Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi (1898 – 1956) is one of the most respected filmmakers in history. Across his long career he made around seventy five films, of which precisely thirty still exist today. He began by making silent films in the early 1920s and then progressed to sound in the late 1930s and color in the 1950s. His work remains sharply political and powerful, filled with arguments for social justice and freedom. Mizoguchi’s cinema was at times socialist, always humanist, and never uncaring. In the 1950s he finally gained worldwide recognition, especially amongst the French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma who saw him as a traditionally Japanese director compared to the supposedly westernized Akira Kurosawa.
Across this long and influential career there is so much to admire. So here’s a ranking to highlight the amazing work of one of cinema’s greatest masters.
30. VICTORY SONG (1945)
This is a World War Two anthology film, of which Mizoguchi contributed just a small section. Its uninteresting propaganda, just skip it.
29. MIYAMOTO MUSASHI (1944)
At around an hour, MIYAMOTO MUSASHI passes by quite quickly. Sadly it’s a dull effort and as with most of Mizoguchi’s war efforts, his heart doesn’t really seem to be in it. Still, it’s not terrible.
28. BIJOMARU’S FAMOUS SWORD (1945)
About as good as MIYAMOTO MUSASHI, this is another work that came out when Mizoguchi faced limited options during World War Two. There are a few cool shots in this one, but it’s also pretty forgettable.
27. SONG OF HOME (1925)
SONG OF HOME is the only Mizoguchi film from the 1920s to survive. It’s a simple silent film, with some nice storytelling but little that’s original. Definitely a solid piece though, and you can see the socially conscious filmmaker begin his usual focus on political themes.
26. THE LOVE OF THE ACTRESS SUMAKO (1947)
While THE LOVE OF THE ACTRESS SUMAKO is not a bad film at all, it’s rather average for Mizoguchi. Given his then post-war freedom, this feels rather pedestrian. Yet there’s still some beauty to be found in some of the theatre scenes.
25. POPPY (1935)
POPPY finds Mizoguchi in an unusually romantic and uplifting mood, even though the melodrama goes through a few twists and turns. It’s solid, sturdy filmmaking but even by the standards of the 1930s Mizoguchi was already making many better films than this.
24. OYUKI THE VIRGIN (1935)
Class was always a part of Mizoguchi’s thoughts, and even in an early film like OYUKI THE VIRGIN it is prominent. The film follows people of different classes forced to share transport as they escape a dangerous situation. It’s unsubtle, but a compelling political piece regardless.
23. VICTORY OF WOMEN (1946)
Mizoguchi’s first film after World War Two dives straight into social politics, looking at how women were treated within Japan’s patriarchal society. While VICTORY OF WOMEN has some clunky storytelling, its final act has some of Mizoguchi’s most politically charged language and thoroughly condemns the social systems that let women suffer.
22. THE STRAITS OF LOVE AND HATE (1937)
THE STRAITS OF LOVE AND HATE is almost Mizoguchi distilled, filled with so many of the tropes and ideas he would repeat and perfect for many more years. By itself, the film is a strong effort, but compared to Mizoguchi’s entire filmography he told similar stories much better many times.
21. THE 47 RONIN (1941)
THE 47 RONIN is a two-part, almost four hour retelling of the classic Japanese story of ronin who seek revenge for their dishonored master. Mizoguchi does not turn the story into an adventure though, instead removing all action and making almost all the runtime consist of talking and politicking. At times it is very boring, and yet at other moments it is a deeply profound meditation on honor and freedom. This isn’t a film for the easily distracted, but it can provide some food for thought if you commit to it.
20. TAIRA CLAN SAGA (1955)
As his penultimate film TAIRA CLAN SAGA is quite distinct in Mizoguchi’s filmography. As well as being one of his two colour films, it also plays more as a historical genre piece than Mizoguchi’s usual dramas. There’s some fun to be had here, and some socially conscious elements, but it’s not classic Mizoguchi by any stretch and probably his weakest film of the 1950s.
