Kenji Mizoguchi was a highly acclaimed Japanese film director known for his masterful storytelling, meticulous craftsmanship, and poignant social commentary.
He is widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of world cinema, and his films continue to be celebrated for their artistic merit and profound impact. Mizoguchi’s career spanned from the 1920s to the 1950s, and he directed over 80 films during his prolific career.
Mizoguchi’s films are characterized by his deep understanding of human nature, complex characters, and intricate narratives that often explore the struggles and hardships faced by women in Japanese society.
His works are known for their visual elegance, with long takes, exquisite compositions, and innovative camera movements that create a sense of poetic realism.
Mizoguchi’s films often shed light on social issues such as gender inequality, class disparities, and the plight of marginalized individuals, reflecting his humanistic approach to filmmaking.
He was known for his empathy towards his characters and his ability to portray their emotions with great sensitivity and depth, creating emotionally resonant narratives that have a lasting impact on audiences.
Throughout his career, Mizoguchi received numerous awards and honors for his work, both in Japan and internationally.
Some of his best-known films include “Ugetsu” (1953), “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954), “The Life of Oharu” (1952), and “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” (1939), which are often regarded as masterpieces of world cinema.
Best Kenji Mizoguchi Films
In this article to Kenji Mizoguchi’s films, we will delve into his artistic vision, directorial style, and some of his most notable and influential works that have earned him a revered status among cinephiles and film scholars alike.
1. Ugetsu (1953)
“Ugetsu” is a classic Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. It was released in 1953 and is considered one of the greatest films in the history of Japanese cinema.
The film is set in the 16th century and tells the story of two brothers, Genjuro and Tobei, who leave their wives behind to pursue wealth and success in the midst of a civil war.
Genjuro becomes a successful pottery maker, while Tobei becomes a samurai. However, their newfound success comes at a great cost, and they must ultimately face the consequences of their actions.
“Ugetsu” is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema and is celebrated for its stunning cinematography, intricate storytelling, and deep exploration of themes such as love, loss, and the consequences of ambition.
It won the Silver Lion award at the 1953 Venice Film Festival and has since been included in numerous “best of” lists, including being ranked by Sight & Sound as the 13th greatest film of all time in 2012.
2. A Story from Chikamatsu (1954)
“A Story from Chikamatsu” is a 1954 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. The film is based on a play by the 18th-century Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon and is set in 17th-century Japan.
The story revolves around two lovers, a paper merchant’s wife named Osan and a clerk named Mohei. When their affair is discovered, they are forced to flee together and go into hiding. However, they are eventually captured and put on trial for their crimes.
The film explores themes of love, honor, and social hierarchy in feudal Japan. It also examines the limitations of individual freedom and the consequences of societal expectations.
“A Story from Chikamatsu” is widely regarded as one of Mizoguchi’s greatest works, and is praised for its visually stunning cinematography and powerful performances.
It won the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1954, and is considered a masterpiece of Japanese cinema.
3. Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
“Sansho the Bailiff” is a Japanese historical drama film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, released in 1954. The film is based on a traditional Japanese folk tale and follows the story of two siblings, Zushio and Anju, who are taken from their aristocratic family and sold into slavery.
The film explores themes of compassion, filial duty, and the search for identity.
The title character, Sansho, is a brutal and tyrannical bailiff who oversees a slave labor camp, where Zushio and Anju are forced to work.
The siblings’ father, a former governor who was exiled for his opposition to Sansho’s regime, teaches his children the importance of compassion and the duty to help others.
Zushio, the older brother, eventually rises through the ranks of the slave labor camp and becomes a trusted aide to Sansho, while Anju remains committed to the ideals of compassion and selflessness.
The film is renowned for its visual beauty and the emotional depth of its story, and is considered one of Mizoguchi’s greatest masterpieces.
It has been praised for its powerful themes and its sensitive portrayal of the human condition. “Sansho the Bailiff” has won numerous awards and accolades, both in Japan and internationally, and is widely regarded as a classic of Japanese cinema.
