David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging

Mizoguchi the Inexhaustible

Preparing this sidebar for Figures Traced in Light, I can’t help but recall a fall day in 1969. It was then that I came out of the old Bleecker Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, tears pricking my eyes. Sansho the Bailiff struck me with an impact it retains on every viewing; sometimes I feel that I shouldn’t watch it again, for fear that its lustre will dim. It’s a wonderful film to see in your early twenties, based as it is upon the painful ties to your home and the sense that going into the world can soil you forever. (Why is it named after him? I always ask my classes. Isn’t it a bit like changing the title of Othello to Iago? My own view is that for Mizoguchi the world we live in, unhappily for us, belongs to its bailiffs.) A couple of years later I would see Chikamatsu Monogatari, Ugetsu, Life of Oharu, and Street of Shame. By the late 1970s, I was convinced that Mizoguchi was one of the masters of world cinema.

Indeed, you could make a credible case that the two greatest directors in the history of film were both Japanese. Ozu Yasujiro and Mizoguchi Kenji are opposed in many respects; for one thing, Ozu has a rich sense of humor and Mizoguchi displays virtually none. But both understood that cinema is at once a narrative, performative, and pictorial medium, and they explored all three dimensions. Their explorations were highly original, while remaining deeply indebted to tradition. In Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (Princeton University Press, 1988), I tried to show that Ozu’s work is a thoughtful effort to build a stylistic system that had the rigor of the mainstream continuity style but that permitted a range of more nuanced and playful effects. Chapter 3 of Figures Traced in Light paints Mizoguchi as a more eclectic artist. I emphasize his visual side while also trying to show how his pictorial intelligence affected his storytelling and his conception of performance. In the following reflections I trace out some issues I didn’t pursue in the book. I’ve had to restrain myself, for I’d love to examine in detail virtually all his films. For the student of cinematic artistry, his work is inexhaustible.

A Master of Editing?

Critics have rightly celebrated Mizoguchi as the supreme exponent of the long take, but his early work displays a command of most of those resources of editing that emerged in world cinema during the 1920s. As my chapter indicates, his earliest surviving film, Song of Home (1925) displays thorough knowledge of the continuity system promulgated by American cinema. Like his contemporaries, Mizoguchi made effortless use of the 180-degree system, eyeline matching, matches on movement, cuts linking adjacent spaces, point-of-view shots, and all the other editing devices we associate with mainstream commercial cinema of the period. No long takes of the sort we’ll find in his 1930s silent films are evident in Song of Home. Instead, Mizoguchi here enlists in the tradition of what I’ve called “piecemeal decoupage,” the analytical approach characteristic of the contemporary-life films (gendai-geki) made at the Shochiku studios. Like Ozu, Naruse, and other exponents of this style, Mizoguchi varies his shot scales a bit more than an American would. For example, when the scholar offers Naotaro a reward for saving his daughter, no setups are repeated across the five shots.

  1. (plan-americain) The scholar offers Naotaro some bills.
  2. (close-up) Bills in the scholar’s hand.
  3. (ms) Naotaro and friend, three-quarter view.
  4. (ms) Naotaro’s point of view: the scholar extends the money to the camera.
  5. (mcu) Reverse angle: Narotaro looks at the money extending into the shot.

Fig. 3A.1

Fig. 3A.2

Fig. 3A.3
Still, if we’re looking for a prefiguration of Mizoguchi’s later work, this film exhibits cutting patterns that show a sensitivity to foreground/ background relations. In the climactic scene, when the professors come to Naotaro’s house to offer to fund his education, Mizoguchi covers the entire scene in thirty-eight shots (plus eight intertitles), and although some setups are repeated, there is a delicate variation in the framings, each of which brings different dramatic elements to our notice. We start with the overall ensemble (Fig. 3A.1), eventually move to Naotaro flanked by the two educators (Fig. 3A.2), before reaching the climax, showing Naotaro and his mother and sister behind him, as he declines to leave the countryside. “Getting an education is good, but I must be a farmer who is independent and self-aware” (Fig. 3A.3).