19. PORTRAIT OF MADAME YUKI (1950)
PORTRAIT OF MADAME YUKI is a solid drama about a woman stuck in a loveless marriage and seeking escape. It is typical Mizoguchi, though it comes from a brief period in the early 1950s when Mizoguchi explored middle and upper class women stuck in unfortunate circumstances rather than his usual working class characters. There’s not a lot fresh here, but it’s still moving.
18. PRINCESS YANG KWEI FEI (1955)
Rather unexpectedly Mizoguchi made a film set in China. PRINCESS YANG KWEI FEI is a bold and brightly coloured film that draws the eye. The story is one of love and revolution, with a woman paying the ultimate price as always. It’s a beautiful piece, with a grander scale than most Mizoguchi efforts.
17. FLAME OF MY LOVE (1949)
FLAME OF MY LOVE is perhaps the Mizoguchi film that most invests in the minutiae of party politics. It explores Japan’s political turmoil in the late nineteenth century and the founding of a constitution that bound Japan together for the subsequent decades. Mizoguchi finds the struggle of women still prevalent as progress moves forward, signalling his desire for a world that needs to keeps on growing.
16. THE LADY OF MUSASHINO (1951)
This drama is filled with complicated relationships and agreements, all culminating in sad scenes and despair all around. This is a film which touches on Mizoguchi’s usual preoccupations and does so with grace and skill. It’s another great effort.
15. THE WATER MAGICIAN (1933)
Mizoguchi’s silent work is some of the best silent cinema that emerged from Japan. By the 1930s Japan had developed its own cinematic culture, with benshi narration performed by a live actor that would accompany a film. THE WATER MAGICIAN would have been presented like this, and it’s a great film in every respect. It reflects many of the ideas that Mizoguchi would later repeat in sound but still tells a gripping story.
14. THE DOWNFALL OF OSEN (1935)
Mizoguchi’s other surviving silent film from the 1930s is THE DOWNFALL OF OSEN, another work tinged in total sadness. It’s a despairing effort, but so strongly defined. It shares many of the qualities of THE WATER MAGICIAN and remains equally compelling.
13. A GEISHA (1953)
In the middle of his 1950s run of masterpieces Mizoguchi found time to produce a much more minor work, A GEISHA. Ever since his sister was essentially sold into geishadom, Mizoguchi had a fixation with the geisha occupation and the rights of women. Thus A GEISHA is one of his most interesting looks at a job that gave women both independence and great difficulty. While A GEISHA is too slight to be significant, it is nevertheless a thoughtful drama.
12. UTAMARO AND HIS FIVE WOMEN (1946)
Made in a post-war haze, UTAMARO AND HIS FIVE WOMEN tells the story of the famous artist Utamaro. Many see this as a pseudo-autobiographical work, as Utamaro faces difficulty in art, deeply cares for women, and is censored (something certainly on Mizoguchi’s mind having just left World War Two). It’s a compelling film and Mizoguchi’s connection to it makes it all the more beautiful.
11. WOMEN OF THE NIGHT (1948)
At his most daring Mizoguchi was willing to poke holes in the failures of Japanese society. In WOMEN OF THE NIGHT he examines women drawn to prostitution in a devastated Japan and the disastrous consequences that has on health and mental wellbeing. This is a shocking film, with sickening moments and a deep sympathy for those in need. Cinema like this is some of the most vital.
10. WOMAN OF RUMOUR (1954)
Mizoguchi was a repetitious director. Film after film deal with the same ideas and themes around women needlessly sacrificing themselves, women stuck in desperate situations, and social forces ripping apart lovers and happiness. Yet a good story is a good story. This is one of Mizoguchi’s best and while it’s not unique it is still very powerful.
9. OSAKA ELEGY (1936)
Mizoguchi considered OSAKA ELEGY his first mature work. In many ways it is. The film is a turning point, as his melodramas reached a maturity and sophistication that lasted throughout the rest of the career. This is a short and simple drama, but every moment builds up perfectly. It’s a well-rounded effort and executed beautifully.
8. MISS OYU (1951)
MISS OYU is the middle film in Mizoguchi’s little trilogy on the suffering of privileged women. This is the one that really hits the hardest, filled with loveless marriages and lovers who cannot be together. Japan’s social rules are shown as constraining to the point of suffocation. Even when dealing with those who are fortunate Mizoguchi finds ways to show the limitations of social constructs. It’s despairingly perfect.
