By now, every cinephile, and perhaps even some casual moviegoers, have heard that Janus Films’ Mizoguchi series is the most essential cinema currently playing in New York Theaters. So if you’re in the city, and especially if you’ve only seen Ugetsu there shouldn’t be any excuse for not running to Film Forum. What else are you gonna see? Gridiron Gang? Little Miss Sunshine? Come on. Pared down to about six films, the series is anything but complete (he made over 80 films, stretching from the silent period to the late Fifties), yet the result is a primer for this most elegant and emotional of Japanese filmmakers; each film is a revelation. My own revelation this weekend was my first viewing of Mizoguchi’s devastating (natch) Life of Oharu, a throat-grabbing lullaby of suffering, the propulsive, quiet forward trajectory of which would be categorized as Bressonian if not for Mizoguchi’s oft penchant for melodrama. Here, as in Sansho the Bailiff, the mix of the two sensibilities, of restrained fatalism and narrative catharsis, results in a terribly delicate portrait of impending doom: a late 17th century woman’s journey (no, freefall) from lady-in-waiting to aged street whore, detailed in those always impressive Mizoguchi tableaux, marked by quiet camera movements, tilts, pans, or graceful slides which reveal just a little more in the shot than you previously expected. What’s most impressive, even dazzling, about the wretched, sad little Life of Oharu is that Mizoguchi manages to make this epic tale of humiliation into a consistently engaging, almost novelistic panorama: each sequence, though describing just one more notch in the ever tightening belt of one woman’s elongated process of dehumanization and diminishing sense of self, maintains its own discrete sense of morality, justice, and episodic resolution. Also impressive is that Mizoguchi’s camera keeps a safe distance from Kinuyo Tanaka’s powder-pale Oharu throughout (there are no close-ups to tell us how she’s feeling; we glean it from the unimaginable circumstances surrounding her), while still managing to create something almost unbearably intimate through her placement in the frame. Whether surrounded by tall, swaying trees, or the confined walls of her various masters’ domains, Oharu, though denied individuality, treated as more a societal fixture and nuisance, maintains dignity. Although Mizoguchi doesn’t accomplish this as blatantly as Fellini did in Nights of Cabiria (Mizoguchi might not have gone for that whole “Circus of Life” thing), he also ends his tragic heroine’s journey with a song, here an isolated prayer.
Mizoguchi’s films will be playing at Film Forum through the end of the week, and then the series will travel to Pleasantville, New York’s Jacob Burns Film Center on September 29, the Detroit Institute of Art on October 29, and Chicago’s Music Box Theater on November 17. For more information, click here.