‘One scene/one shot,’ one director

Kenji Mizoguchi: master of Japanese cinema's pregnant static scene

by Donald Richie

KENJI MIZOGUCHI and the Art of Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato, translated by Brij Tankha, edited by Aruna Vasudev and Latika Padgaonkar. Oxford: Berg Books, 2008, 196 pp., with 35 photographs, £17.99 (paper)

This is the English translation of Tadao Sato’s defining study of the director, originally published as “Mizoguchi Kenji no Sekai” (1982). It is to be welcomed for a number of reasons.

One is that works in English on Mizoguchi (1898-1956) are less available than, say, similar volumes on Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu. There is Mark Le Fanu’s excellent “Mizoguchi and Japan” (2005), but otherwise there are mainly anthologized pieces by such scholars as David Boardwell, Dudley Andrew, and James Quandt. The fullest English account is that of Keiko McDonald (1984), but it was much shortened by a publisher more interested in format uniformity than in film studies. And there is Donald Kirihara’s superb “Patterns of Time” (1992), but this work treats only the Mizoguchi films of the 1930s.

Another reason for welcoming this translation is that the English reader rarely hears directly from the Japanese scholar. Information on films and their directors is usually transmitted by non-Japanese scholars. Even Sato, author of the present volume and arguably the single most important film critic in Japan, has had only one other English translation: that by the late Gregory Barrett, “Currents in Japanese Cinema” (1982).

I do not mean to imply that a foreign insight is not as revealing as a native one, nor that an idea from abroad is any less vital than a more local one.

At the same time, however, a Japanese is naturally better informed about how things Japanese are made. He knows what questions to ask and what answers to accept.

For example, Sato is concerned with revealed character on the screen and can directly and meaningfully generalize. “Viewing Mizoguchi’s oeuvre is like observing a whole gamut of worthless Japanese men, and the women who put up with them and help them.” A foreign critic could not (or would not), I think, make such a suggestion and then back it up with valuable and telling examples.

He can also speak with authority not only of the influence of the shimpa drama on Mizoguchi’s style but also its cost. “The stereotyped tawdriness of every character is enough to take your breath away.”

Sato gives strong indications of the critical climate within Japan as well as when he writes about the various attacks the director suffered, being thought old- fashioned at best and reactionary at worst. One of the reasons, he points out, were some of the elements of the now famed “Mizoguchi style.” The most controversial was one for which the director is now almost universally praised.

This is the so-called “one scene/one shot” technique, the resulting scene often filmed from unusually far away. To Japanese critics who had just absorbed the fast-cutting techniques advocated by, among others, the Russian filmmaker theorist Sergei Eisenstein, Mizoguchi’s style was antiquated — it was called noncinematic, theatrical.

Sato points out that such criticism was based on the notion that film ought to be analytical, but — he argues — this is not achieved when a number of short detailed shots are selected and then simply edited together. It is just as easy (or as difficult) to analyze a single scene if it also contains a like variety of images — as do those long, static scenes of Mizoguchi.

The tendency to find Mizoguchi old-fashioned died down when it was noticed that it was the one scene/one shot technique that was most praised in the West, indicating a re-evaluation of film aesthetics. This finds the long long-shot far predominating over fast cutting — technically a preference for mise-en-scene over montage. In fact, nowadays (my observation, not Sato’s) montage is seen mainly in in ultra action-pictures, in musicals and in anime being used not to analyze but to excite. Serious directors now seem more often to opt for the single scene, shown complete.

This choice, Sato tells us, is ethical. Just as Ozu refused the panning/dollying camera, feeling it was like “casting a sweeping, contemptuous glance . . . like a shogun giving an audience to his lords,” so Mizoguchi believed that slicing up the image and giving everything and everyone a closeup, could not contain the truth that he was attempting to extract from the scene itself.

The one-scene/one-cut, taken as a long shot, Sato tells us “is expressly designed to bring out, bit by bit, every nuance of psychological tension established by this [observed] slow change, this step-by-step transformation. The use of shot/reverse-shot or close-ups would have speeded-up the movement unnecessarily.”

It is insight such as this that makes Sato so valuable and Japan-based criticism so revealing. A context otherwise missing is supplied, original assumptions are exposed, and the connotations of another language, similar but separate, enrich.

Donald Richie’s column will return Sept. 7, after which it will run roughly once every two weeks.