Other editing trends were at play in world cinema of the 1920s, and Mizoguchi seems no less aware of them. French, German, and Russian directors, as well as some U.S. filmmakers, experimented with rapid cutting, made rhythmic by increasingly brief shot lengths. This tactic was also pursued in Japan, particularly by directors working in the swordplay genre (chanbara). It’s likely that some of Mizoguchi’s lost films would bear traces of this influence, but even in the condensed version of Tokyo March (1929) we can glimpse this tendency in a fast-cut tennis match. A similar moment of visual rhetoric appears in The Poppy (1935), when Ono, walking the street with his sweetheart, encounters the wealthy young woman who’s out to seduce him. Their encounter is played out in a flurry of very short shots:

  1. Ono and Sayoko talking; she runs into close-up.
  2. Low angle: After Sayoko nearly bumps into a rickshaw, Ono steps up.
  3. (ms) Ono looks right. (25 frames)
  4. Reverse-shot: Fujio in the rickshaw, stares. (15 frames)
  5. (ms) Ono, as 3, still looking. (13 frames)
  6. Fujio, as 4. (39 frames)
  7. (ms) Ono and Sayoko, looking. (35 frames)
  8. Slight jump cut: Ono looking, as 5. (13 frames)
  9. Fujio, as 6. (11 frames)
  10. All three; after a pause, Fujio orders the driver to continue. Ono and Sayoko stare after her.

The accelerating/ decelerating editing, reminiscent of Feuillade in our the webpage extract from L’Orpheline, is a good example of the sort of visual flourish that was common in silent cinema. It was infrequent in the mature sound cinema, though we can find it in Hitchcock’s work and in Hollywood’s “montage sequences” of the 1930s and 1940s. This rhythmic editing scheme recurs in several films of the 1960s, e.g., A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the climax of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966).

Fig. 3A.4

Fig. 3A.5

Fig. 3A.6
Such editing flourishes are also on display in Taki no shiraito (White Threads of the Waterfall, 1933), in a swift montage that inserts pulsating flashbacks to a coach ride into a scene showing Taki making up for a performance with. No less impressive is the climactic courtroom scene. Taki faces the judges, one of whom is the young man she has supported through law school. My chapter points out that there are some forty-five camera setups for the scene’s eighty-five images, and I indicate the remarkable way that Mizoguchi creates dramatic impact through insisting on rapidly cut singles of Taki and her judges, with tight depth-composed close views (Figs. 3.19 and 3.20, p. 100). The whole effect is reminiscent of Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). And despite the film’s frequent long takes, Mizoguchi can always spare a moment for a very creative cut, as when after Taki has begged Kin to save her, they pass to the bars of her cell. Amid several aperture framings (for example, Fig. 3A.4 (right); compare Figs. 3.116 and 3.117 in the book, from Sansho the Bailiff), Mizoguchi gives us a startling graphic match showing the two of them in similar positions, the slats maintaining the aperture conceit (Figs. 3A.5 and 3A.6).

On the evidence we have, it doesn’t seem that Mizoguchi simply went from being a cutting-based director to being a staging-based one. The fancy cutting just mentioned occurs in films that also rely on long takes and ensemble staging. It seems that for a time he held both approaches in balance (as Welles did in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Othello, and Touch of Evil). In the surviving films from 1936 to 1941 Mizoguchi favored staging-based effects, but after the war he resumed the pluralistic approach seen in the earliest surviving films. Audacious though his editing occasionally was, he didn’t construct an alternative, full-bodied system as Ozu did over the same period.

The Love of Sumako the Actress (1947)

This remarkable film, as I note in the chapter, recalls the daring experiments in depth and darkness Mizoguchi undertook in Naniwa Elegy and Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. It might be regarded as his last effort in this direction before moving toward the flexible, pluralistic style of his last decade.

Mizoguchi’s audience would have recognized Matsui Sumako as a scandal-plagued celebrity. Between 1912 and 1919 she and her mentor-lover Shimamura Hogetsu helped create modern westernized drama in Japan (shingeki), and her tours and recorded songs made her a household name and the prototype of the free woman. Shimamura’s associates often portrayed Matsui as an unsophisticated prima donna who lured the weak-willed director away from his wife and children. (See Phyllis Birnbaum, Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: 5 Japanese Women [New York: Columbia University Press, 1999], pp. 1 to 52.) But Mizoguchi wanted Yoda’s script to present her as “feminine and sympathetic,” displaying “the psychology of a modern woman” (quoted in Yoda Yoshikata, Souvenirs de Kenji Mizoguchi, trans. Koichi Yamada, Bernard Béraud, and André Moulin [Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1997], pp. 70, 74). In this he was following not only Occupation censorship guidelines but also an alternative view of his heroine. For many, Matsui showed that a woman could find success in a rigid society on her own terms. Her demands, even her tantrums, showed her supreme dedication to her art and to Shimamura’s goal of modern theatre. This dedication, admirers pointed out, explains why she committed suicide soon after his death and following her triumphant portrayal of Carmen.

