Along with Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi is considered one of the "big three" of Japanese cinema. Before his death in 1956, he directed more than 80 films (silent and sound). During the 1950s, he directed a series of masterpieces. Many of those films will show at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque series Mizoguchi's Greatest Decade.
"Some people think his movies from the '30s are his best, but I'm drawn to the more exotic themes of his '50s films and the pageantry and history of those films," says Cinematheque director John Ewing. "The movies aren't visceral action films. They're more meditative. They look at the sweep of history. He's quite a revered figure in the history of cinema for various reasons. He was a supreme visual stylist in the history of cinema. His films are dark but so elegantly shot. He's celebrated for his long takes and tracking camera movements. He can incorporate a lot of information in one shot. The films are so beautifully lit and the camera movements are sensuous."
The series kicks off on Saturday, Sept. 6, with a screening of The Life of Oharu, a period piece about an upper-class woman who becomes a prostitute.
"That's one of his greatest films," says Ewing. "It's the film he thought was his best movie."
The other films in the series include Ugetsu (Sept. 12), A Geisha (Sept. 20), Sansho the Bailiff (Sept. 28), A Woman of Rumor (Oct. 4), Crucified Lovers (Oct. 11), Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (Oct. 18), Tales of Taira Clan (Oct. 23) and Street of Shame (Nov. 1).
"There are people who are really smitten with every one of these films," says Ewing. "They're quite special."
The Japan Foundation in Tokyo owns English-subtitled prints of several of the late Mizoguchi films that are unavailable in the States; they're co-presenting the series with the Cinematheque and have loaned copies of five of the films. The Cinematheque will get them, and then they'll visit a couple of stateside venues before getting shipped back to Japan.