Historically, there have been three great masters of Japanese cinema: Mizoguchi Kenji, Ozu Yasujiro and Kurosawa Akira. I do hope that the latter two need no introduction - Kurosawa in particular standing alongside Federico Fellini and perhaps Ingmar Bergman as one of the most famous of all non-English language filmmakers.
But Mizoguchi - by far the most well-regarded of the three internationally, well into the 1960s - is largely forgotten nowadays. There are reasons both good and bad: his films have been only erratically available on home video (only two out of 86 are currently in-print on DVD); audiences in the late '60s enjoyed rebelling against received wisdom; and frankly, his films are really hard, if I can make that sort of extrapolation from the tiny number of his movies that I've actually seen.
What I mean by that, is that he's not very watchable. Kurosawa, of course, is that rarest of all film artists, whose imagery is so perfect that his compositions deposit their meaning directly into your soul without having to go through the tedious process of thinking about them (especially in his unparalleled 9-year run from 1954 through 1963, where he almost casually became the greatest director of 'scope images that will ever exist). Ozu is not nearly so fun or intuitive as Kurosawa, but understanding his work really only requires the patience to sit through a whole lot of plot-thin, dialogue-heavy still images (it helps immensely that every Ozu film is basically identical to every other; once you've seen one, you have all the tools to watch the rest).
Mizoguchi is quite different. His films, while brilliant, are so subtle as to virtually undermine themselves. Incredible care went into each and every frame, and every single blip on the soundtrack; but unlike his compatriots, that care does not translate into an almost subconscious understanding of the film's themes and emotions. No, in a Mizoguchi film, you are well aware at every moment that you are watching something that has been assembled with utmost precision, and that puts a sort of a wall between the audience and the movie. I hasten to add that this doesn't mean that he's not worth seeing - exactly the opposite.
Thus: Sanshô the Bailiff, newly arrived on DVD from the goodly folks at the Criterion Collection. It's not a slog, and I don't mean to imply otherwise; this is the kind of film where, checking the clock to see at what point a major plot development occurred, I was thunderstruck to find that the movie which I'd thought had been running for 15 or 20 minutes had been on for all of 40 (and the sort of film where the Criterion essayist can argue in good faith that an event happens "early" in the film, at the 48-minute mark). It's beautiful, equal to if not quite greater than the director's previous film by one year, Ugetsu monogatari, one of the truly poetic films of the 1950s.
The film follows Zushiô and Anju, the children of Governor Taira Masauji (Shimizu Masao), after his noble attempt to protect his peasants led him to disgrace and exile. The children and their mother Tamaki (the extraordinary Tanaka Kinuyo) flee into the country, and after a few years, they are separated by slavers. After another ten years, Zushiô (Hanayagi Yoshiaki) and Anju (Kagawa Kyôko) have grown up under the the cruel watch of Sanshô (Shindô Eitarô), slave-driver of a local land-owner.
As a story of human strength in the face of overwhelming suffering, this is rightly seen as a resounding, shattering success. I do not quite reach the point that some commentors describe, in which the emotional intensity of Sanshô the Bailiff caused them physical exhaustion, but that response makes sense to me in a way that it does not about e.g. The Return of the King.
I mentioned that this film seems to be so self-consciously "designed" that it separates the audience from the mise-en-scène, and if you'll permit me a couple of examples, I'll explain what I mean. One of the biggest moments in the film is the scene in which the children are torn from their mother at a beach. What happens here is not just heightened emotional tension, it's heightened cinematic tension as well; Mizoguchi and his indispensable cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo frame nearly every shot as a study in depth, with Tamaki in the foreground and the children in the back, or vice-versa. When the editing is added to this, every cut is stressed not as a change in the content of what we can see (because in every deep-focus image, we can see everything), but a shift in perspective, and this makes the sequence much more personal & therefore more terrifying and traumatic. But unlike the cinema of Kurosawa, we do not intuit this, it must filter through our eyes, into our consciousness, and only then into emotion. If the one style is more viscerally jarring, this is more intellectually jarring; one is not better than the other, indeed both are extremely effective, for separate reasons.
My second example, I hate to say, is probably a SPOILER, so with that out of the way, here goes: late in the film, Anju commits suicide to ensure Zushiô's save escape from Sanshô's clutches. That scene is in almost all ways different from the abduction: there are not multiple points-of-view on a single moment, nor are there quick cuts. Instead, there is an exceptionally long shot of Anju walking into a lake, a short shot of a fellow slave and friend cringing in fear and sorrow, and another long shot, from the sane perspective as the first, of ripples spreading from where Anju went under. Other than the famous (sort of) final shot, this is probably the most effective single moment in Sanshô the Bailiff, given the way that it's slow pace builds the tragedy of the moment like a slow boil. But even here, the mood is not immediate, but contemplative: the final shot of the three lacks any sort of editorial content, and is instead so peaceful, so minimalist, and so abstractly beautiful, we can almost forget its narrative meaning. Instead, we "meditate" on the content, as it were.
I'd like to end with a more general observation: in all of Mizoguchi's compositions, we are perhaps most aware of depth. Like Ozu, his films are very planar; unlike Ozu, there is a great deal of action along the Z-axis, and this is what keeps his style from being "shadowboxey," like his contemporary. The perverse effect of this difference is that Ozu's deliberate artifice becomes almost instantly unremarkable, while Mizoguchi's film is constantly full of...I hate to call them surprises, but every time there is a significant movement towards or away from the camera, we are forced to confront that movement, rather than accepting it. I guess this is what I mean when I say that his work is too obviously "constructed" to function intuitively: every composition is so precise that the movements of the frame and within the frame are given exceptional weight, and we are invited to contemplate the meaning of each slight alteration in the mise-en-scène. This ever-so-Japanese emphasis on the tiniest shades of difference between things makes the film extremely difficult to unpack, but it also makes the film almost infinitely rewatchable. Whatever it lacks in emotional immediacy, Sanshô the Bailiff makes up for in sheer visual poetry.