If you asked the average movie-lover to name a classic Japanese director, the one most likely to be mentioned would be Akira Kurosawa, whose The Seven Samurai invaded the United States back in the mid-'50s. If you asked the average movie-lover to name another classic Japanese director, the one most likely to be mentioned would be Yasujiro Ozu, creator of such subtle masterpieces as Tokyo Story and Late Spring. And if you asked the average movie-lover to name yet another classic Japanese director, there might be some head-scratching, but cognoscenti would mention Kenji Mizoguchi, who may not be all that familiar to us but surely deserves to be. Kurosawa, with his flair for the grand gesture, always had crossover appeal. Ozu, with his penchant for tatami-mat realism, was a tougher sell, but cineastes adore him. And Mizoguchi?
Well, you're about to get a chance to find out for yourself, when the UW Cinematheque starts up a series called "Distant Observer: Masterpieces by Kenji Mizoguchi." The title refers to Mizoguchi's distance from us in space and time (he died in 1956), but also to the element of detachment he brought to his work. Not that his films lacked drama. They're often as melodramatic as hell. But with one of the most graceful cameras in the history of cinema, Mizoguchi had a way of estheticizing the emotional fireworks, tamping them down while bringing out their illuminative essence. His main subject was women - women who'd fallen from grace, women who'd been pushed from grace, women who, although they'd fallen or been pushed from grace, found redemption in serving the very men who'd caused their downfalls.
I know, it sounds masochistic, even misogynistic. But one can make the argument that Mizoguchi, in allowing his women to be walked over by men, was merely reflecting Japanese society, which more or less did the same thing, and that his suffering females achieve a kind of stoic dignity denied his insufferable males. Take Ugetsu Monogatari, which kicks off the series (Friday, Sept. 7, 4070 UW Vilas Hall, 7:30 p.m.). Set during the 16th century, when a civil war was ripping the country to shreds, this supernatural folk tale features a pair of married couples - peasants barely getting by - whose response to the turmoil divides along gender lines. The women want to protect what they have, keep their heads down. The men want to achieve fame and fortune, sell their wares at inflated prices and perhaps wind up a samurai.
Watch what you wish for. As the men chase their dreams, the women get kicked in the teeth by reality, a turn of events that would be a lot harder to watch if Mizoguchi weren't such a discreet observer of their degradation. When one of the wives is raped by soldiers inside a temple, we're left outside, staring at her lonely sandals. And when one of the husbands, who's succumbed to the charms of a ghostly princess, embraces her, even the camera averts its gaze, panning and fading to a post-coital scene, where a blanket's been spread out on the grass next to a shimmering lake, with misty mountains in the distance, surely one of the most stunning images ever put on celluloid. There are going to be a lot of those during the rest of the semester, as the Cinematheque presents seven Mizoguchi films, all the prints shiny and new.