At first, however, the film gives us very little access to Sumako. One might expect that a biography of the actress would begin with her early life, or at least the circumstances that lead up to her joining drama school. Instead, as so often in Mizoguchi’s films, the man’s life is presented first, and the woman enters it. The opening scenes show Shimamura teaching, conferring with his colleagues, and casting Sumako as Nora in A Doll’s House. The plot traces his growing affection for her, emphasizing the damage it does to his family and the contrition he feels. In the sequence when he leaves his household forever, he apologizes to his wife, his mother, and his daughter—who has lost a suitor because of her father’s affair with Sumako. In this version of history Shimamura emerges as no weakling, but rather a man so committed to the ideals of modern drama, including the liberation from convention, that he must live them outside the theatre.

The plot has a fascinatingly “staggered,” or shifting-spotlight structure. Shimamura has the initiative in the first eighteen sequences, and he is present in every scene except one, when Sumako is pushed to leave her home after Shimamura abandons his family. The result of concentrating on Shimamura is to deny us access to Sumako’s mental life when she isn’t around around others; we are given only one glimpse of her dutifully studing her part. Once Shimamura starts living with her, the narrational focus fastens on the couple, usually seen among their theatre troupe as they struggle to find and sustain success. Nine sequences trace their life together, and in these scenes Sumako is shown as short-tempered but also supremely committed—urging the actors forward, demanding a decent rehearsal hall, accepting endless tours to pay the bills. Once Shimamura collapses, the narrative’s focus shifts decisively to Sumako as she confronts Shimamura’s wife and mother and decides to struggle on.

Fig. 3A.7

Fig. 3A.8

Fig. 3A.9

Fig. 3A.10

Kinugasa Teinosuke filmed a Sumako biography at the same time (Actress, 1947) and filled it with close-ups, but most scenes in The Love of the Actress Sumako consist of distant framings, often in chiaroscuro. In one daring shot, as Shimamura walks out on his wife and mother, his departure is barely visible in a slot just above the heads of the two weeping women (Fig. 3A.7). In keeping with the plot’s roundabout treatment of its heroine, Mizoguchi reserves the closest shots of Sumako for performances or rehearsals, as if to sharpen the difference between theatre and life. A major turning point in this stylistic pattern occurs when, as Sumako is ill, Shimamura gives her a ring pledging their love. The camera tracks in with him to a medium-shot of her lying down, the closest the camera has come to her so far; she admires the ring, then carefully turns back to studying her text (Figs. 3A.8 to 3A.10). Even in this intimate moment, the narration is fairly circumspect about her affection for her lover, instead stressing her dedication to her art. Once Shimamura has died, however, we get the first and only scene of Sumako alone. It is handled in a manner which we instantly recognize, but it is followed by a shot-change which, in the context of this film, is little less than shocking.

Fig. 3A.11

Fig. 3A.12

Fig. 3A.13

Fig. 3A.14

Fig. 3A.15

Fig. 3A.16

Sumako comes home from a performance and refuses to eat, sitting disconsolately in the distant foreground (Fig. 3A.11). As so often, Mizoguchi’s simple panning movement turns a long-shot framing into a closer one, as she comes forward and rightward to kneel before the memorial shrine she has created for Shimamura (Fig. 3A.12). After lighting an incense stick, she asks how her performance was tonight. After long pauses, she responds to his silence by breaking down—first with her face more or less turned toward us, then covered by her hands (Fig. 3A.13); then she curls up in grief (Fig. 3A.14). She rises to beseech him one last time before turning definitively from the camera and pressing into the wall as the image fades out (Figs. 3A.15 to  3A.16). It is a typical Mizoguchi emotional transition, from a full-face but distant view to a closer but oblique one, until finally, as the character’s despair reaches its height, dorsality and a retreat from the camera take over.


Fig. 3A.17

Fig. 3A.18

Fig. 3A.19

Fig. 3A.20

As I indicate in the chapter, this moment stands in for Sumako’s suicide, which takes place between sequences at the end of the film. This is the most private and intense display of Sumako’s emotions to be found in the film. True to form, however, Mizoguchi contrasts his reticent staging with the following shot, which presents Sumako as a turbulent, demanding Carmen (Fig. 3A.17), challenging us full-face as Ayako did at the close of Naniwa Elegy (Fig. 3.47 in the book). Then, after showing us the performance in a mix of tightly composed shots and flamboyant depth (Figs. 3A.18 to 3A.19), Mizoguchi provides a fascinating long-take scene of Sumako’s backstage outburst, using one of his distant-depth compositions (Fig. 3A.20). There remain only her death as Carmen onstage (another substitute for her suicide); the discovery of her hanged body; and her funeral. As so often in Mizoguchi, the woman enters an already-established world of men and money, and she leaves them behind puzzling over what she has done.

© David Bordwell 2003.

David Bordwell
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