4. Sisters of the Gion (1936)
“Sisters of the Gion” is a Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and released in 1936. The film is a drama about two sisters who work as geishas in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan, during the 1930s.
The film is notable for its social commentary on the lives of geishas and the challenges they faced in a patriarchal society. It is also known for its portrayal of the relationship between the two sisters, one of whom is struggling to make ends meet while the other is more successful but also more cynical.
“Sisters of the Gion” is considered one of Mizoguchi’s most important works and is often cited as a landmark film in Japanese cinema. Its themes and style have influenced many filmmakers around the world and it continues to be studied and admired by film scholars and critics.
5. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939)
“The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum” is a Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and released in 1939. The film tells the story of a young actor named Kikunosuke Onoe, who is disowned by his family for his lack of talent and forced to leave Tokyo to train as a Kabuki actor in the countryside.
As Kikunosuke struggles to perfect his craft, he falls in love with a servant girl named Otoku, who becomes his muse and encourages him to continue pursuing his dreams. However, their relationship is complicated by the strict societal norms of the time, which forbid relationships between actors and servants.
The film explores themes of love, sacrifice, and the challenges of pursuing one’s passion in a society that values tradition and conformity above all else.
It is considered one of Mizoguchi’s most celebrated works, known for its stunning cinematography, powerful performances, and exploration of complex emotional themes.
“The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum” is also notable for its depiction of Kabuki theater, one of Japan’s oldest and most revered performing arts. Mizoguchi’s meticulous attention to detail and use of long, unbroken takes create a sense of immersion and realism, allowing viewers to experience the beauty and drama of Kabuki theater firsthand.
The film has since been recognized as a classic of Japanese cinema and a masterpiece of Mizoguchi’s filmography, and it continues to be studied and appreciated by film scholars and enthusiasts around the world.
6. The Life of Oharu (1952)
“The Life of Oharu” (original title: “Saikaku ichidai onna”) is a Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and released in 1952. It is based on a novel by Saikaku Ihara and is considered one of Mizoguchi’s masterpieces.
The film is a powerful exploration of the life of a woman named Oharu, played by Kinuyo Tanaka, and the hardships she faces in feudal Japan.
The story follows Oharu’s life from her youth as a beautiful and courted lady-in-waiting to her tragic downfall as a destitute and outcast woman.
Oharu’s life is filled with love, betrayal, and social ostracism as she navigates the strict social hierarchy and moral codes of the time.
She experiences a series of misfortunes, including being demoted from her position due to an illicit love affair, being sold into prostitution, and enduring various forms of mistreatment and discrimination.
“The Life of Oharu” is known for its powerful and poignant portrayal of Oharu’s struggles and the societal constraints placed upon her as a woman.
Mizoguchi’s direction is renowned for his signature long takes and fluid camera movements, which add a sense of emotional intimacy and depth to the film.
The film also addresses themes of gender inequality, social class, and the oppressive nature of feudal society, making it a significant work of Japanese cinema.
Kinuyo Tanaka’s performance as Oharu is considered one of the highlights of the film. Her portrayal of the titular character is nuanced and deeply moving, capturing the emotional turmoil and resilience of Oharu’s character as she navigates the challenges and injustices of her life.
“The Life of Oharu” was critically acclaimed upon its release and has since been regarded as a classic of Japanese cinema.
It has won numerous awards and is often praised for its exceptional direction, cinematography, and performances.
The film’s exploration of the human condition and its critique of societal norms and expectations continue to resonate with audiences to this day, making it a timeless piece of cinema.
7. Street of Shame (1956)
“Street of Shame” (1956), also known as “Akasen Chitai” in Japanese, is a notable film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. It is widely regarded as one of his masterpieces and is considered a landmark work in Japanese cinema.
