Kenji Mizoguchi Reaches for the Stars

Two of the director's newly restored late-period works, “Sansho the Bailiff” and “A Story From Chikamatsu,” achieve galactic force


As it has been revealed in dribs and drabs over the past decade, the famous twenty-year gap between Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998) was actually a rich period of planning and writing for the publicity-shy auteur. One of his most fascinating coulda-been endeavors during this interval was a stage adaptation of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (or, for the purist, the more elegantly transliterated Sanshō Dayū), which was workshopped at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the early Nineties, after Malick persuaded, briefly, the great Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds) to direct. As fate would have it, the undertaking did not cross the threshold into public view, and that was that.

But there came a notion from Malick’s eventual return to filmmaking — the meditative contrast he establishes between “the way of nature” and “the way of grace” in The Tree of Life (2011) — that can help unlock many of the conflicts that obsessed Mizoguchi (1898–1956) throughout his career. Across his most celebrated works, Mizoguchi invariably focused on rigidly diagrammed dramatic axes: seismic cultural shifts in Japanese history (like the Meiji period, a significant phase of rising modernization); the rampant exploitation of women and underprivileged classes; codes of conduct that allowed no margin for error or flexibility. Mizoguchi’s variation on nature versus grace tended to play out as a conflict between, on the one hand, social codes and expectations (for it is man’s nature to be beastly and inflexible) that grind down people of limited agency, and, on the other, the plight of those limited-agency types, whose fragile mortality belied a connection with the eternal. It’s a hard world for little things, but, in Mizoguchi’s philosophy, only the things that could be stepped on, bruised, and broken were worthy of his highest esteem. He made this clear by seeing the tiniest, briefest of gestures — a stifled sob or an infinitesimally precise reframing — as actions that could echo the rotation of heavenly bodies.

Mizoguchi is the rare artist whose career boasts peak after peak, but the new 4K restoration and re-release of Sansho the Bailiff, alongside A Story From Chikamatsu (both from 1954), may almost be too much to handle. To give you an idea, imagine if Stanley Kubrick released a second movie in 1975, within a few months of Barry Lyndon, and it also happened to be pretty terrific. That’s the double feature coming to Film Forum for a week, beginning tomorrow.

During the Twenties and Thirties, Mizoguchi underwent an important transformation, from a workhorse director churning out five to ten pictures a year to a more contemplative artist, foregrounding an evolving preoccupation with social ills and prejudiced-against people. Unfortunately, most of his films from this earliest era are lost, but enough of his later work survives that we’re reasonably equipped to trace some of his major career contours. Most germane to this 1954 match-up is the fact that Mizoguchi’s postwar period saw him narrow much of his focus onto stories of downtrodden women. It was not long into this stretch that he hit his stride: International recognition at the Cannes and Venice film festivals, as well as a revitalized in-demand status at the global box office, helped make it clear that he would enjoy the best returns by sticking to costume dramas and at least nominally melodramatic plots. Very few of his last films are set in an era contemporaneous with the films themselves. (The most luminous exception is his swan song, 1956’s Street of Shame.) Perhaps empowered by this acclaim and modicum of success, Mizoguchi, who had already made many great pictures, underwent a period of artistic prosperity comparable with Hitchcock and Ford, in which the unity of his precise, elaborate camerawork, dense mise-en-scène, and acting direction reached an apex.

Both of the restored films draw on source material well-regarded in Japanese theater and literature. A Story From Chikamatsu is an adaptation of an eighteenth-century play by Chikamatsu (real name: Sugimori Nobumori) about a star-crossed love affair between a married woman and a shop assistant who works for her husband, an affluent scroll-maker. It’s a sad spin on Bonnie Raitt’s romance anthem: The townspeople keep saying that Osan (Kyōko Kagawa) and Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa) laugh just a little too loud, stare just a little too long, and, tragically, these busybodies are soon given something to talk about. The film’s oft-used alternate English title, The Crucified Lovers, lurid enticement that it is, somewhat inaccurately emphasizes the fate of the doomed lovers as the only dramatic vein worth mining. Given the polyvalent strands connecting the couple’s circumstances to a host of subplots, creating a dazzling array of conflicts and turnabouts, this truly is a story from Chikamatsu, within which the ballad of Mohei and Osan exerts a pitiless mechanical force, like a trebuchet, that forever alters the lives of those around them.

Not only one of Mizoguchi’s most renowned works, but a film that’s regularly shortlisted as one of the greatest in all of cinema, Sansho the Bailiff unfurls across a longer timeline. Adapted from a short story written by celebrated author Mori Ōgai in the early part of the twentieth century, Sansho strings together a series of episodes in the life of a small family that time and tide slowly tears into pieces. A masterpiece managed with exquisite patience, the film is slow-moving only in the sense that it doesn’t have to move for anybody; Mizoguchi’s hands and eyes search out every crevice along the eternal landscape, granting his characters clemency, or breaking their legs, based on the roll of an infinite-sided die.

What distinguishes A Story From Chikamatsu from Sansho the Bailiff, apart from story, is a league distinction, like the number of degrees separating John Ford’s Bucking Broadway (1917) from John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Both are fine films, but the latter is about equidistant between Earth and the cosmos. The two Mizoguchi films share a release year, and Chikamatsu is a considerably more advanced episodic period tragedy than Bucking Broadway is a western comedy, but, compared to Sansho, it’s a little more prosaic — a crushing melodrama, but one that runs at a relatively comfortable tempo. The scene and shot transitions in Chikamatsu simply don’t have the immeasurable gravitational force that we experience in Sansho, whose every cut threatens to swallow a galaxy.

None of this is to deny the excellence of A Story From Chikamatsu — that would be like saying our sun, which isn’t very big, as stars go, also isn’t very hot. It’s a sun all right; in fact, moviegoers who consider themselves saplings when it comes to Mizoguchi may benefit from soaking up its rays, before attempting exposure to the red supergiant that is Sansho the Bailiff, an annihilating body if ever there was one.

A Story From Chikamatsu, Sansho the Bailiff
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Janus Films
Opens April 6, Film Forum