One of the things that's kept me from exploring Kenji Mizoguchi's filmography before is the sheer number of acclaimed films in it, together with an obsession for chronological order which I have recently thrown to the wind. It turns out that all you need to do is just choose a movie and watch it. Who knew?
Sansho the Baliff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Sansho the Bailiff depicts a world which is outwardly beautiful but inwardly cruel. Presented with a chance to get ahead, most people will do so at the expense of others. Presented with a chance to help others, most people will choose only to help themselves. Even traditional power structures can't be trusted. Children of government leaders can be sold into slavery and treated like animals, while those who benefit from slavery are rewarded by the system for their troubles. The corruption and moral bankruptcy depicted in this period piece, which takes place during Japan's medieval Heian era, are so timeless that it might as well take place today.
As the opening titles point out, Sansho the Bailiff was based on an old folk tale, and it moves with a deliberate mesmerizing power befitting of its source material. It's a story that takes one crushing narrative turn after another, bombarding the viewer with cruelty but amazing them with unexpected developments that keep them guessing right to the end. This is masterful storytelling - a story with deep moral value and timeless entertainment value. Except that it might be too cynical and depressing to satisfy repeat viewings. As the son of the titular imperial tax collector and slave owner says after leaving his father's house to become a Buddhist monk, "I found that people have little sympathy for things that don't directly concern them. They're ruthless. Unless those hearts can be changed, the world you dream of can not come true." Sansho the Bailiff puts forward a dream in which one person can change the world they live in - a fantastic riches to rags and back again story. But while the world may change for the better or for the worse, the ultimate realization is that human suffering remains no matter what. And as the story reaches its pitiful conclusion, there's not much to do but break down in tears at the promise of happiness blown away like dust on the wind.
The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Quest Status: 705 / 1000
TSPDT Rank #255
While the films he made after, such as Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, might be more famous, The Life of Oharu is one of Kenji Mizoguchi's most potent personal statements. He had made numerous films about women's suffering over the course of his career, but Oharu distills this concern into a simple series of episodes chronicling a stately court maiden's descent into disgrace and prostitution over a series of decades. Beginning at one of the lowest points in the life of the titular Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), as a broken-down prostitute wandering the back streets of feudal-era Kyoto, the film then tracks back to her fleeting romance with a lowly retainer (in a brief and almost unrecognizable appearance by Toshiro Mifune) in her youth, reviewing the series of misfortunes that befell her as a result. Reflecting the Buddhist perspective that shows up frequently in Mizoguchi's later films, the film eventually returns to where it started, creating a structure in which the end leads to the beginning and the beginning leads back to the end in an endless cycle of suffering.
The various ordeals that Oharu is made to endure over the course of the film serve to illustrate a point about the status of women as objects in society. In Oharu's dizzying descent from the imperial court to the gutter, she endures prostitution in various forms - each of which she passively performs a function for men at her own expense, only to suffer the full weight of responsibility for her actions in the eye of public opinion. Although it takes place in 17th-century Tokugawa-era Japan, The Life of Oharu plays out like a damning feminist statement about the lowly status of women in 20th-century modern Japan. Each time Oharu attempts to act for herself, she is punished by being forced progressively lower on the social ladder. Each subsequent level on this ladder, from manorial concubine to high-class courtesan to house servant to broken-down prostitute, represents yet another form of objectification allowing Oharu to be consumed and disposed of by the men around her. Mizoguchi's unwavering concentration on his actors, particularly his fearless lead actress Kinuyo Tanaka, creates a relentless narrative that plummets downward in a dizzying spiral which sucks the viewer in and involves them fully in the doomed heroine's plight. Even more so than the other Mizoguchi films I've seen so far, The Life of Oharu makes a uniquely personal impression that couldn't have been made by any other filmmaker.