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The recent translation of Tadao Sato's 1982 monograph on filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi is a welcome addition for English-reading film enthusiasts but would have benefited from more editorial contextualization.
Tadao Sato is a well-established film critic and theorist who has published essays on Japanese film history and monographs on various Japanese filmmakers. His most well-known work overseas is a collection of essays translated into English in 1982, Currents in Japanese Cinema. As far as I know, this publication has yet to be reprinted since the 1980s and is therefore a hard find. In the meantime, Berg Publishers provides another opportunity to become familiar with Sato's writing with this year's publication of Sato's 1982 monograph on filmmaker Mizoguchi.
Despite Mizoguchi's international reputation, as one of the directors who make up the "holy trinity" of one of the golden ages of Japanese cinema (the others are Kurosawa and Ozu), the critical literature in English on Mizoguchi and his work is surprisingly limited. Some of them include: Mizoguchi by the late Keiko I. McDonald (1984), Donald Kirihara's Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi and the 1930s (1992), and more recently, Mark LeFanu's Mizoguchi and Japan (2005). McDonald's is notable for being the first book on Mizoguchi published in English. Her book is therefore more of a primer on his filmography, covering his main subjects/themes and biography rather than providing hard-core critical analysis with a rigourous thesis to support. For his part, Kirihara's historical contextualisation of Mizoguchi's use of elements of narration -– illustrated through close readings of his extant 1930s films –- is an interesting read. Kirihara is able to seamlessly interweave Mizoguchi's development as a director and Japan's inter/national industries and activities during the 1930s. His analysis of Mizoguchi's style seeks to locate them in a social world, not in a shot-for-shot's sake vacuum.
Sato's book is an appreciated addition to this scholarship. He brings together the scope of McDonald's survey and Kirihara's socio-culturally embedded close readings. (This combination is particularly surprising, given that Sato's book preceded the publication of the other two titles.) In other words, he approaches Mizoguchi's biography and filmography within the larger framework of Japanese social and cultural history. He follows, for the most part, a chronological timeline, which accommodates his reading of Mizoguchi's themes of suffering yet ennobled women, incompetent men young and old, and their rocky relationships as directly influenced by life events. He also discusses various theatrical movements such as shingeki and shinpa that helped to shape the development of Japanese cinema; more precisely, he talks about what Mizoguchi took from these movements to further develop and experiment with a kind of film realism. If read as an introduction to Mizoguchi's distinct cinematic "feminine realism" (as Sato calls it), then by all means the book satisfies.
Beyond that reality, however, are caveats to Sato's contribution. As a 180-page text, Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema is a nice pocketbook of a read. In the main, Sato's writing reads easily, principally because of his anecdotal style. At the same time, the anecdotal style becomes an annoying habit if not reigned in. At times, Sato gets caught up in relating an anecdote concerning Mizoguchi, which then mutates into an anecdote concerning somebody else, in turn provoking another mutation-anecdote. Obviously, the man is extremely interested in Mizoguchi's work and is committed to providing as many details as possible -– even if they're on the outermost rim of the peripheral kind. OK, so I'm exaggerating a bit. (Sato certainly knows how to reign himself in better than LeFanu.) But as a result of the mountain of details in which he indulges, his critical voice disappears. The admiring, respectful voice of a fan remains, yes. Ironically though, the strongest and most convincing portions in the book are on the films he considers masterpieces: Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954). Overwhelmingly convinced of their perfection, he actually engages with other critics, such as Tadao Uryu, to prove them wrong and as a result, develops an interesting critical voice. But it's intermittent.
The most disappointing aspect of the book is not regarding Sato's authorship, actually. It is the lack of editorial intervention to engage with Sato's 1982 writing in 2008. (Not to mention the practical aspect of correcting typos.) Editors Aruna Vasudev and Latika Padgaonkar contented themselves with presenting the translation (by Brij Tankha). Commendable, but they didn't even supply an introduction. Sato's original text didn't have footnotes or sources, which isn't necessarily his fault. Again, some kind of editorial engagement with Sato's writing –- such as locating his work within specific Mizoguchi scholarship or Japanese film history writing in general –- would've greatly enhanced the overall work. Clearly there was a nagging impetus to take a 1982 text and publish it in 2008. I would've liked to know more details about it, other than the by-now-insufficient reason that, as a Japanese, he provides an "insider's view."
But that's the plug the back-sleeve description presents. It reads like a standard tell-all book: "Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema tells the full story of this famously perfectionist, even tyrannical director." E! Hollywood Story anyone? Again, not Sato's fault. On the positive side, this description sounds like one of Mizoguchi's authoritative and insufferably antagonistic male characters.
At the very least, Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema is a timely translation and publication, since the Eclipse label will soon release its four-disc box set titled Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women. Just think of Sato's book, then, as the DVD booklet released separately.
Tadao Sato, Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema, Berg Publishers, 2008
Date Posted: 10/3/2008