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Museum of Moving Image to Hold First U.S. Kenji Mizoguchi Retrospective in Twenty Years

By Max O'Connell | Indiewire April 11, 2014 at 12:05PM

Classics such as "Sansho the Bailiff," "Ugetsu" and "The Life of Oharu" will play alongside rare early films.
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Kinuyo Tanaka as the titular protagonist of Kenji Mizoguchi's "The Life of Oharu"
Kinuyo Tanaka as the titular protagonist of Kenji Mizoguchi's "The Life of Oharu"

Along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi was one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers of his era, but as respected and beloved as he is, he's sometimes overshadowed by the other two masters. The Museum of the Moving Image now presents an opportunity for Mizoguchi devotees and newcomers alike to correct this with the director's first retrospective in the U.S. in twenty years.

"Mizoguchi" will present all 30 of the master filmmaker's surviving films (out of the 85 he made in total), from the established classics to rarely-seen early works. As an added bonus, all films will be shown on celluloid, with most on 35mm but some in rare 16mm prints. In partnership with the Japan Foundation and the National Film Center in Tokyo, many of these archival prints have been imported from Japan. 

Mizoguchi was a master of mise-en-scene and extended takes great enough to rival Max Ophuls or Jean Renoir, a humanist who was concerned with the suffering of women more than nearly any other filmmaker of his generation. After a breakthrough at the Venice Film Festival for 1952's "The Life of Oharu" (for which he won the International Director's Prize), Mizoguchi found further acclaim in Europe with "Ugetsu" and "Sansho the Bailiff" in the following two years. These extraordinary films were late-period works, however, and Mizoguchi found acclaim in Japan in the 1930s for classics such as "Osaka Elegy" and "The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums."

The retrospective will open on May 2 with "Ugetsu," a story of two brothers in war-torn 16th century Japan who leave their wives and village to pursue their respective dreams of wealth and martial glory. It will be followed on May 3 with a screening of "Sansho the Bailiff," in which the merciless titular character kidnaps the children of a nobleman and sell them into slavery while their mother yearns to see them again. The latter will be introduced by film scholar David Bordwell in a special presentation titled "Mizoguchi: Secrets of the Exquisite Image." 

While most of Mizoguchi's early films have been destroyed, the retrospective will include early surviving films, such as his earliest surviving film, 1925's "Song of Home," his first sound film, "Furusato" (or "Hometown"), and "Oyuki the Virgin," a film based on the same Guy de Maupassant short story that inspired John Ford's "Stagecoach." "Song of Home" will be presented with live musical accompaniment by pianist Makia Matsumura.

After the Museum’s presentation, the retrospective will travel to the Harvard Film Archive (Boston, Mass.) and the Pacific Film Archive (Berkeley, California). All three cities have a terrific chance to catch up with one of the most compassionate and thoughtful directors in the history of the medium.

The retrospective will run from May 2 to June 8. Tickets for screenings are included with paid Museum admission and free for Museum members, who may also reserve tickets in advance. Otherwise tickets are distributed first-come, first-serve on the day of the screening. The full list of films, with showtimes and descriptions, can be found on the next page.

This article is related to: Museum of the Moving Image, Retrospectives, Kenji Mizoguchi





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