Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Born Today May 16: Kenji Mizoguchi


Kenji Mizoguchi was born into a barely mid-class parents class family in the Hongo region of Tokyo, Japan.  When his father put all of the family's money into an investment selling raincoats to Japanese soldier during Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905); the war ended quickly and the investment went belly up.  At this point the family was forced to give his older sister up for adoption and move to the seedy Asakusa area of Tokyo--in close proximity to brothels and theaters.  He found out that sister had been effectively sold into "geishadom;" this had a profound effect on his psyche and influenced him for the rest of his life.  Ironically, the event would also be the gateway to his entrance into the world of acting and film making.  During his very early adolescence, he was pulled from school--his parents too poor by this time to continue to pay for it-- sent north to Morioka to live with relative for a year; and spent another year back with his parents back in Tokyo in bed with a crippling case of juvenile arthritis.  After he began to recover, it was his sister who got him a job as an apprentice designing kimonos and yakatas.  This was the beginning of his path to the theater.  He moved in with her, and she effectively took the best care of him that he had ever received in his young life.  She paid for him to study western painting in school and to pursue a new found passion in opera.  He managed, through this interest, to get a job at the Royal Theater helping design and put up sets for performances. When he found himself out of work, his sister again came to the rescue, securing work for him at a newspaper in Kobe.  All of these experiences would inform both his style of writing screenplays and their subject matter.  In his writing he was also greatly influenced by Eugene O'Neill and Tolstoy.  In his film making, German expressionism was a profound influence and inspiration.  He was a quick film maker; often he was able to complete a full length feature in mere weeks.  It is a sad fact that so many of his early work starting in the 1920's and through the 1930's is lost.  The body of work accounts for anywhere between over 50 to 130 films (some sources cite that he made 90 silent films in the 1920's alone!); only a handful survive.  Still, his films managed to greatly influence a litany of younger directors from Orson Welles to Jean-Luc Goddard.  It is thought that his first film was Yor yami no sasyakî, which dates from 1923.  The first film that he wrote the story for also came in 1923 with Kokyô.  So many of his early films have been lost, that there has only been 1 release of any of his works dating from the 1920's, and even that is a partially lost film.  Tôkyô kôsghinkyoku dates from 1929, and has only ever been released domestically in Japan.  His first sound film dates from 1930, which fortunately still survives; Fujiware Yoshie no furusato is a sparsely worded film, using the Mina Talkie System (we would probably categorize the film as partial silent, though it's clear from his direction, that the talking parts are meant to be "sprinkled in").  It would not be until after World War II however, that he would come into his own as a director.  By the time of a his untimely death in 1956, he had become world famous and greatly admired by industry insiders--being named one of three great golden age Japanese directors.  He was, for example, the director of the original The 47 Ronin (1941).  He probably best remembered for the 1953 Ugetsu (it is certainly a personal favorite of mine).  The last film that he completed was Street Of Shame; at the time of his death, he was working on a film entitled Osaka Story--the film was never completed by another director.  Mizoguchi died at the age of 58 on August 24th after battle leukemia.  He is buried at the Ikegami Honmonji Temple with a full stone memorial marker.

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