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Sunday, 15 February 2009

Classic Japanese Film




Kenji Mizoguchi

Kenji Mizoguchi was born in 1898 to relatively comfortable circumstances in a middle class district of Tokyo, but at age seven found himself caught up in the unfortunate consequences of the unwise business scheming of his overly ambitious father; the family was financially ruined, forced to move to a poorer district, and Mizoguchi's fourteen-year-old sister was put up for adoption and ultimately sold to a geisha house. Mizoguchi's adoration of his mother and sister was balanced by an intense hatred of his father, whose inability to support the family led to the boy -- by this time stricken with an arthritic condition which would become chronic -- being farmed out to relatives. It was only through the sacrifice of his sister that he was able to study art, become a painter, and eventually, in 1923, to begin directing films.

Events and characters from this troubled early life -- a sudden fall in class; the oppressive, self-deluded male authority figure; the selfless, self-sacrificing woman who's ultimately destroyed -- provided the basis of his greatest works: Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. In these films Mizoguchi brilliantly employs long takes, moving camera and shimmering tableaux to show the futility of the social and philosophical status quo, particularly as it related to women. His mature style is distinguished by a mise-en-scène of exquisite beauty patterned on traditional Japanese painting (whence his preference for high angle shots and sense of human figures lost in the landscape), yet made fluent and wholly cinematic by the elaborate flowing camera movement and choreography of actors on screen. His is a formal style -- in the 1930s a strongly formalist one, later in his postwar films more accommodating to an overarching humanism, but always marked by an unparalleled beauty of images that never deadens the power of his human drama or his sense of outrage against oppression. In his mature films, the thread of fate linking shot to shot, modulated by temporal glissandi that affect us like unexpected key changes in a musical piece, becomes so fine that a metaphysical purpose seems to emerge, the insistent presence of an unseen spiritual element rendering the difference between presence and absence almost indiscernible, even within a single shot.

"Mizoguchi, in line with the oriental approach to art, believed in a continuous unseen thread binding all living and dead things. The task of cinema would be not to represent this [thread] but to actualize its trajectories, to insufflate the fiber of this transcendental universe." -- Gilles Deleuze

It was in about 1936, Mizoguchi later said, that "I was able finally to show life as I see it; it was also from about that time that I developed a technique of shooting an entire sequence in a single cut, the camera always remaining at a certain distance from the action... In shooting in this manner I certainly did not want to inhibit (audience) identification. Rather, I tried to use it... at precisely the most intense psychological moments. During the course of filming a scene, if I feel that a kind of psychological sympathy has begun to develop, then I cannot without regret cut into this. Rather, I then try to intensify, to prolong the scene as long as possible... For a long time I found it difficult to avoid the style of the silent picture -- but at the same time I did want to avoid the close-up, that over-used if classical method of psychological description... Let us say that a man like myself is always tempted by the climate of beauty." The "climate of beauty" Mizoguchi distilled in his films is consistently imbued on the screen with the visual presence of women.

Osaka Elegy (entire film is posted in successive clips)

Geisha Sisters of the Gion (Kenji Mizoguchi) (entire film is posted in successive clips)

Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi) (entire film is posted in successive clips)

Yasujiro Ozu

The great contemporary of Kenji Mizoguchi, and in many ways his stylistic opposite, was Yasujiro Ozu (born 1903). Domestic tales drained of traditional dramatic highs and lows were Ozu's forte: whether poignant or gently comic, they focus tenderly on (often misunderstood) communication between ordinary people, dealing, for example, with a parent's concern that a daughter should marry, or a battle of wills between parents and faintly rebellious young children. Repeatedly returning to the same relatively minor domestic crises, Ozu fashioned an amazingly rich series of variations on a handful of themes, paring down his visual and narrative style, and steadily refining his delicately observed studies of emotional dilemmas to reflect a stoic but generous view of human nature and a resigned acceptance of life's vicissitudes. Among Ozu's key films are Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, Late Spring, Early Summer, Tokyo Story, Early Spring, An Autumn Afternoon.

A signature feature in Ozu's work is his standard low-angle medium-distance shot, with the camera normally positioned three feet off the ground, and occasionally a foot and a half higher -- i.e. always well below eye level of a standing adult. This low angle is used in every shot. Visiting Ozu's home, American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch saw the camera tripod Ozu himself had designed. It had two positions which locked the camera into place at either one of those two low positions. "Ozu had no need for alternate possibilities," Jarmusch noted. "These limitations would instead define the core of his style." One visual result of the Ozu low-angle position is to keep all lines in the frame -- most often rectangular planes, defined by the low angle, as against the high-angle rhomboidal compositions of his contemporary Mizoguchi -- in generally the same pattern from shot to shot.

Distinct from Ozu's static-camera method is the "floating" approach enabled by the relentlessly mobile camera of Ozu's contemporary Mizoguchi. The result of Mizoguchi's method is a geometricization of space into shifting "zones" or "stations". Ozu's perfectly fixed stillness and Mizoguchi's more fluid, "spacy" stillness yield a slightly different "feel."

"His structure and arrangement are so precise," the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien has said of Ozu. "He was able to create a special atmosphere to reflect his deep thinking about his time in Japan, a profound feeling. His expression was incisive and vivid. It is so precise, like an engineer. He had a profound understanding of the change in Japanese society. He processed the meaning and feeling of life: After World War Two, the defeat of Japan and the process of rebuilding of Japan, there were a lot of changes and industrialization, there was a lot of worry; he added this worry to his movies, his feeling of life, making it thicker. "

Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu)(excerpts) Spring: The time-image:)

Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu) (closing scenes--two women)

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu) (trailer & excerpts)

An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu)(closing scene)

Mikio Naruse

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse)(excerpt))
A Hen in the Wind (Mikio Naruse) (excerpt)

Yearning (Mikio Naruse) (trailer)

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