Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) is not only the greatest of all Japanese filmmakers but arguably the director who made more masterpieces than any other film artist in the history of movies. The 17 features included in the Film Center’s stupendous Mizoguchi retrospective between early January and late February aren’t all masterpieces, and a few key works (most notably Shin Heike Monogatari, his second color film) are omitted, but this has still got to be one of the major film events of the year, or any year. The series begins appropriately with a 1952 masterpiece that belatedly launched Mizoguchi’s international reputation at the age of 54 when it won a prize at the Venice film festival, the year after Kurosawa’s Rashomon was similarly honored. Loosely based on a novel by Ibara Saikaku that interweaves stories about several women living in late-17th- and early-18th-century feudal Japan, Life of Oharu recounts the persecutions of a single woman, which makes this seem at times like a hyperbolic hard-luck story. But as a profoundly materialist look at the mistreatment of women by men–not to mention an unflinching and often sarcastic look at the roles played by class and money in the world–the film’s close to definitive. The remarkable Kinuyo Tanaka, who plays Oharu between her teens and her 50s, became the first Japanese woman director the year after this film was made, and it’s tempting to regard this movie as one of the forces that inspired her. Trained as a painter, Mizoguchi has a magisterial sense of composition, a perfect if often unexpected sense of where to place his camera, and a taste for long takes and elaborately choreographed camera movements that’s central to his style. Characteristically, there are no close-ups in this movie, but the cumulative emotional power is both complex and profound. With a prodigious (and extremely varied) musical score by Ichiro Saito and a striking early performance by Toshiro Mifune. If you want to sample other Mizoguchi masterworks of the 50s check the separate listings for Ugetsu (perhaps his major work with fantasy elements) and The Crucified Lovers (which features his most extraordinary sound track). Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, next Friday, January 3, 8:00, Monday, January 6, 6:00; Wednesday, January 8, 8:00; and Thursday, January 9, 6:00; 443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): movie still.