Though Akira Kurosawa is the best known Japanese filmmaker, Kenji Mizoguchi should be just as revered.  Ugetsu was one of the first Japanese films to gain global recognition.  For Japan, it was part of an era of huge international acclaim.   Despite being a period piece from a country with a history that took place for centuries in virtual isolation, Ugetsu  carries universal appeal.  An effective allegorical story with supernatural elements, emotional chords are pulled as its images take the viewer between the real world and a world of spirits.

The Players:

  • Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Writer: Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Kyuchi Tsuji, Akinari Ueda, Yoshikata Yoda
  • Cast:  Masayuki Mori, Kinuyo Tanaka, Eitaro Ozawa

Notes:

As an army sweeps through farming villages during 16th century feudal wars, two brothers crave wealth and glory in their own ways.  Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) begin their journey with their wives, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), respectively.  Genjuro and Miyagi  are potters, and when they manage to save the pottery they were about to complete, they seek to make a profit.   Meanwhile, Tobei aspires to be a samurai despite Ohama’s dissaproval.  Along the way, Genjuro and Tobei depart from their wives to avoid risking their lives. Ultimately, the two men will discover whether material wealth is worth the love of the women they have alienated.

Before things get strange, director Mizoguchi does a great job of anchoring the film on a plot that is easy to follow.  Amidst a war, the interplay of “realities” had me thinking of Pan’s Labyrinth, which is also visually stunning.  During an early scene when they all cross a lake, the mood is so mysterious that it feels like a fairy tale.  Having worked on prior films with cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, the constant camera movement in Ugetsu has a fluidity that seamlessly blends time and space (70% of the shots in this film were crane shots). By the time the film introduces Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo), the pacing of the film has been smooth enough and the imagery real enough that we follow along even when things take a turn into fantasy. Mizoguchi enters and exits each scene gracefully, never overstaying his welcome.

Ugetsu interweaves time effectively, sometimes even within a single long take.  I can’t remember another film where the passage of time is conveyed without using dissolves, fades or any other type of overt visual cues.  With minimal cutting, the performances are allowed plenty of breathing space, revealing characters that are accessible.   The performances are a little theatrical but they manage to make us feel invested in their journey.  The length of this journey, however, feels short.  A more epic journey would have provided greater impact when the final scene unfolds.  Genjuro should have gone through more, especially given the supernatural forces he was fighting.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to find blame with a film so focused.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

This is a beautiful film about the consequences that stem from ambitious pursuits.  Bringing to mind a film such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Ugetsu could have easily been written with an anti-capitalistic agenda in mind.  But Ugetsu is more than just a commentary on greed, it allows us to also get a feel for the humanity of its characters and the relationships that make their lives meaningful.   As you state in your review, “to enter Mizoguchi’s world is to find a film language that seems to create the mood it considers; the story and its style of telling are of one piece.”  I agree that the scene in the lake is the most beautiful in film, and I will add that the last scene is the most emotionally devastating scene that leaves us heartbroken.  As you also mention, at the end of Ugetsu, though we’re aware we’ve seen a fable we also feel curiously as if we have witnessed true lives and fates.  I only wish it would have punished Genjuro more, so as to lift the ending higher.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like Ugetsu?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  Werckmeister Harmonies

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu this week, he now has 292 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.