The film is set in Tokyo’s red-light district, Yoshiwara, and tells the story of five women who work as prostitutes in a brothel called Dreamland.
Each woman has her own unique story and struggles, and the film explores their lives and relationships with depth and sensitivity.
Mizoguchi portrays the harsh realities faced by these women, including societal stigma, exploitation, and their constant search for dignity and humanity in a world that treats them as commodities.
“Street of Shame” is known for its social critique and feminist themes, as it shines a spotlight on the plight of women in post-war Japan. Mizoguchi’s meticulous direction and skillful storytelling bring forth the inner lives and emotions of the characters, drawing viewers into their individual struggles and collective plight.
One of the notable aspects of “Street of Shame” is its visual elegance. Mizoguchi’s signature long takes and fluid camera movements are on full display, creating a sense of authenticity and intimacy in depicting the lives of the women.
The film’s black-and-white cinematography, artful compositions, and attention to detail contribute to its visual beauty and emotional impact.
“Street of Shame” was Mizoguchi’s last film before his death in 1956, and it is considered a fitting culmination of his career.
It was a critical success upon its release and received international acclaim for its powerful storytelling, strong performances, and social commentary.
The film remains a significant work in Mizoguchi’s filmography, known for its artistic merits and its portrayal of the marginalized women in Japanese society.
8. Miss Oyu (1951)
“Miss Oyu” is a classic Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. It was released in 1951 and is based on a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki.
The film tells the story of two men, Shinnosuke and Matsukichi, who fall in love with the same woman, Oyu. Shinnosuke is engaged to Oyu’s younger sister, but he finds himself increasingly drawn to Oyu.
Matsukichi, on the other hand, is a childhood friend of Oyu’s and has loved her for years. As the three characters navigate their feelings for each other, they must confront the societal expectations and cultural traditions that dictate their behavior.
“Miss Oyu” is renowned for its sensitive portrayal of complex relationships and its nuanced exploration of themes such as love, duty, and sacrifice.
It is also celebrated for its stunning cinematography and its use of traditional Japanese architecture and design to create a timeless atmosphere.
The film was a critical and commercial success upon its release and has since become a beloved classic of Japanese cinema. It is often regarded as one of Mizoguchi’s finest works and is widely recognized as a masterpiece of Japanese filmmaking.
9. Osaka Elegy (1936)
“Osaka Elegy” is a 1936 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. The film is a powerful critique of Japanese society during the pre-World War II era, and explores themes of gender, class, and social hierarchy.
The film tells the story of a young woman named Ayako, who works as a typist in a small company. Ayako is seduced by her boss, who promises to help her advance her career, but ultimately abandons her when she becomes pregnant.
Ayako’s family and society at large refuse to accept her, and she is forced to turn to prostitution to support herself and her child.
“Osaka Elegy” is notable for its portrayal of women’s roles and the constraints of gender in Japanese society.
The film highlights the economic and social pressures that force women like Ayako into prostitution, and critiques the social norms that perpetuate gender inequality.
Mizoguchi’s direction is praised for its understated and realistic approach, and the film is considered a landmark of Japanese cinema. It is often cited as an important work of social criticism, and is recognized as one of Mizoguchi’s most important films.
10. Tokyo koshin-kyoku (1929)
“Tokyo Koshin-kyoku” is a Japanese silent film released in 1929, directed by Yasujiro Ozu. The film is a melodrama that tells the story of a young man, Kenji, who returns home to Tokyo after a long absence to visit his family.
Kenji is reunited with his parents and sister, and becomes involved in a love triangle with a childhood friend and a young woman he meets on the train.
The film is notable for its use of modernist techniques, including experimental camera angles and editing, as well as its portrayal of contemporary life in Tokyo.
Ozu’s sensitive exploration of family relationships and social customs was a departure from the typical melodramas of the time, and helped establish him as a leading figure in Japanese cinema.
“Tokyo Koshin-kyoku” was one of the first Japanese films to be exported to Europe and the United States, where it was praised for its artistry and its depiction of Japanese culture.
