Film

About Kazuo Miyagawa

"Naming the most skillful cinematographer of a country is often a difficult task. In Japan the job is simplified somewhat by the international reputation earned by Kazuo Miyagawa," wrote American Cinematographer in 1960. By then a respected industry veteran renowned for his work on masterpieces like Rashomon and Ugetsu, Miyagawa would go on to solidify his standing as Japan's preeminent cinematographer throughout the rest of his extraordinary career, working on over 130 films in total, many of them among the best Japanese cinema has to offer.

Miyagawa, born in Kyoto in 1908, found the roots of his interest in image making through an early study of sumi-e ink painting, which informed his appreciation of the subtle tonal variations within black and white. He once stated, "It was my training in ink painting that really taught me how to see." This eventually led him to take up monochrome still photography as a teenager, shooting photos for a neighborhood clothing store. After high school, Miyagawa landed a job at Nikkatsu's Kyoto studio in 1926. He worked in the film lab, performing technical tasks such as developing and tinting prints until he joined the cinematography department in 1928, where he cut his teeth as a focus puller and second-unit cameraman.

Miyagawa continued to develop his technical expertise and ingenuity, receiving his first credit as cinematographer in 1935. Often working on comedies during this time, he earned the nickname "the comic cameraman." It was in 1943 that he had a major artistic breakthrough with The Rickshaw Man, directed by his early mentor Hiroshi Inagaki, with whom he learned to effectively use tracking shots, cranes and other cinematographic devices. The Rickshaw Man was produced by Daiei — who took over Nikkatsu's Kyoto studio that same year, and for whom Miyagawa continued to work almost exclusively until 1969. Miyagawa has called this film his "origin."

After contributing to the immense success of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon in 1950, Miyagawa worked with Kenji Mizoguchi on several of his most well-known films--including Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, A Story from Chikamatsu and his first color film, New Tales of the Taira Clan — helping perfect the signature visual style the director developed over the course of his career until his untimely death in 1956. He continued to make his mark throughout the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema at Daiei with other major directors like Kozaburo Yoshimura and Kon Ichikawa, working on up to five films a year. Never hesitating to experiment with cinematic technique, Miyagawa tested the limits of new technologies such as anamorphic formats and color film stocks to find new ways to visually articulate the director's intended vision. Perhaps most notably, he is credited with innovating a bleach bypass film developing technique for Ichikawa's Her Brother, resulting in a uniquely washed out color.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Miyagawa also worked with several of Japan's most inventive genre directors such as Kazuo Mori and Kenji Misumi, tackling yakuza, chanbara and exploitation films, including several entries in the popular Zatoichi series. In the later part of his career, he found a creative partner in Japanese New Wave auteur Masahiro Shinoda, with whom he continued to make visually superlative films that garnered international attention such as Silence and Ballad of Orin, the latter of which earned him a Japanese Academy Prize for Best Cinematography. In 1978, Miyagawa received the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon from the Japanese government for his contributions to Japanese art. In 1981, he was honored by members of the American Society of Cinematographers at a tribute hosted by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

A consummate professional and humble man, Miyagawa wrote in his autobiography, "I am a cinematographer. I've never had any ambition to become a director. A film is not one individual's method of personal expression but a matter of teamwork, a cooperative venture." The cinematographer remained professionally active into his eighties, spending the last part of his life teaching film technique at Osaka University of the Arts, and passed away in Kyoto in 1999 at the age of 91.


Miyagawa production photos courtesy of Kazuo Miyagawa Family

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