There are essentially four hugely influential and significant directors from Japanese cinema’s first half-century: Mikio Naruse, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. Both Kurosawa and Ozu are easily the best known internationally; Naruse and Mizoguchi less so. Let’s focus for a while on Kenji Mizoguchi.
Mizoguchi was born in the Tokyo suburb of Hongo in 1898. His father, originally a roofing carpenter, made a disastrous attempt to sell raincoats to soldiers during the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. His subsequent losses drove the family into poverty; Mizoguchi’s father turned physically abusive, and his sister was sold to a brothel to become a geisha. In 1911 his parents, unable to afford to feed and clothe him themselves, sent the 13 year-old Mizoguchi to live with his uncle in Morioka. While there he was crippled by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis – a condition that plagued him for the remainder of his life. Soon after returning to Tokyo his mother died, and he spent the rest of his adolescence in the care of his geisha sister, Susomo.
As a teenager he apprenticed in the design of kimono and yukata patterns, then studied in fine art at the Aoibashi Yoga Kenkyuko art school, and finally helped design and construct sets for the Akasaka Royal Theatre. At the age of 22 he started working in the Tokyo film industry as an actor. During a workers’ strike in 1923 he gained his first experience as a director, helming The Resurrection of Love for Nikkatsu. The same year a prostitute with whom he lived assaulted him with a razor blade.
It should be noted that Mizoguchi appeared to have a complex relationship with women. Shortly after recovering from his assault he met and married a bar hostess from Osaka named Chieko Saga. At the outbreak of the War in the Pacific he had her committed to psychiatric care following a breakdown. When she died 10 years later he married her widowed sister Fuji and adopted her two children. Throughout his career Mizoguchi also worked extensively with actress Kinuyo Tanaka – who would subsequently become Japan’s first female director – and rumours circulated for decades that the two were sharing a love affair. This was not remotely true, but Mizoguchi’s colleague and subsequent biographer Kaneto Shindo (whose film The Naked Island we will discuss later) later told Tanaka in his 1975 documentary on the director that she was ‘the great love of his life’.
Why do I bring all of this up? The experience of women within Japanese society – both traditional and contemporary – was far and away the most prevalent recurring theme of Mizoguchi’s career.
His early films fell within a genre known as keiko-eiga, or ‘tendency films’. They were socially aware and politically left-wing dramas produced by all of Japanese major studios. With the rise of nationalism and a growing influence from the Japanese military, such films were discouraged and later banned over the course of the 1930s. Through such keiko-eiga, however, Mizoguchi made his first major film productions including Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy (both 1936). During World War II Japan’s military government ordered Mizoguchi to direct propaganda pictures, notably his 1941 jidai-geki The 47 Ronin. In the 1950s, free from military control, Mizoguchi entered a prolonged period of creativity, directing a string of exceptional and profound dramas including The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and The Crucified Lovers (1954).
Sadly Mizoguchi’s films have suffered more losses than those of his contemporaries. Between 1923 and 1929 he directed 43 films; of these, only one survives intact. Of the subsequent 42 features that he either directed or made a key contribution towards, only 30 survive. In short: almost two-thirds of everything Mizoguchi made has been lost forever, and we are left to study him based on a mere 36 per cent of his work.
It would be easy to look at Mizoguchi’s earlier and later films and consider him a left-wing, fairly political character. This may be true, but it is probably more important to consider him as something of an opportunist, as Mark Le Fanu does in his excellent book Mizoguchi and Japan. Put simply: when society shifted to the right, Mizoguchi actively worked away on conservative propaganda pictures. When society pulled back around to the left, his films developed a more progressive social conscience again.
This shifting political compass throughout his career does not make his more widely acclaimed films any less powerful, nor does it make their social commentary any less relevant or well-observed. It does, however, make him a far more complex and intriguing filmmaker.
Mizoguchi’s most widely acclaimed run of films coincided with a general ‘golden age’ of Japanese cinema. Following the international success of Rashomon and Gate of Hell the local film industry started developing a game plan to further export Japanese films overseas. To advocate better distribution of Asian films among regional neighbours, the Society for the Promotion of the Japanese Film Industry assembled in November 1953 and established the Southeast Asian Motion Picture Producers Association (SAMPPA). SAMPPA’s first chair was Daiei president Nagata Masaichi; his vice-chair was Shanghai-born film producer Run Run Shaw.
With Masaichi and Shaw sitting together on the same committee, it was inevitable that talk between the two moguls would turn to co-production. At the time Shaw and Sons (later Shaw Brothers) was the largest film production company in southeast Asia. They had recently moved from Shanghai to their new base in Hong Kong in order to avoid Chinese censorship, and were continuing to produce films and operate cinemas in both Singapore and the Malay Peninsula.
The first proposed co-production between Daiei and Shaw was a historical drama based on the story of Chinese consort Yang Guifei, who served Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong in the 8th century. To direct the film Daiei put forward Mizoguchi; it would be the director’s first colour film. In Japan the film was titled Yokihi; international it was referred in different markets as either The Princess Yang Kwei Fei or The Empress Yang Kwei Fei.
On 4 September 1954 Shaw and Daiei reached an agreement to produce the film on a budget of US$300,000. Shaw would contribute 30 per cent and Daiei the remaining 70 per cent. It would be shot in Daiei’s studios using primarily Japanese staff. For its part, Shaw Brothers agreed to contribute costumes and set elements from their existing collections, as well as five Chinese actors as a few additional crew members including a hairdresser, a researcher and a martial arts choreographer. The agreement officially made The Empress Yang Kwei Fei the first-ever Japanese-Hong Kong co-production.
