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The Long Take: Mizoguchi’s Continuity Project

After Lady Wakasa and Genjuro bathe in the springs, the camera pans left across the rocks, and in one smooth cut we transition to following the rakes of sand in a Zen garden, introducing us to the next segment of Genjuro’s supernatural delusion. Mizoguchi’s long shot length and seamless cuts provide cohesion to the narrative, and it is ultimately part of his task to use this formal device to provide for a unity of two much more elusive concepts and thus reconcile them within the same space. In Ugetsu, the divide between the fantastical and the real is miniscule, and Mizoguchi’s employment of extended takes and disciplined editing creates a contiguous atmosphere in which the two can coexist.

There is an obsessive amount of diligence paid to the details of the on screen elements in Ugetsu. Mizoguchi seems to be a perfectionist of sets, wardrobes, and any object that appears before the camera—even the dress and movements of the extras in the village market seem uncompromisingly choreographed. This attention to detail betrays something useful about his attitudes towards film—that he desires the quality of the mise-en-scene to be sufficient to carry the force of the narrative on its own, without relying on the trickery of fancy camerawork. Mizoguchi’s editing should not then be understood as a crutch or even as a necessary device. Rather, it is an element designed to function as quietly as possible and enhance an already complete work. In contrast to Ozu, who prefers a low and stationary camera placement, Mizoguchi wants a camera that moves fluidly amongst the actors. Clearly his aim is not to distort or alter the image for the audience, but rather to integrate the audience’s otherwise stationary portal into the movie with the action itself and to showcase the quality of the carefully considered theatrical elements. Where Kurosawa’s rapid, unpredictable editing disjointed the viewer and called into question the objectivity of the material, Mizoguchi’s slow, steady camera explores his detailed sets, integrating otherwise conflicting material and lending credibility to elements which may not be real at all.

The viewpoint of Mizoguchi’s camera is usually an objective one, but the camera’s movement throughout the set provides hints into the subjectivity of the characters. As the camera pans back and forth throughout a long cut, we are given as sense of the perimeters of our window into the action, and we are reminded of the presence of what exists outside those boundaries. A camera that is required to follow the action as it continues makes us feel the possibility that the action could continue off the screen at any moment, and that it is necessary to continue to follow it. We do not feel the privilege of constant omniscience that a heavily edited film can provide, and thus we must devote a little more attention to movements of the characters.

Above all, the long take reflects a motif which defines both Mizoguchi’s visual style and his desires for the content of this film—seamless, fluid integration. Long takes preserve the integrity of a single scene, and even between scenes fluidity is often maintained through congruous camera movements, lighting similarities, and parallel narrative structures. If it is Mizoguchi’s aesthetic desire to have the film run as a fluid, unbroken work, it is as much his aim to have the dual realities of the film(the subjective and supernatural vs. objective reality) be integrated just as seamlessly. Mizoguchi doesn’t provide obvious indicators to distinguish the real from the delusional. His specters don’t levitate and glow; rather, clues of their unreality are subtly implanted into the context of the scene. (Genjuro’s unreliability is delicately hinted at when he first visits the Kimono dealer and his point-of-view shots contain no Kimono dealer at all. The ghostly elements have prevalent shadows. The apparitions sometimes descend into the darkness of the shot in a suggestive, but not conclusive, ethereal manner, etc.) The real and the unreal coexist in a mostly undistinguishable formation on the screen, just as the harsher realities of Genjuro and Tobei’s lives blend with only subtle distinction with their fantasies and delusions. Genjuro’s homecoming serves as a prime example of Mizoguchi’s dual integration. In a single take, Genjuro enters a dark, abandoned cottage, exits from the rear, and then the camera slowly pans back to the cottage entrance to reveal an image of Genjuro re-entering the cottage to find Miyagi, replete with lit candle and flame. In this example, the real and unreal occupy the same space, the same general time, and even the same single strip of film. So then this is the coda of Mizoguchi’s integration of the two worlds, fully defined within his characteristic long take. It turns out that the explanation to Mizoguchi’s preference for long takes is obvious: he prefers not to over-cut his film because he prefers the smooth texture of a film that flows contiguously and showcases his mastery of all the formal elements. Notwithstanding, his preference for gapless combination translates directly into his thematic content, and in the cottage scene we get to see Mizoguchi’s formal and thematic fluidity techniques, integrated.

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