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Because they all communicate via an identical medium, films universally contain a mélange of the same fundamental ingredients.All directors select from a similar cinematic palette, and carefully noting the prioritization of the elements informs a more sophisticated understanding of the film and exposes the director’s intent and filmmaking philosophy. From among the tapestry of stylistic, artistic, and formal, contextual social and political implications, and the commercial interests of the studio, a filmmaker must choose which functions will motivate his creation, and which he will make the slave of the others. There at first appears to be considerable overlap in the themes of Kenji Mizoguchi and Nagisa Oshima; they both made films about women1), youth, oppression, and rebellion. Both have been called feminists; both have been called political radicals. However, examining Mizoguchi and Oshima more carefully, we will see that these seeming likenesses vaporize when they are reassessed under an interpretative framework that considers the intended direction of the artistic vision as evidenced through the prioritization of elements.

Mizoguchi the Master: Strategic Non-Representation in Ugetsu

Mizoguchi’s dedication to continuity collaterally highlights the elision of graphic content from Ugetsu. When the officer is beheaded, the actors step off-screen. The swing of the blade and the thump of the body to the ground imply the beheading, but the details of the act are obscured by a tree. After the decapitation, the camera slides around the tree, re-introducing the soldiers to view. Likewise, when Miyagi is murdered, the penetration by the spear is obscured and the mortal impaling is confirmed only through implication when Miyagi collapses on the path. Because the scenes containing unrepresentable acts are single takes, cinematography rather than editing must bear the responsibility of censorship, and the unusual form of the ellipsis heightens the awareness of the omission. A heavily edited film can more covertly omit representations which would otherwise upset the sensibilities of the audience or invite the intrusion of the censor. In a scene composed of dozens of takes, a single missing shot goes unnoticed; because the formal structure of the film is discontinuous, narrative gaps are made to feel equally acceptable. Undeniably, decreased shot length provides a crutch for any of a host of a movie’s shortcomings. Failures in acting or inconsistencies of plot or setting can be ameliorated by careful, rapid editing. Much of Mizoguchi’s style, but particularly his preference for the long take, evidence a creative arrogance; by carefully portioning his edits, Mizoguchi forces of himself near perfection in the diegesis. The process of filmmaking for Mizoguchi is as much a narcissistic demonstration of filmmaking prowess as it is a creation focused on other areas of reception. In the hot springs scene, Lady Wakasa moves out of the frame in order to disrobe. Her entry into the water is not displayed but implied by splash, giggle, and reaction. The strategy for avoidance is identical to the beheading sequence: the forthcoming action is indicated on screen, the actors move to the right out of view, the act is implied by the activity in the left of the frame, and then the camera pans to reveal the aftermath. Unlike the slumped body of a dead general, the nude form of Wakasa is undisplayable according to censorship standards, and so Mizoguchi is prevented from re-introducing Wakasa in the same shot. Instead the camera continues to pan left across the rocks and a stealth cut transitions the shot to following the rakes of sand in a Zen garden. The requirements of censorship intrude on Mizoguchi’s continuity aesthetics, threatening his formal ambitions and slightly unbinding the plot, but Mizoguchi reveals functional patches for both. Creative editing provides an eloquent bandage for an unavoidable cut, and the following picnic in paradise serves as a narrative substitute for the forbidden images. The lakeside scene vaguely imitates the serenity of post-coital bliss, and by substituting the unrepresentable (but implied) with a new scene that evokes an analogous mood, Mizoguchi is able to masquerade fluidity over an imposed structure that is fundamentally segmented. Mizoguchi thought that movies should move. An increasingly kinetic camera imbues camera motion with meaning; the camera’s dynamic volition in framing the action becomes a recognized and active voice in the development of the narrative. If camera motion is a text, it can be productively read to inform a thematic interpretation and a more complete characterization of the auteurship of the director. For the characters of Ugetsu, delusion and reality become confused, and formal techniques render the divide between the fantastical and the real indistinguishable. The camera is a mediator of the non-existent and the actual; extended takes provide a contiguous atmosphere in which the two can coexist. (Ugetsu Screening Journal) Here, Mizoguchi is using the formal to support the thematic. When Wakasa enters the springs and the camera pans left across the rocks, the film’s gaze literally flees the adultery. Moving away from the action, it is as if we are running from an unwanted spectacle.

