How does one talk about Mizoguchi without falling in a double trap: the jargon of the specialist or that of the humanist? It may be that his films owe something to the tradition or the spirit of No or Kabuki; but then who is to teach us the deep meaning of those traditions, and is it not a case of trying to explain the unknown by the unknowable? What is beyond doubt is that Mizoguchi's art is based on the play of personal genius within the context of a dramatic tradition. But will wanting to approach it in terms of the national culture and to find it above all such great universal values make us any the wiser? That men are men wherever they may be is something we might have predicted; to be surprised by it only tells us something about ourselves.
But these films -- which tells us, in an alien tongue, stories that are completely foreign to our customs and way of life -- do talk to us in a familiar language. What language? The only one to which a film-maker should lay claim when all is said and done: the language of mise en scene. For modern artists did not discover African fetishes through a conversion to idols, but because those unusual objects moved them a sculptures. If music is a universal idiom, so too is mise en scene: it is this language, and not Japanese, that has to be learned to understand 'Mizoguchi'. A language held in common, but here brought to a degree of purity that our Western cinema has known only rarely.
Some will object: why retrieve only Mizoguchi from those hazardous probings that are our visions of Japanese cinema? But is Japanese cinema all that foreign tous anyway? It is in a language close to it, but not the same, that other film-makers speak to us: exoticism accounts sufficiently for the superficial tone that separates a Tadashi Imai (Darkness at Noon/Mahiru no ankoku) from a Cayatte, a Heinosuke Gosho (Where Chimneys are Seen/Entotsu ni mieru basho) from a Becker, a Mikio Naruse (Mother/O-kasan) from a Le Chanois, a Teinosuke Kinugasa (Gate of Hell/Jigokumon) from a Christian-Jaque, indeed a Satoru Yamamura (The Crab-canning Facotry/Kanikosen) from a Raymond Bernard. We may perhaps leave out Kaneto Shindo (Children of Hiroshima/Genbaku no ko) and Keisuke Kinoshita (She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum/Nogiku no gtoki kimi nariki); the unfamiliarity of their inflexions, however, owes more to preciosity than to the impulse of a personal voice. It is, in short, the best-indexed language of Western cinema: the classic case being Kurosawa, passing from European classic to contemporary 'adventure' films with the peevish and humourless affectation of an Autant-Lara. Moreover, just compare his Samurai films with the historical films of Mizoguchi, where one would search in vain for any trace of a duel or for the smallest grunt (those 'picturesque' qualities that made for the facile success of The Seven Samurai, of which we may now rightly ask whether it was especially aimed at the export market), and where an acute sense of the past is achieved by means of an disconcerting and almost Rossellinian simplicity.
Enough of comparisons: the little Kurosawa-Mizoguchi game has had its day. Let the latest champions of Kurosawa withdraw from the match; one can only compare what is comparable and equal in ambition. Mizoguchi alone imposes the sense of a specific language and world, answerable only to him.
Mizoguchi charms us because in the first place he makes no effort to charm us, and never makes any concession to the viewer. Alone, it seems, of all the Japanese film-makers to stay within his own traditions (Yang Kwei-Fei is part of the national repertoire by the same token as our Cid), he is also the only one who can thus lay claim to true universality, which is that of the individual.
His is the world of the irremediable; but in it, destiny is not at the same moment fate: neither Fate nor the Furies. There is no submissive acceptance, but the road to reconciliation; what do the stories of the ten films we now know matter? Everything in them takes place in a pure time which is that of the eternal present: there, past and future time often mingle their waters, one and the same meditation on duration runs through them all; all end with the serene joy of one who has conquered the illusory phenomena of perspectives. The only suspense is that irrepressible line rising towards a certain level of ecstasy, the 'correspondence' of those final notes, those harmonies held without end, which are never completed, but expire with breath of the musician.
Everything finally comes together in that search for the central place, where appearances, and what we call 'nature' (or shame, or death), are reconciled with man, a quest like that of German high Romanticism, and that of a Rilke, an Eliot; one which is also that of the camera -- placed always at the exact point so that the slightest shift inflects all the lines of space, and upturns the secret face of the world and of its gods.
An art of modulation.
Originally appeared in Cahiers du cinema 81 (March 1958); p. 28-32. Reprinted from Cahiers du cinema: The 1950s, ed. Jim Hillier (Harvard, 1985). Translated by Liz Heron.