Read all the Russians, and then reread them," goes a line in the novel The Namesake. "They will never fail you." That's how I feel about the great Japanese directors. They make other filmmakers come off as petty magicians or mere children.
Akira Kurosawa may be the only Japanese master most Americans know. But Kenji Mizoguchi, in his prime, gave the filmmaker we today recognize as sensei a run for his yen. Kurosawa's most famous work, Seven Samurai, hit the man's-man's jugular vein. Mizoguchi could attack sweeping masculine subjects while paying equal attention to the women on his canvas. He brought cutting psychology and eroticism to folk tales and history.
That's what he does in the high points of the Kenji Mizoguchi Masterworks series at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring this month, with movies that won back-to-back Silver Lion awards at the Venice Film Festival: his great 1953 Ugetsu this weekend and his even greater, and possibly greatest, Sansho the Bailiff two weeks from now.
Ugetsu is an almost incomparably beautiful tale of two peasant friends who follow parallel routes to euphoria and disaster. A potter becomes an artist; his neighbor and help-mate becomes a samurai. The movie is about the eternal existential wrestling matches between passion and household romance, and between duty and fulfillment. These men love their women and want to "make good" for their families. But their ambitions wreak havoc on the fates of their wives.
Even before Ugetsu becomes a spectacular ghost story, Mizoguchi treats war as a time when apocalyptic specters walk the Earth. The artist-antihero risks everything to save his pottery when an enemy army ransacks his village. Of course, he wants to profit from increased demand, but he also has a craftsman's urge to protect his handiwork. After an elegant if spooky aristocrat surveys his goods, she appeals to his aesthetic pride: She says he can deepen his skills if he leaves his old life (and his wife) and marries her. He gets lost in hubris and ecstasy. In the middle of their lovemaking, the potter cries, "I never imagined such pleasures existed."
Mizoguchi's moviemaking is so dizzyingly expressive and empathic that the audience feels the same way. The movie never becomes arty or precious. In a confoundingly moving and complex conclusion, Mizoguchi makes you believe in ghosts - and makes you feel the better for it.
Sansho the Bailiff (1954) brings to mind the first line of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." It has a penetrating mournfulness. Mizoguchi develops his medieval fable about moral freedom and slavery with intuition, cunning and an overarching sense of tragedy; as it uncoils, this masterwork spirals and expands to encompass all the tricks of history and fate, all the failures of ethics and character that can defeat an idealist's best intentions.
Despite the antiquity of Mizoguchi's epic folk tale, it speaks to a world scarred by fascism. The setting is an 11th-century regime that rewards automatic obedience and efficiency, punishes individualism and altruism, and condones private slave camps that grind men and women to death. The whole environment - physical, emotional, and moral - is close to that of Schindler's List. When the antihero, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), an escaped slave who becomes a governor, succeeds in freeing his former fellow captives, he, like Oskar Schindler, loses everything except his self-respect.
It may seem odd for Mizoguchi to name the movie for its villain - the ruthless taskmaster of a sprawling slave compound - instead of for the late-blooming Zushio. But the choice reflects the director's tragic vision. The film is about virtue tortured and altered, emerging partially triumphant. Zushio's statesman father, exiled because he shielded his peasants from a military draft, taught his son that "without mercy, a man is like a beast." When kidnappers separate Zushio and his sister, Anju, from their mother - the children are sold into bondage, the mother into prostitution - the boy can't hold onto his father's ideals. In Sansho's inferno, Zushio becomes a barbarian. Like the worst concentration-camp Kapo, he willingly follows Sansho's command to brand attempted escapees on the forehead.
The first half-hour, which depicts the downfall of Zushio's father and the dispersal of his family, is a cascade of flashbacks and present-tense action. (Kinuyo Tanaka brings a vibrant sensitivity and eloquence to the role of the mother - she's the movie's heart as much as the father is its conscience.) The most beautiful and ominous image is of the family members walking through a field of long grass and reeds, the flora floating above their heads like a medieval army's plumes; the most devastating sequence shows the mother and nurse being thrown into a boat while the children are seized onshore.