Bazin, realism and Mizoguchi

Aaron Gerow gerow
Sun Apr 9 21:04:14 EDT 2000

With regard to Lewis's question, I'm glad Rosa Marie-Josee brought up the 
issue of Bazin, because, for better or for worse, it was in that milieu 
that the term realism was applied to Mizoguchi in the West.

While I don't want to give a review of Bazin (though I still think anyone 
thinking about film should read him: a marvellous critic who thought 
deeply about individual films and the medium as a whole), his 
phenomenological approach made him ask why some films seem more realistic 
to us.  His argument is partially historical, but it is also perceptual.  
To take one of his examples, think of one of those old Tarzan films where 
a lion comes up to threaten Tarzan.  In the days of cheap Hollywood, 
you'd often show the two by cutting from one to the other to "build up 
tension," refraining from showing the two in the same shot (perhaps for 
the obvious reason that to put the actor in the same space as a real lion 
is not exactly safe).  Bazin feels, however, that most any spectator 
(especially the spectators of his age, well versed in movies) would sense 
that this scene is fake: the filmmakers are cutting between the two but 
they are not really in the same space--the spatial relationship between 
the two is constructed.  Bazin contrasts this to a Chaplin film in which 
CHarlie is actually in the cage with a lion and all of it is shown within 
the frame of a single shot.  To Bazin, this scene has impact 
(incidentally, a comedic impact) precisely because the space shown is the 
actual, "real" space.  

Bazin used observations like this to argue that a cinema of montage (of 
editing) is less realistic than a cinema of mise-en-scene, but we should 
always keep in mind that Bazin was rarely as programmatic as his 
disciples and was always flexible in his labelling.  In calling some 
films realistic, he was not using the category "Realism," but rather 
trying to come to grips with how some films work with their audiences in 
a partically historical context.  It is important then that he sees 
realism in such varied films as the comedic Chaplin, the fantastic _Red 
Balloon_ (Lamorisse), the theatrical _Citizen Kane_, etc.  The issue is 
less one of an accurate depiction of social reality, than a particular 
attitude towards space, time, cinema, and perception.

In this case, calling Mizoguchi realistic can have many valences, but 
from a purely Bazinian standpoint, the question is not as much shot 
length (remember Bazin praised Italian Neo-realism, which was rarely a 
one-shot, one-scene cinema) or accuracy of social vision, than a 
particular decision to preserve real space and encourage the audience to 
analyze the scene on their own.  Using long takes helps, and certainly 
Bazin's disciples concentrated on that, but Bazin never, I believe, made 
that a prerequisite for a realist style.

Whether all of this helps us in calling Mizoguchi realist or not is 
another matter.  As another pointed out, labelling itself can be 
problematic, especially when the term realism can have so many different 
valences over time and in different contexts.  While Bazin gives us 
powerful tools for appreciating how seeing a Mizoguchi film can differ 
from seeing another, we should also keep in mind that in Japan "realism" 
(riarizumu, genjitsu shugi, shajitsu shugi, etc.) is a contested concept 
(if it can even be considered a singular concept, what with all the terms 
available).  It would be interesting to see a close study of the history 
of discourses within Japan on realism and Mizoguchi.

Aaron Gerow
Associate Professor
International Student Center
Yokohama National University
79-1 Tokiwadai
Hodogaya-ku, Yokohama 240-8501
E-mail: gerow at
Phone: 81-45-339-3170
Fax: 81-45-339-3171

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