Examiner Contributor

Film lovers in the Seattle area are blessed to have the Northwest Film Forum here on Capitol Hill, where you’ll find movies that won’t be shown anywhere else. One emphasis has been classic Japanese films, and in the last few years, Film Forum has presented a samurai festival, a Yasujiro Ozu retrospective, and a Mikio Naruse festival.

Now the Forum is featuring some truly great works by Kenji Mizoguchi in “Long Take On Mizoguchi,” a series of seven films taken from the 31 extant out of the more than 100 that he made. Having started his film career in 1923 with silent films, he continued to produce movies that won high praise until his death in 1956. Considered by film critics to be an equal of Ozu and Kurosawa, he was greatly admired, particularly in Europe, and in 1953 his film “Ugetsu,” a ghost story of great lyricism and emotional power, won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice film festival.

Born in 1898, Mizoguchi grew up in a Japan going through the transition to a modern society, and he observed traditional Japan undergoing vast changes under the influence of Western ways. In addition, his outlook was critically shaped by his family life. His father, who had dragged the family into poverty by his business failures, was an abuser of his mother and his sister. At one point, he sold his daughter, Mizoguchi’s sister Suzu, into servitude in a geisha house. Mizoguchi, who was sickly, was supported by his sister while growing up and remained close to her, thereby closely observing the life that she led. Although Suzu was able to transcend her life as a geisha to respectability by marrying her wealthy patron, Viscount Matsudaira, her earlier role as the person who continuously looked out for Mizoguchi by supporting him and getting him jobs made him aware of the sacrifice that women in his society endured. Such suffering became a major theme. Suzu encouraged Mizoguchi’s interest in art and theatre.

And so this early life is reflected in the strong emphasis in his work on the lives of women. As he observed, women were oppressed and generally lived lives of exploitation and servitude, conditions that he found extremely unfair. But beyond this theme of women’s hard lives, his dramatic flair, artistic vision and attention to detail produced films of great beauty and emotion.

“He is the Japanese director I admire and respect the most … He never compromised … He continually pushed every element until it reached his own vision,” said Akira Kurosawa.

The remaining films in this series are “Utamaro and His Five Women” (Feb. 12-13), “Street of Shame” (Feb. 19-20), “Sisters of The Gion” (Feb. 26-27), and “The Story of The Last Chrysanthemums” (Feb. 26-27).

All except “Street of Shame” are period pieces, but in spite of the costumes, dÈcor and settings, there is so much that is human portrayed that the stories are compelling and absorbing. How do these individuals cope with the social conditions that beset their lives? These all exhibit Mizoguchi’s mastery of the medium of film in every dimension.

The NW Film Forum is at 1515 12th Ave. (206) 329-2629.

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