7. STREET OF SHAME (1956)
Mizoguchi’s final film was STREET OF SHAME. It’s a unique piece, following the lives of a few sex workers as they deal with poverty and upcoming changes to the law. It’s a perfect finale for Mizoguchi, bringing modernity to his cinema but showing that Japan still had a long way to go before achieving a just society. This is a powerful effort and a great swansong.
6. THE CRUCIFIED LOVERS (1954)
Like all Mizoguchi films THE CRUCIFIED LOVERS deals with those in unfortunate circumstances. Here love itself is persecuted and people find themselves killed just for loving the wrong people. THE CRUCIFIED LOVERS is considered a classic for good reason and its gripping narrative of a couple on the run makes for one of Mizoguchi’s most exciting films. Although nothing in Mizoguchi’s world is truly exciting so of course it all ends in tragedy.
5. SISTERS OF THE GION (1936)
SISTERS OF THE GION easily bested all of Mizoguchi’s work up until that point. It’s a fantastic drama, drawing once again on the lives of geishas. It deals with poverty, sacrifice, and love. Moments here switch from tender to sickening and it’s all so heart-breaking by the end. SISTERS OF THE GION is a classic Mizoguchi social drama and one of his very best.
4. THE LIFE OF OHARU (1952)
Considered one of the greatest films ever made by some critics, THE LIFE OF OHARU is unbelievably bleak. The film follows a woman who descends the social hierarchy through endless misfortune. Her love for someone below her class leads only to her punishment, then endless pain and humiliation. Told with a flashback structure, this is Mizoguchi’s most unrelentingly sad work as we witness both the glory and failure of our lead simultaneously. Mizoguchi’s most frequent collaborator, actress Kinuyo Tanaka, delivers her best performance in the lead role, and acting legend Toshiro Mifune has a small role. THE LIFE OF OHARU is a film to forever cry at, it’s a tragic masterpiece.
3. SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954)
Said by many to be Mizoguchi’s best, SANSHO THE BAILIFF is the story of two children sold into slavery. It is, as one expects from Mizoguchi, very emotional. By far Mizoguchi’s most brutal film, SANSHO THE BAILIFF is drawn from the pain of history and the many people who have suffered throughout time. It is filled with pointless vengeance and unstoppable regret. Whereas many Mizoguchi films centre on the pain of women, this is a film about the pain of all. Its final moments are despair with little solace and every second of the story before then are a tragedy.
2. THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUMS (1939)
Before his streak of masterpieces in the 1950s, Mizoguchi’s best film by far was THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUMS. Following an arrogant artist who falls with love with a woman below his status, this is a statement on class and the way women were expected to fall in line and sacrifice themselves for men. Mizoguchi’s stinging critiques of a society that demands women suffer is never more strongly felt than in the emotional third act of this film. His socially conscious cinema remains relevant to this day and this one is a particularly special effort.
1. UGETSU (1953)
Widely considered one of the finest films ever made, UGETSU is cinematic perfection. Mizoguchi’s greatest film is one of history and spirituality, something less grounded than usual for the political director. This is a love story filled with war and death. The camera moves across the narrative as if unfurling a great tapestry of blood and tears. This is art cinema at its finest and one of the most transcendent pieces of cinema. Mankind is selfish and cruel, and Mizoguchi’s film finds that even love cannot stop us from our worst tendencies. It’s a potent concoction of myth and reality. Perfection.
Kenji Mizoguchi spent his career making thoughtful pieces of cinema that demanded better of society. His work was respected initially and then considered outdated later on. However by that time his success had reached the rest of the world. Mizoguchi shaped the cinema of Japan in a way that many would repeat in the following decades. While he is not always as well-known as contemporaries like Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, his films are still great. So few filmmakers made cinema as selfless and caring as Mizoguchi, and even fewer are so consistent in their fight for social change. Almost all his films are magnificent and if you have not seen any, they are well worth seeking out.