Mizoguchi's life spanned the most important years of the development of the Japanese cinema. Although he made over 85 films in a career that stretched over 30 years, over 50 of them have been lost, primarily through studio fires, the ravages of war or poor preservation methods. Those that remain include leftist-inspired "tendency films," literary adaptations, historical dramas, proto-feminist critiques, Meiji-period pieces and--from the later stage of his career--works of a more transcendental and symphonic nature.
Although there are relatively few connecting threads in Mizoguchi's varied oeuvre, one common theme is a sympathy for the exploited and marginalized members of society, whether they be women, traveling artists, feudal servants or slaves. While often turning the camera away from moments of extreme violence, Mizoguchi rarely turned away from difficult social themes. His films have been praised for the way in which they harmonize seeming opposites--light and shadow, harshness and beauty, societal pulls and individual needs.
Mizoguchi grew up in the rougher "shitamachi" (downtown) area of Tokyo, but subsequently moved to the more genteel city of Kyoto following the 1923 Kanto earthquake. The unusual degree of empathy he felt toward women was undoubtedly influenced by his having seen both his older sister, Suzu, and his mother suffer from his father's callous treatment of them. Mizoguchi's father undoubtedly influenced the director's portrayal of the male characters in his films, who tend to be self-serving and manipulative. Similarly, his depiction of women, which had been cool and objective in early films like "Sisters of the Gion" and "Osaka Elegy" (both 1936), became much less so following the onset of his wife's madness due to syphilis in 1941.
Mizoguchi's training as a painter is apparent in the exquisite pictorial quality of his films, especially in the subtle treatment of light and in his asymmetrical composition (common to the Japanese visual arts in general). Stylistically, he is best known for his elegant use of the long take ("one scene, one shot") which was inspired by his love for the theater, by his respect for the integrity of an actor's performance and by the Japanese horizontal picture scroll ("emakimono") in which the eye gazes at each section in turn, but then moves on in an irreversible forward progression. This technique causes the viewer to vacillate between a sense of involvement in the characters on the screen, and a sense of distance which invites objective contemplation.
As a director, Mizoguchi was known as a perfectionist; the demands he made on his cast and staff are legendary. This perfectionism was tied in with his desire to immerse his actors in as perfect a setting as possible, in order to help them forget their daily existence and thus draw out of them their best performances. He attracted a loyal group of collaborators including screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, cameraman Kazuo Miyagawa, art director Hiroshi Mizutani, music director Fumio Hayasaka and actress Kinuyo Tanaka.
Mizoguchi earned international renown when his films "The Life of Oharu" (1952), "Ugetsu Monogatari" (1953) and "Sansho the Bailiff" (1954) won top prizes at the Venice Film Festivals of those respective years. He died a few years later, in 1956, with the script for his next work, "Osaka Story," at his bedside. The film was subsequently realized by director Kozaburo Yoshimura.