The role of women in Japanese society remained an abiding theme throughout Kenji Mizoguchi’s career. Forever under the thumb of a cruel and patriarchal world, his working-class heroines endure the torments of subjugation while often proving to be more resilient and resourceful than the men in their lives. In Mizoguchi’s 1939 masterpiece The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, a struggling kabuki actor who specializes in female roles comes to rely on the help of his infant brother’s wet nurse, who ultimately sacrifices her well-being to support his ambitions. This intricately layered reflection on the perils of the artistic life stands as one of the director’s most tragic examinations of the female experience.
For a program on our release, critic Phillip Lopate delves into the evolution of the director’s style and his recurrent themes. In the clip below, Lopate explores the duality of Mizoguchi’s approach to his female protagonists and asks whether his films are proto- or antifeminist.