From the outset Daiei developed The Empress Yang Kwei Fei with an eye to international distribution. By collaborating with the Shaw Brothers and adapting a popular Chinese legend, it was hoped that the film would become a hit not only in Japan but Hong Kong and Taiwan as well. For Shaw and Sons the production was an inroad to develop new skills and techniques among their production crews; at the time Japanese cinema was considerably more sophisticated than films produced in Hong Kong or Singapore, and Run Run Shaw and his brothers knew that it was crucial to catch up if their films were to succeed internationally.
This arrangement may not have ultimately been to Shaw’s benefit. Despite an agreement to use Chinese actors in supporting roles and others in key production positions, The Empress Yang Kwei Fei credited only three Chinese staff. These were Run Run Saw himself, screenwriter Tao Qin and one historical advisor.
The production designer was Hiroshi Mizutani. ‘We had to recreate the atmosphere of the times,’ he said, ‘based on evidence from the recorded documents. And at the same time we had to allow for a certain artistic deformation, or “supplement”, from the aesthetic point of view.’ The result was a film that had a flavour of historical China, but also a high degree of artificiality. It is an oddly pastel-coloured movie, lacking much of the bright, garish colour that accompanies most early colour filmmaking.
Mizutani accompanied Mizoguchi and producer Masaichi Nagata on a fact-finding trip to Hong Kong, but found that the traditional Chinese costumes and arts available there were too cheaply made for his purposes. He ultimately constructed the film’s elaborate sets and costumes from scratch, with the help of a team of art students, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and several Chinese history academics.
Shooting commenced on 4 January 1955. By all accounts the shoot was not a pleasant one. Mizoguchi himself was confined by a leg brace after an accident filming an earlier production, and was increasingly unwell as the production went on. Early into the production the director unexpectedly railed against actress Takako Irie, who was playing Kwei Fei’s sister, accusing her of forgetting how to act. He either fired her or she walked off the set; contemporary accounts never quite made it clear.
Despite this apparently fraught and sometimes unpleasant working atmosphere The Empress Yang Kwei Fei is an immensely beautiful and emotionally sensitive work. Mizoguchi’s famously long takes are in full effect: both the first and last shots of the film each run for at least two-and-a-half minutes each. The entire work has a slow, gentle aesthetic.
It depicts a Chinese emperor deep in mourning for his dead empress. He does not want to conduct the affairs of state. He does not want to meet with ambassadors or plan military excursions. He wants to wander through his gardens, and compose music, and more than anything else he simply wishes to be left alone. Despite his stature and his perceived power, he is in effect a prisoner of his obligations.
Masayuki Mori gives a rather gentle, almost effete performance as Emperor Xuan Zong. Mori was a regular performer for the great Japanese directors, appearing in multiple films for Mizoguchi, Kurosawa and Mikio Naruse. He is simply brilliant here, presenting a man whose encounter with the beautiful Yang Guifei brings him from deep depression to simple heartfelt joy and ultimately to terrible regret.
Machiko Kyo is even more impressive as Yang Yuhuan. When Yuhuan is pulled from her family kitchens by General An Lushan to act as the Emperor’s new concubine, she wants nothing to do with it. When she does meet and connect with the Emperor, and gains the name Guifei, it is as a plain-spoken but respectful equal. When An Lushan’s ambition grows too great, and the Yang family is murderously scapegoated, it is Yuhuan who voluntarily meets with the rebelling soldiers to be executed – and therefore save the Emperor’s life and reign. She is a tragic victim from beginning to end, and her only means of escaping her situation is to submit herself to death.
It would be an easy role to play badly, transforming Yuhuan into a weak and submissive victim. Instead Kyo delivers it with a silent strength and a soft resilience. From a powerless position she exerts a remarkable power.
In one key scene Yuhuan tempts Xuan Zong into the city streets, in disguise, to enjoy a local festival. It enables Xuan Zong to connect with actual life: far away from his mournful and sterile place, and unshackled from the duties of state, he is finally able to simply relax and enjoy himself. It is a beautifully staged and pace sequence, and an emotional highlight of the film.
When the end approaches, and the Emperor is under threat, the entire film swaps its colour scheme. Sets that were once bright and softly coloured are now dark and oppressive. As noted earlier, this was Mizoguchi’s first-ever colour film, and he took to the opportunities offered by the new technology with remarkable skill. While it is not a faultless transition – the sets that would have looked perfectly convincing in black and white seem rather fake and artificial in colour – the benefits by far outweigh the drawbacks.
The Empress Yang Kwei Fei did not become the critical and commercial hit that Daiei and Shaw Brothers were anticipating, and even today it is not regarded with quite the same regard as Mizoguchi’s more famous works. It is still a film of many firsts: the first attempt at a foreign co-production, the first colour film for Mizoguchi, and one of the first real attempts to adapt Chinese history for Japanese audiences.
Mizoguchi moved on to other films – Tales of the Taira Clan and the masterful Street of Shame – but the illness that dogged him throughout Yang Kwei Fei continued to develop. He would die from leukaemia less than 18 months later.
The Empress Yang Kwei Fei is not Mizoguchi’s best film, much like The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail – which I wrote about a while back – is not Kurosawa’s. It is still a remarkable effective film of course, and an important step in Japan’s film history. Japanese cinema was stepping out more prominently onto an international stage, and beginning a dialogue with the filmmakers and the film culture of other nations.