Japan Society and the Museum of Modern Art have joined forces to present the bold claim that Kazuo Miyagawa was Japanese cinema’s greatest cinematographer. The claim—made in the title given to the series that will play from April 12 – 29 at both institutions—isn’t hard to back up looking at the receipts: he served as cinematographer for such canonized filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu.
But names can be deceptive; as much as he worked with these big elephants of Japanese cinema, it’s only by looking at the films he worked on between the established masterpieces that one starts to realize the workmanlike nature of his lighting and framing, and the way his process evolved from project to project. The series, which comprises more than two dozen of the 130 films he lensed in his 50-year career, not only brings his adaptability into focus, but also acknowledges his technical innovations and the cinematographic style he nurtured from film to film, giving the sets and nature as much narrative purpose as the characters that appear in them.
Among the rarest item in the program is The Rickshaw Man (1943), directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. The film uses a “slice of life” approach in its narrative, showing snippets and moments in the life of Matsugoro the Untamed, who earns his living with a rickshaw.While taking advantage of the reputation that his line of work used to have, Matsugoro tries to live it up as much as he can while still helping those in need (like getting a momentarily crippled child to his doctor appointments) and refusing to work for the powerful and wealthy. Visually, Miyagawa avoids stagnation by moving the camera, exploring the sets as he travels forward through open windows on second floors and then down into the streets, giving an expansive view of the environment in which the characters live their small joys and their dearth. He also films some poetic inserts of the wheels of the rickshaw spinning against the light of the sun, anticipating some of his own country’s experimental cinema (particularly Genichiro Higuchi, Toshio Matsumoto and Masao Yabe’s Silver Wheel ), and concocts wordless sequences that focus only on legs and hands, emphasizing the work of the handyman in an almost Bresonian manner.
Throughout the 1950s, Miyagawa lensed several acknowledged masterpieces that are also showing in this series, films like Rashomon (1950), Ugetsu (1953), and Floating Weeds (1959), the most gorgeous of Ozu’s color films. But besides these artful films, the 1950s also saw him branching out into different genres, as with Kon Ichikawa’s sturdy erotic thriller Odd Obsession (1959). This claustrophobic chamber drama chronicles the relations between an old married couple, their daughter, and a doctor who constantly visits the house. The estranged nature of the romance, sex, and obsessions between the characters is conveyed in the way that Miyagawa shoots the spacious rooms of the family home, using wide shots to establish their positions, building tension through empty walls and lots of negative space between the characters and inside the frame. As Odd Obsession progresses, the camera tilts, using low and high angles to enhance the tension and put the characters into corners, forcing them to act.
Miyagawa worked again with Ichikawa in what was probably the most demanding project of his career, supervising and shooting the monumental Tokyo Olympiad (1965), a tremendously illuminated work, which plays alongside the less celebrated Irezumi (1966). Directed by Yasuzo Masumura, the latter film is a bizarre feminist noir that follows a kidnapped woman turned geisha who’s forced into having a spider with a woman’s face tattooed on her back. She eventually becomes a femme fatale, not only forcing men to pay large sums to be with her, but also making them murder each other. More than anything, Irezumi is a testament to Miyagawa’s facility with shooting at night, using gloomy colors (greens and dark oranges) to convey a much more sordid vibe—different than what he’s done before, due to its appropriation of genre stylistic dashes, alongside his usual thematic output which consolidates his style.
Irezumi contrasts sharply with the similarly woman-centered, yet certainly visually brighter Ballad of Orin (1977), directed by Masahiro Shinoda, the latest film in his career to be shown in the series. One of Miyagawa’s most beautiful films, Ballad of Orin also serves as something of a compendium of images that he’d used throughout the decades of his career: claustrophobic interiors, lavishly shot exteriors, frames within frames, experimentations with color, etc. It’s in a lesser-known film like this one—or at least in those films not directed by Kurosawa, Ozu, or Mizoguchi—that Miyagawa’s style can be tracked and appreciated more easily, as it shines through every genre, period, and type of audience that he plays against.