Oshima the Radical: Strategic Ultra-Representation in Death by Hanging and In the Realm of the Senses

realm_senses_poster.jpgWhere Mizoguchi’s camera elides murder and flees adultery, Oshima’s locks onto them with myopic obsession. Death by Hanging opens with a didactic sequence on the methods of execution. The examination of the physical act of execution and the broader context of murder is unrelentingly detailed. In Hanging, Oshima accommodates no elision; he instead fetters the lens directly against the provocative subject matter. R’s original hanging is repeated from multiple angles, and rape and murder are dwelt upon through repetitious reenactments. Likewise, sex in In the Realm of the Senses is not avoided but is instead the subject of hyper-focus. This is the nature of Oshima’s pedagogy: to allow a single idea to consume the breadth of the film. In In the Realm of the Senses and Death by Hanging, Oshima allows full iteration of the studied subject, and then suspends them in isolation. Absent are shots of crowds or groups of strangers. Ugetsu contains carefully choreographed public scenes with masses of extras (The marketplace sequences and conflict sequences with soldiers), but these two Oshima films are borderline solipsistic.2) The social context of Mizoguchian characters is vital, but Death by Hanging and In the Realm of the Senses disregard all but the film’s selected subjects in order to achieve the closest possible examination. Death By Hanging’s Brechtian presentation and obsession with unreality classify it as a theatre of the absurd. While this label does not technically apply to In the Realm of the Senses, the characters’ seclusion and unvarying setting make it something very close. Nonetheless, Oshima’s films take a keen interest in the broader social climate; his films must counterintuitively avoid direct representation of the normative system in order to effectively levy an attack against it. Normal practitioners of the identified evil (even unaware ones) will not be trustworthy raisonneurs. His formula for cinematic polemic requires two ingredients: a rebelling protagonist, and an environment fertile for the exposition of an allegory. The project of both movies is to watch an inevitable degeneration of the unsustainable—the pursuit of ‘total pleasure’ for Sada and Kichi, and the inconsistent ideologies of the correctional officers. In the closed systems Oshima creates, the condemned ideas collapse under their own weight, bringing tragedy for their owners. For Sada, the pursuit of ‘total pleasure’ is a struggle against the imprisonment of her own insatiability, “and her emancipation has come at a price—a surrender to the impermanence of transcendence.” (Mellen, 69) In Death by Hanging, the prison officer’s beliefs (the beliefs themselves the product of a group delusion) manifest a collective delusion about the guilt of R and the rightness of their role as executioners. The imagination is then imposed on R, the ignus fatuus that seals his fate. The winding down of the studied subject provides for an ideological reduction.

Mizoguchi the Radical?

With frequency, Mizoguchi’s films are predicated with political intent by their critical audience, particularly for their depictions of oppressed women. His companion films, Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion are admired for their “courageous and unusual…open radicalism” (Jacoby) for their treatment of the feminine plight. Robin Wood says the one is “as single-mindedly dedicated to the analysis of the oppression of women within the family as (the other)… is beyond it” (9) But is Mizoguchi truly a feminist? Jacoby also points out that, “He vacillated politically between feudalism and feminism, militarism and Marxism” Is Mizoguchi merely ideologically capricious, or is there a better explanation for the political oscillation? An artist with a political message fashions his work so as to communicate his solution to the identified discontent, but in Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy, culpability remains unassigned; there is no moral triumph or proposed solution. In what is seen as a strong rhetorical climax to Sisters of the Gion , Omocha cries, “Why are we made to suffer so? Why are there such things as Geisha in this world? Why do they exist?” But her question remains unanswered. It seems a director with a genuine rhetorical directive would have structured the film to include at least a hint of the answer, but it’s not to be found here. Mizoguchi declines to solve the riddle, not as a coy rhetorical device, but because his film is simply not interested in the solution. Mizoguchi exploits the human drama of the oppressed geisha for the strengthening of his artistic project. He is interested in politics within his films only inasmuch as they provide substance for the exercising of his real filmmaking interests—formal perfection and aesthetic mastery. Resultantly, Mizoguchi becomes a mercenary for style. When conforming to expectation (such as the non-representation of graphic content) is an enabling force for Mizoguchi’s primary task, he is able to accommodate. But when upsetting expectation holds the promise of poetic advantage, Mizoguchi is willing to poke at the social order. As such, his politics are unchartable while his style follows consistent progressions. In a 1950 interview, Mizoguchi is asked why he made films about women, “The studio couldn’t have two directors making similar films, so they told me to make films about women. It was a commercial decision.”

