Japanese Cinema, the only film-culture from Asia that has maintained its reputation across several decades, for me has now gone beyond Akira Kurosawa. Though the fourteen films of his that I have watched still remain my biggest window to the Land of the Rising Sun, it is the discovery of two other masters that is making my experience truly wholesome.
Kenji Mizoguchi, who made films between 1923-56, was the earliest of Japanese masters. Kurosawa revered him as his guru. The world discovered Mizoguchi only a few years before his death, through ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’(1953). In the same year, Yasujiro Ozu (filmography spanning 1927-62) made ‘Tokyo Story’. The movie went on to become one of the most universally loved of all time, rivaling ‘Seven Samurai’ in its reputation, if not its influence.
And there is a reason why Ozu, despite earning worldwide reverence, did not influence world cinema as much as Kurosawa, or to some extent, as Mizoguchi. Ozu’s cinema – both the content and style – is the most personal. I have watched only three films of his, but having read about them has made me realize that Ozu is also the most difficult to watch and appreciate among the three. His cinema is an acquired taste, and an extremely exotic one. You want to watch his films because of his unique style, so unique that it is inimitable. Ozu manages to impress despite his obsessively economical use of the medium, and despite breaking some of the most important rules of shot-taking, because of the sensitivity his stories portray. It is difficult, and dangerous, to be influenced much by Ozu. But there is one thing we can learn from his cinema, or from Mizoguchi’s, and it is there in this Roger Ebert statement about the two, that to enter their world is to find “a film language that seems to create the mood it considers; the story and its style of telling are of one piece”. That, in my opinion, is the greatest achievement a filmmaker can have.
Having watched only a few films of Mizoguchi and Ozu perhaps does not enable me to comment on their cinema in general. However, I can not help but indulge in a comparative study of their films with Kurosawa’s. If Kurosawa creates amazing epics, and Mizoguchi narrates moving fables, Ozu calms you with his poetry. Kurosawa’s canvas seems to be covering the country’s rich and magnificent history, Mizoguchi paints socio-cultural portraits, while Ozu takes you into domestic lives of simple people, into their families. They thus address issues accordingly. Kurosawa is a man’s filmmaker, displaying valour and vengeance, but he can not match the sensitivity of Mizoguchi who can definitely be considered a woman’s filmmaker, and of Ozu, who cares more about the extremes of age – the kids and the old.
There is an opinion that Kurosawa was lucky to have achieved the biggest international acclaim, that he was perhaps not as good as his other two compatriots. But I do not agree with that. I have watched some of the lesser films of Kurosawa and I agree that there were certain merits in Ozu and Mizoguchi that Kurosawa could not match. But considering the very best of their films, I have no doubt to admit that Akira Kurosawa is rightly the most famous Japanese filmmaker. That, however, should not take any credit away from the others. In fact, discovering Japanese cinema can never be complete until you discover Mizoguchi and Ozu – they have told incredibly beautiful stories and displayed unmatchable mastery of the craft. It will only be apt to take the names of the three masters in one breath, as is often done while discussing the cultural history of cinema.
P.S. I foresee a follow-up to this post sometime in future as I discover other greats from Japan – Mikio Naruse, Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, or the big name in modern Japanese cinema – Takeshi Kitano. I have only watched one movie each of them, and hence could not include them in this discussion.