Kenji Mizoguchi entered the film world as a promoter of Western novelty in Japanese cinema and exited it as an acclaimed international director who exemplified Japan at its most traditional. After The Life of Oharu and Ugetsu won prizes in successive Venice Film Festivals in the early '50s, Mizoguchi became an icon for the nascent French New Wave. His mastery of mise-en-scène was lauded by Jacques Rivette, while Jean-Luc Godard praised his metaphysics and his stylistic elegance, at the same time deriding Akira Kurosawa as a second-rate talent. Mizoguchi is still recognized as one of the 20th century's greatest filmmakers.
Born in Tokyo, in 1898, Mizoguchi was the middle child of a roofer/carpenter. His family's financial situation went from modest to desperate when his erratic, dreamer father (who was the model for the heroine's father in Osaka Elegy) tried to make a killing by selling raincoats to the military during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). By the time he borrowed the money, set up the factory, and produced the coats, the war was over. Not having enough money for food, Mizoguchi's older sister was put up for adoption at age 14. She was later sold to a geisha house. Mizoguchi himself was taken out of elementary school and apprenticed in a pharmacy in northern Iwate prefecture. Later, he returned to Tokyo and studied painting at the Aohashi Western Painting Research Institute. In 1922, Mizoguchi was hired as an assistant director for Osamu Wakayama at Nikkatsu Studios.