19.Discovering Mizoguchi (and Movies)

19. Discovering Mizoguchi (and Movies). From letter to Mark le Fanu, author of book on Mizoguchi.

When I was studying at the Army Japanese language school in Ann Arbor, near the end of the Second World War (1944), we were shown Japanese films that they happened to have copies of, as conversation practice; we would see the film, then go over some of the dialogue in mimeographed handouts, then see the film again, then more practice—seeing each film three times, as I remember. Most were ordinary-to-good: we saw Shina no Yoru, and Ani to Sono Imoto (my machine doesn’t do the long mark), and others. Usually we slept through much of the second and third showings. But then there was one that knocked me over, so that I sat through it wide awake all three times, and wept all three times: it was Zangiku Monogatari. Understand that I was then an 18-year-old soldier, never before out of California, with no idea about Mizoguchi or auteur theory or even that movies could be art (well, a dim perception from seeing Citizen Kane); it was just a totally new and great experience.

When I got to Tokyo in 1946 (and began collecting Japanese prints, then bad Chinese paintings, beginning of career) I talked about this with an old print dealer in the Marunouchi Bldg., near where we lived, asking whether I could see the film again there. He said no, all copies were lost (fortunately he was wrong). But, he said, he knew the actor Hanayagi Shotaro and would introduce me to him. He was playing in shimpa plays (his real specialty—he wasn’t, as you know, a kabuki actor) at the Tokyo theater where these plays were performed; the plays went on from around ten in the morning until late in the afternoon. I practiced what I would say to him, trying to express my admiration for this film and his acting in it. The print dealer took me backstage before the first play, and I talked to Hanayagi as he was making himself up. (The scene was not unlike the beginning of Z.M., as I remember it.) My memory isn’t at all clear, but I recall that he seemed pleased that a foreigner admired the film and could talk about it in some kind of Japanese. Then I spent the rest of the day seeing him act. In the first play he was a young kabuki actor who loses his leg and gets a wooden one from the U.S. and carries on. An intermission, and he comes back in a shorter play, a comedy, playing the part of an old woman, with totally different movements, voice, face, everything. Then a third play in which he didn’t have a part; and then, the longest of the day, a play in which he was a beautiful geisha. This was another revelation—the print-dealer was filling me in all the time, and I learned the phrase mizu ga tareru yo ni (like water flowing) to describe the rhythms and lines of his movements. Totally convincing, voice and appearance and manner. This was apparently one of his specialties. And he did this triple performance every day, as a normal thing—what would likely be a once-only tour-de-force for a Western actor.

Many years later, when I spent a month as a visiting scholar at Waseda University, I found in their library a special room set up as a kind of shrine to him.

When I moved back to Berkeley in 1965 as a professor of Chinese art history (I also taught Japanese art for quite a few years, since we didn’t have a specialist in that) the University Art Museum was just opening, and I persuaded Sheldon Renan, the first director of our Pacific Film Archive, not only to get this film (which I was desperately longing to see again, after two decades) but to mount a great Mizoguchi retrospective, which went on for two weeks was it? That too was a major revelation. He managed to bring over old Yoda Yoshikata, still in good health and brimming over with stories and information and insights. He gave a talk before each of the films; I interpreted for him sometimes, and spent time with him. Again, a revelation, a high point in my life. And of course I saw Zangiku Monogatari several times, taking my best students to special showings, breaking down in tears each time. It was interesting to hear Yoda talk about why Mizoguchi is superior to Kurosawa in much the same terms as the Chinese talk about some painters (I was much engaged with Chinese painting texts and theory at that time), the scholar-amateurs, vs. the professionals, who have more technique but not the depths, and so forth. He also talked about Mizoguchi and his obsession with self-sacrificing women, told his version of the story of how this started, showed a film about Mizoguchi in which Tanaka Kinuyo talked about him (rather guardedly), etc.

I discovered Ozu later—Audie Bock, herself a Berkeley person whom I’d come to know pretty well (her mother took a graduate degree in the Oriental Languages Dept., in which I had taken my B.A.), showed a series of his films for a class she gave at Harvard in 1978-9 when I was there as Norton Lecturer, Another revelation, very different—I’d seen some of his films before, but not such a series. And I could go on with other experiences with Japanese films, but that’s all that’s really relevant, and quite enough, for a letter out of nowhere.

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