London’s Renoir Cinema has just shown these two rarely-seen late works by the master Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi. He was renown for the beauty of his mise-en-scene and in no sense are these films a disappointment. Exquisitely crafted and visually stunning, they sustain a compelling emotional involvement which otherwise might be restricted by the slightly old-fashioned melodrama of the plotlines.

Both of these films focus on what was the major theme of Mizoguchi’s late works in particular – women: their relationship to love, their difficulties with men, their subordination to men. The films also exhibit the usual Mizoguchi balance between acceptance of traditional values and the desire for individual freedom. Both are ultimately tragic, almost melodramatically so. But Mizoguchi’s particular skill was to present the extraordinary in a realistic way.

Mizoguchi was most famous for his jidaigeki, or period dramas, of which The Life of Oharu is a prime example. But in The Lady of Musashino he attempts the gendaigeki, or modern drama. The lady in question is Michiko, played by Kinuyo Tanaka – one of the greatest actresses of her generation. She is the heiress to her parents’ estate – a house with land in Musashino, a village outside Tokyo surrounded by nature. (In 2004 Musashino is now very much a built-up suburb within the Tokyo conurbation). Mizoguchi begins the film in 1945 with a stunning view across the rice fields, down a long road with Tokyo on the horizon, and the Americans firebombing the city. Although not actually far, the war seems a long way from the pastoral idyll where Michiko lives. But Mizoguchi immediately inserts an element of the supernatural. Michiko’s father finds an old skull buried deep within the garden and everyone takes it to be a bad omen for the family as a whole. What then follows, is the gradual disintegration of what seems like a cohesive family within the greater context of a changing Japan.

Michiko’s parents both die and leave the estate to their daughter, rather than to her and her husband. Michiko is heartbroken by her father’s death in particular and promises, "I’ll never forget what you taught me". This seems to be an older sense of morality. Michiko still dresses demurely in traditional Japanese dress whilst all around her, her friends are adopting less restrictive western dress. But though Mizoguchi, through his heroine, wants to hark back to older values, he clearly identifies with their restrictions and certainly has little sympathy for the war. One character states: "It’s better to be scared than die in this stupid war." Michiko’s husband, a lecturer, asserts that the Confucian principles emphasised by past shogun leaders were so restrictive that the only way to express freedom was to commit suicide or commit adultery. In the latter case, this is seen as more of a self-justification as he is attempting to seduce the neighbour, Tomiko, in the post-war westernised atmosphere of free love.

Into the midst of all this emerges Tsutomu, Michiko’s cousin (though not blood-cousin). Before he arrives all the women talk excitedly about how beautiful he looked, going off to war. Mizoguchi films him walking back to Musashino, emerging out of the mists, still in his uniform, somewhat battered but still good-looking. Contrary to orders, he has not killed himself rather than surrender. He says: "What’s so honourable about hara-kiri?" At first the pastoral beauty of Musashino entrances him and we see the start of a repressed love affair between him and the older Michiko. Mizoguchi uses natural metaphors to represent their relationship, starting with a spring, then a flowing stream and then a violent storm as their passion grows. It’s all stirred up by Tomiko, who wants an extramarital fling with Tsutomu herself. Tsutomu is all for the relationship with Michiko. He asserts that "Love is freedom, freedom is power". Michiko refuses to go beyond the platonic stating that "The only power is morality". Within this dilemma we see the recurrent Mizoguchi theme.

From here things go from bad to worse for Michiko. Her husband tricks her out of her inheritance and tries to run off with Tomiko. She’s more interested in seducing the now frustrated Tsutomu. Michiko sacrifices the chance of happiness with Tsutomu by asserting the primacy of marriage, even to an adulterer, and chooses suicide. After her deathbed scene, the final shot is of an ever-expanding Tokyo, imminently encroaching on Musashino. The old way has died – to be replaced by what?

In the more traditional Life of Oharu, Kinuyo Tanaka again plays the heroine. The film starts with scenes of Oharu, struggling along as an evidently past-it prostitute. The action then flits back to her becoming a concubine for the local and very important Lord. She bears him a son but is immediately removed from court because the Lord loves her too much and has become exhausted. From there it’s all downhill, as she repeatedly finds herself the victim of other women’s jealousy, her father’s avarice and male exploitation. Whenever you think that finally things are going to start looking up for her, something worse happens. It feels a little like Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, although in place of the vivacity of Fellini’s spirited heroine, we have the stoical and dignified resignation of Oharu.

Throughout the film Mizoguchi makes it painfully clear that Oharu, as a poor woman in feudal Japan has no choice, no freedom, no say in her own destiny. She is at the mercy of all around her and they show her very little. She never becomes bitter and indeed is compassionate to those in a similar position – but everyone lets her down.

Both of these films could easily seem mawkish or overbearingly tragic. But in Mizoguchi’s hands they are intimate studies of the restrictions of Japanese society over the centuries and, especially, of the appallingly inferior position that women have to adopt. This intimacy is created by Mizoguchi’s trademark use of long, uncut, single shots. Whether lingering on the faces of his heroine, panning across a beautiful natural vista or tracking alongside as a couple walks together talking, his shots allow us time to experience the emotions at a deeper level, rather than have them forced down our throat or feel ourselves manipulated by a multitude of cuts. It’s almost the antithesis of the Baz Luhrmann school of direction. Less initially exciting perhaps, but ultimately a more profound and lasting experience.