16. “Sansho the Bailiff”, Kenji Mizoguchi (1954)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Sansho the Bailiff

Sansho the Bailiff aka 山椒大夫 or Sanshō Dayū

dir. Kenji Mizoguchi scr. Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda based on the short story by Mori Ōgai cin. Kazuo Miyagawa with Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyōko Kagawa, Eitarō Shindō

In 100 words: Mizoguchi’s greatest movie is also one of the bleakest tale of morality—an examination of the choices, good or bad, that people make when faced with dire circumstances. Mizoguchi’s formalist direction is awe-inspiring: his careful compositions, his elegant camera work, his actors’ performances, his music, his meticulous edits deepen the emotions of a folkloric tale. Though often accused of blight miserabilism, here it functions as a worldview and he paints a dark one so eloquently, even teasing out the historical, religious, and sociopolitical contexts of the era. The powerful denouement is an astonishing synthesis of everything that came before. Bravo.

Other Movies for Context: Whereas The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums felt like a more gentle and romantic story, this one is absolutely bleak–going for all out thrills than tears (although there’s plenty of the latter to be had). In his oeuvre, it feels closest to Ugetsu (1953), because the crucial tense scenes bear striking resemblance in power to this.

 

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31. “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum”, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

story of the last chrysanthemums.jpg

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum aka 残菊物語 or Zangiku monogatari

dir. Kenji Mizoguchi scr. Matsutarō Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda based on the novel by Shôfû Muramatsu cin. Yozo Fuji and Minoru Miki with Shotaro Hanayagi, Kokichi Takada, and Gonjuro Kawarazaki

In 100 words: Mizoguchi, one of the greatest Japanese directors, finds himself pushing the boundaries of the cinematic form with this beautiful take on a man’s obsession with his art and the woman who helps him reach his peak. His mise-en-scene provide not only cultural context, but informs the characters’ complex emotions. But it’s his tracking shots, shooting through obstacles and only matched by Ophuls, to evoke strong feelings and keep audiences engaged as tensions rise and fall onscreen. Every nuance and movement in the story builds slowly, but surely, until it reaches a devastating ending. Prepare to cry a boatload of tears.

Other Movies for Context: What a great discovery this one was. Mizoguchi is among my favorite directors, one who had such strong interest in women. This particular movie deals equally with the story of Kiku and Otoku. The obvious films by his that has some resonance with this are The Life of Oharu (1952), a weepie that focuses on the life of a Japanese woman as she goes from one man to another, The Crucified Lovers (1954), which bears striking resemblance to this with similar emotional textures and grace, and Street of Shame (1956), the only contemporary-set movie I’ve seen of his, focusing on women who work in the brothel. Mizoguchi would show up one more time on this list.