The film is considered a landmark in the history of Japanese cinema, and helped to establish the country as a major player in the global film industry.
Despite being a silent film, it remains a powerful and affecting work, and is still widely regarded as a classic of Japanese cinema.
3 Characteristics of Kenji Mizoguchi Films
Kenji Mizoguchi was a prominent Japanese filmmaker known for his distinctive style and thematic concerns. Here are three characteristics that are often associated with his films:
Long takes and complex camera movements: Mizoguchi was known for his use of long takes and elaborate camera movements, often creating sweeping tracking shots that follow characters as they move through their environments.
This technique creates a sense of fluidity and continuity, immersing the viewer in the world of the film.
Feminist themes: Mizoguchi’s films often explored the experiences of women in Japanese society, particularly those who faced oppression and exploitation.
He was known for his sympathetic portrayals of female characters, highlighting the ways in which they were marginalized by patriarchal norms and systems.
Social critique: Mizoguchi’s films frequently critiqued social and political systems, particularly those that perpetuated inequality and injustice.
He was known for his unflinching portrayals of poverty, exploitation, and discrimination, and his films often called attention to the suffering of marginalized groups in Japanese society.
3 Reasons To Watch Kenji Mizoguchi Films
Here are three reasons to watch films by Kenji Mizoguchi:
Innovative cinematography: Mizoguchi was known for his innovative use of camera movements, long takes, and deep focus shots.
His films often feature elaborate and intricate tracking shots that follow characters through complex set pieces, creating a sense of immersion and realism.
Watching Mizoguchi’s films is a great way to appreciate the artistry and technical skill involved in creating beautiful and visually striking cinema.
Exploration of social issues: Mizoguchi’s films often explore themes of social injustice, gender inequality, and the plight of marginalized communities.
Many of his films feature strong female protagonists and offer a nuanced and empathetic look at the experiences of women in Japan during the early to mid-20th century.
Watching Mizoguchi’s films can offer insight into the history and culture of Japan, as well as provoke thought and discussion about important social issues.
Masterful storytelling: Mizoguchi was a master of storytelling, using complex narratives, intricate character arcs, and subtle symbolism to convey deep emotional themes.
His films often feature powerful performances by actors and are renowned for their ability to evoke a strong emotional response from viewers. Watching Mizoguchi’s films is a great way to appreciate the artistry and power of cinema, as well as to explore complex and thought-provoking themes.
Best Kenji Mizoguchi Films – Wrap Up
Kenji Mizoguchi was a renowned Japanese filmmaker known for his masterful direction, powerful storytelling, and poignant exploration of social issues, particularly the struggles of women in Japanese society. He made numerous significant films throughout his career, and some of his best-known works include:
“Ugetsu” (1953): A period drama that tells the story of two men who abandon their families to pursue their ambitions during a civil war, only to face the consequences of their actions.
“Sansho the Bailiff” (1954): A powerful and emotionally resonant film about a family torn apart by slavery and oppression in feudal Japan, and their struggle to reunite.
“The Life of Oharu” (1952): A poignant exploration of the life of a woman named Oharu and the hardships she faces in feudal Japan, including love, betrayal, and social ostracism.
“The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” (1939): A classic tale of love and sacrifice set in the world of kabuki theater, depicting the challenges and sacrifices of a young actor and his relationship with an older woman.
“Street of Shame” (1956): A social critique of the lives of women working in a brothel in post-war Tokyo, examining the harsh realities they face and the societal norms that contribute to their exploitation.
These films, along with many others in Mizoguchi’s filmography, are known for their powerful storytelling, complex characters, and expert direction.
They often explore themes such as gender inequality, social class, and the struggles of marginalized individuals in Japanese society. Mizoguchi’s films are celebrated for their emotional depth, social commentary, and artistic craftsmanship, and continue to be regarded as classics of Japanese cinema.