Prioritizing Motives: The Filmmaker’s Toolbox

In the same way that Mizoguchi exploits social and political tragedy for his artistic project, Oshima manipulates style to serve rhetoric. Oshima is a “vessel for content”; because his agenda in filmmaking is fundamentally pedagogical , he is willing to employ any of a host of stylistic methods to convey his message. “Oshima never settled into an identifiable aesthetic…There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Oshima shot or scene.”(Kim) Oshima loathed the old guard of Japanese directors, “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it.” It is exactly the misprioritization of filmmaking motives as evidenced in Mizoguchi, that Oshima finds horrendous, “In Europe, you always speak of the formal beauty of Japanese cinema, but you are wrong to not speak sufficiently of the content…. Form is something one can always borrow, and from which, one can always make something passable. But with content you have to work with things that are important to you.” (Turim, 20.) Oshima’s flexibility of style mirrors Mizoguchi’s flexibility in politics, for each has chosen one goal as their primary ambition and made the other its slave. Intent in the selection of emphasis can also be colored in terms of intended reception; a film with a socio-political message or with commercial interests depends primarily upon popular reception and secondarily upon critical reception. Alternatively, A film created as a formal exercise in filmmaking, created with the aim of artistic synthesis, depends first upon critical reception and then upon popular reception. Furthermore, Oshima’s films require a popular audience—his preachings become meaningless if they never reach their intended ears. In contrast, the mode of creating art “for art’s sake” evidenced in Mizoguchi, allows for a solipsistic indulgence in the film’s creation. The creation of the masterpiece alone may havealue to Mizoguchi, even if the film goes unviewed. Recognizing these threads of intent allowsfor the distinguishing of faux politics or assumed styles. The accidental or the peripheral can be contrasted against the pointedly created, and new realms of interpretation are unlocked.

References:

Barr, Stephen H. “Reframing Mizoguchi.” Film Criticism 1983: 79-85. Kim, Nelson. “Nagisa Oshima.” Senses of Cinema 2004. 4 December 2008 Jacoby, Alexander. “Kenji Mizoguchi.” Senses of Cinema 2002. 5 December 2008 <http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/mizoguchi.html>. “The Long Take: Mizoguchi's continuity project.” Screening Journal September 2008. McDonald, Keiko. Mizoguchi. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984. Mellen, Joan. In the Realm of the Senses. London: British Film Institute, 2004. Michaleson, Annete, comp. & ed. Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992. Richie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. New York: Kodansha International, 2001. —. Japanese Cinema – Film Style and National Character. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1971. Turim, Maureen. The Films of Oshima Nagisa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Wood, Robin. Kenji Mizoguchi: Overview and Sisters of Gion. 1998.

Films: Sisters of the Gion, Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi. Daiichi Eiga (1936) Osaka Elegy, Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi. Daiichi Eiga (1936) Gion Bayashi, Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi. Daiei Studios (1953) Ugetsu, Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi. Daiei Studios (1953) Cruel Story of Youth, Dir. Nagisa Oshima. Shochiku Ofuna (1961) Death By Hanging, Dir. Nagisa Oshima. Sozosha (1968) In the Realm of the Senses, Dir. Nagisa Oshima. Shibata, Oshima, Argos (1977) Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, Dir. Kaneto Shindo (1981) The Family Game, Dir. Yoshimitsu Morita, Nikkatsu (1983) Spirited Away, Dir. Hayao Miyazki (2001)

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1) Protagonists that identify socio-political dysfunction may frequently be female exactly because they are outsiders to the dominant social order. (Sada, as well as Makoto in Cruel Story of Youth, Umekichi in Sisters of the Gion, and Chihiro in Spirited Away) Additionally, a youthful female protagonist offers an intergenerational bridge. When the dysfunction is maladaptation due to a transitioning social landscape, the young girl is the ideal source for an objective understanding of both the old and the new.
2) In Death by Hanging, ‘The body of the condemned man R…refuses execution.’ The rebellion in this film is the body’s physical refusal to die; rejecting the power of the nation and the noose over it, the body initiates a protest against unjustified killing, setting the stage for the ensuing allegories. Death by Hanging functions along many of the same modes as Morita’s The Family Game. Like The Family Game, Death by Hanging is a comedy that sources its laughs in absurdity. The preposterousness of broken ideologies and malfunctioning systems draws laughs in both, but Morita is targeting comedy more for comedy’s sake. Oshima will want the humor response, like all other pieces of his compositions to serve in the pedagogical process.

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