“A director [metteur en scène] should never stop being young.”1
“How to talk about Mizoguchi without falling into a double trap: the specialist’s jargon or the humanist’s? Maybe these films sprung from the tradition or the spirit of noh or of kabuki but then who will teach us their profound meaning and would that not be like trying to explain the unknown through the unknowable? Undeniably, Mizoguchi’s art is founded on the play of personal genius within the frame of a dramatic tradition; but do we get any further by the desire to approach it in terms of civilization, by wanting to find there, above all, certain universal values? The fact that men are men at all latitudes is quite foreseeable; if we are surprised at this, that only teaches us something about ourselves.
But these films – that, in an unknown tongue, tell us stories utterly foreign to our customs and our ways –, these films actually do speak to us in a familiar language. What language? The only one to which, all things considered, a filmmaker should lay claim: that of the mise-en-scène. And modern artists haven’t discovered African fetishes by converting to idols, rather because these curious objects touched them in terms of sculpture. If music is a universal idiom, then the same goes for mise-en-scène: it is this language that should be learned to understand ‘Mizoguchi’, not Japanese. A common language, but wielded here to such a degree of purity that our Western cinema has seldom known.
His universe is that of the irremediable; but there, fate is not at once destiny: neither Fate nor Furies. No submissive consent, rather the road to reconciliation; what matter the tales of the ten films we know today? All of them survive in that pure time that is the eternal present: past and future time often merge their waters there, the very same meditation on duration flows through them all; they all elapse into the calm delight of one who has overcome the illusory phenomena of perspectives. The only suspense is that of this line rising unfettered towards a certain stage of ecstasy, the ‘correspondence’ of these final notes, of these chords held on without end and which do not come full circle but expire with the breath of the musician.
In the end everything coincides in the search for a central place where appearances and that which we call ‘nature’ (or shame, or death), are reconciled with man – a quest akin to those of German high-romanticism, of a Rilke, of an Eliot –, and which is also that of the camera: always placed at the exact point so that the slightest shift bends all lines of space, and upends the secret face of the world and of its gods.
An art of modulation.”2
Hajime Takizawa: “To conclude, according to you, what is mise-en-scène?”
Kenji Mizoguchi: “It’s man! One must try to express man adequately.”3
“Acknowledgement, reconciliation: everything in Mizoguchi’s oeuvre, and particularly in this total film that is Ugetsu monogatari, speaks to us of unity. Yes, the accumulation of their adventures arouses our interest in the characters, and not out of compassion. And if there are fables here, even profusely so, it’s not towards the absurd repetition of perpetual movement that our thoughts are directed. The movement tends to its own extinction, devoting itself to the idea of a balance that can escape this movement instead of being founded on it: to attach itself to that which stays, also means to get out of dialectic hell. And sure, it’s tempting to discern the reflection of the Greek philosophers in that which manifestly carries the seal of Buddhist thought; is it Parmenides being staged there or rather the sermon at Benares? What does it matter if the mise-en-scène lends a fresh glow to either: thought nourishes the artist and the other way around. If Bergman’s films are above all meditations on mankind and Preminger’s are meditations on the mise-en-scène, Mizoguchi’s films are meditations on mankind put in terms of the mise-en-scène. What is man? But also, what is the mise-en-scène? Here these two questions seem to us inseparably connected in such a way that to answer one is to answer the other. Not one shot in Ugetsu monogatari contradicts the beauty of the opening sequence, not one is inferior to the ambition that can be read in it: to succeed through the most harmonious movements in erasing the artifice with the splendour of the real. For this refined art never refines its own prestige, avoiding in this way the coarse traps of preciousness. It opposes quality to number, harmony to rhythm. One intention defines its quest; to bring about a note so pure and sustained that the slightest of its variations becomes expressive of it. An art, as Jacques Rivette put it, of modulation.”4
- 1. Fragment of an interview with Mizoguchi by Tsuneo Hazumi in the 1950s. This text has been published in Cahiers du Cinéma n° 116, February 1961.
- 2. Fragments of Mizoguchi vu d’ici by Jacques Rivette. This text has been published in Cahiers du Cinéma n° 81, March 1958.
- 3. Fragment of an interview with Mizoguchi by Hajime Takizawa. This interview was published in the Japanese cinema magazine Eiga Hyoron, December 1952 and was included in Cinéma d’aujourd’hui n° 31. Mizoguchi Kenji (ed. Michel Mesnil), Éditions Seghers, 1965, Paris.
- 4. Fragment of La splendeur du vrai by Philippe Demonsablon. This text has been published in Cahiers du Cinéma n° 95, May 1959.
The texts in this article are compiled by Elias Grootaers and translated by Hannes Verhoustraete on the occasion of the third cinephile publication of Sabzian.
Image: Ayako Wakao and Kenji Mizoguchi on the set of Gion bayashi [A Geisha] (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)