’s inability to support his family forced his son, who had already developed an arthritic condition that would plague him throughout his life, to be farmed out to relatives. It was only through the sacrifices of Suzu that he was able to study art, become a painter, and eventually direct films, starting with The Resurrection of Love (1923).
These characters and events from his youth — a sudden rise or fall in class; the oppressive or self-deluded male authority figure; the selfless, self-sacrificing woman who’s ultimately destroyed — became the basis for his greatest works: Osaka Elegy, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff, and Ugetsu. In these films Mizoguchi brilliantly uses long takes, moving camera, and shimmering tableaux to show the futility of the social and philosophical status quo, particularly as it related to women.
– Gary Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal
ABOUT CINEMATOGRAPHER KAZUO MIYAGAWA
Kazuo Miyagawa was, quite simply, Japan’s preeminent cinematographer. Commencing in the 1930s, he worked with some of his country’s foremost directors, including Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Daisuke Ito, Hiroshi Inagaki, and Masahiro Shinoda, and his credits include some of the all time greatest Japanese films, includingRashomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, Street of Shame, Yojimbo, Floating Weeds, Odd Obsession, and Kagemusha.
Beginning his study of cinematography in 1926, after several years as an art student, Miyagawa was particularly impressed by the high-contrast lighting used in the German expressionist films of the era. Starting as a focus puller and assistant cameraman at the Nikkatsu Kyoto Studio laboratory, Miyagawa utilized his knowledge of film chemistry to experiment with the composition of film stock and the degree of exposure before shooting. Thus, he was able to determine the optimum exposure despite the varied physical conditions of location shooting; in fact, he did not even work with a light meter until Rashomon, in 1950.
Between 1935 and 1943, Miyagawa was in charge of second-unit photography and special effects at the Nikkatsu Studio. His first great success as chief cinematographer came in 1943, with his work on Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Rickshaw Man, in which his ambitious camerawork captures the vivid images of the life of a rough but straightforward rickshaw man in a small city, using montage to recreate the flow of time. While he has attributed his success to the traditionally high standards of the studio’s cinematographers and camera mechanics—”Working in the film lab taught me the basics, the fundamental part of making pictures,” he once explained—he also noted, “It was my training in [Japanese] ink painting that really taught me how to see.”
Indeed, it was Miyagawa’s early study of this art form that gave him the understanding of subtle shadings which was evident in his black-and-white films. His fluid camera movements, particularly the long takes in Mizoguchi’s films, demonstrate his knowledge of the Japanese traditional emakinomo scroll painting style. In order to satisfy Mizoguchi’s demand to draw out the tense moments of highly dramatic performances, Miyagawa conceived the technique of suspenseful long takes, which capture highly dramatic performances without interruptions. He used many crane shots to create the mysterious atmosphere of Ugetsu and the romantic escape scenes of A Story from Chikamatsu. Long and complicated pannings such as those of the garden scene and the last scene of Ugetsu and the ending of Sansho the Bailiff are breathtakingly inventive. Further, in the latter film, he experimented with shooting the entire film in counter-light, to create the cold image suggested by the subject of slavery.
Miyagawa also contributed his dynamic camera style to Kurosawa’s work. Utilizing the light reflecting directly on a mirror, he captured in bright summer daylight the surging emotions of the characters of Rashomon. The image of sunlight flickering behind the trees became legendary. In Yojimbo Miyagawa used telephoto lenses to successfully convey the powerful images of swordplay in the swirling dust. He also used telephoto lenses effectively in Ichikawa’sTokyo Olympiad to capture the poetic moments of physical movement, often in combination with slow motion. Miyagawa’s bold use of the CinemaScope screen is evident in other successful films of Ichikawa. Particularly important was Miyagawa’s technique of inventing the “silver tone” in the chemical process to create a greenish-gray tone, appropriate for the turn-of-the-century atmosphere of Her Brother.
Miyagawa’s sensitive and ingenious approach to the specific tones of each of his color films is evident in his work for Ozu, Ito, Shinoda, Kouzaburo Yoshimura, Masuzo Yasumura, and others. He studied each type of film stock for specific color effects according to the subject. For Floating Weeds, the only Ozu film on which Miyagawa worked, he used a light color scheme to recreate the atmosphere of a town in southern Japan. The tension of the scene of a hard rainstorm under which a couple quarrels from opposite sides of a street was accentuated by Miyagawa’s usage of a large light source with the dripping water captured in counter-light. The combination of bold colors and lyrical night scenes of Kyoto in Yoshimura’s Night River, the recreation of the world of Kabuki and the bright-colored woodprints in Ito’s Benten Boy and Masumura’s Tattoo, the magnificent landscape colors in Shinoda’s Silence and Banished Orin, and the dazzling color spectacle of Kurosawa’s Kagemusha are other highly acclaimed examples of Miyagawa’s skill.
The cinematographer was employed by the same studio between 1926 and 1971, working elsewhere only twice: on Yojimbo, shot at the Toho Studio; and Tokyo Olympiad, produced independently. Before his death, his more notable credits were Kagemusha, and Shinoda’s Gonza the Spearman and MacArthur’s Children. He remained professionally active into his eighties. “A director and cameraman are like husband and wife,” Miyagawa once declared. “Even though they may fight, all their films are their offspring.” He added, proudly, “I am a cinematographer. I’ve never had any ambition to become a director. A film is not one individual’s method of personal expression but a matter of teamwork, a cooperative venture.”
—Kyoko Hirano, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com
ABOUT COMPOSER FUMIO HAYASAKA
Fumio Hayasaka is among the most respected of Japanese composers. Beginning in the late 1930s he has worked for noted directors including Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Shimazu, Tadashi Imai, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and Kon Ichikawa. However, he is most famous for his work for Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa.
Combining Japanese traditional instruments with Western instruments, Hayasaka wrote mysterious, stylized scores for Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and A Story from Chikamatsu. Interested in a wide variety of styles, he nonetheless sought to create a uniquely Japanese style of film music.
His collaboration with Kurosawa began in the late 1940s with Drunken Angel, and the two artists soon found each other indispensable. Their association continued in a spirit of mutual appreciation and respect until Hayasaka’s death during the production of Record of a Living Being in 1955.
Kurosawa and Hayasaka both believed that film music should not always work to enhance the mood or the dramatic highlights of a scene, and that unexpected combinations of music and visual images would create more interesting effects. For instance, the lively spirit of the “Cuckoo Waltz” heard from a loudspeaker on a street in the black-market area starkly contrasts with the depressed psychological state of the hero of Drunken Angel. In Stray Dog the sound of a housewife practising piano is heard during the suspenseful confrontation of the criminal and the detective, and a children’s song is heard in the scene of the criminal’s arrest.
Hayasaka’s bolero music for Rashomon is also uniquely effective. This theme music is used as a leitmotif, associated with the appearance of certain characters, and contrasts with the styles used in other scenes. Similarly, in Seven Samurai Hayasaka created powerful and emotional theme music for the samurai themselves, with more lyrical music used for the scenes of lovers and ominously rhythmical music for the battle scenes. The composer planned each of his scores by meticulously analyzing the structure and the mood of each scene. His constant experimentation, and his search to create a unique effect in each scene, won him wide acclaim.
—Kyoko Hirano, Film Reference.com