Ugetsu (1953)


Director:  Kenji Mizoguchi
Cast:  Masayuki MoriMachiko KyôKinuyo Tanaka
Plot:  In the civil wars of 16th century Japan, two ambitious peasants want to make their fortunes. The potter Genjuro intends to sell his wares for vast profits in the local city, while his brother-in-law Tobei wishes to become a samurai.

Genre:  Drama / Mystery / Fantasy
Awards:  Won Silver Lion (Venice).  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Costume Design.
Runtime:  96min
Rating:  PG for some sensuality.

The great Japanese directors of the distant past had Akira Kurosawa to thank for when Rashomon (1950) made international reception and recognition possible for Japanese cinema with its famous Golden Lion win at Venice in 1951. 

The floodgates opened and soon Japanese cinema became a beacon of shining light and pride for Asian cinema as films by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Kon Ichikawa, and later Nagisa Oshima, and Takeshi Kitano among others gave Western audiences a new, and often intriguing perspective on the cultural possibilities of cinema.

Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, one of the greatest works to come out of Japan in the 1950s, and most certainly a contender for one of the top hundred films of all time, is the legendary director’s magnum opus.  It is the film that comes to mind whenever Mizoguchi’s name is mentioned. 

Shot by acclaimed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon; Yojimbo, 1961) and scored by Fumio Hayasaka (Seven Samurai, 1954; Sansho the Bailiff, 1954), Ugetsu is a tragically beautiful film that transcends the boundaries between realism and fantasy.

Ugetsu tells the story of a farmer who has a talent for pottery.  He lives with his wife and child in an old hut.  Set in the context of the Civil War, the farmer attempts to make a quick buck by selling his wares in a prosperous village across the lake.  He meets a strange lady who tries to seduce him, and soon is drawn to the luxurious life that the lady offers him, while his family suffers from the consequences of war. 

Ugetsu is a strong moralistic look at the human condition, in particular of human desires such as greed and lust.  Mizoguchi’s camera, always roving about in a composed fashion, is influenced both by Italian Neorealism and traditional Japanese picture scrolls. 

Rarely do we see a still shot, but when we do, especially in the film’s most mystical scene of a boat navigating still waters in a foggy night as it moves toward and past the camera, we are left enthralled not only by the mysterious beauty of the scene, but also Mizoguchi’s mastery of tone and atmosphere.

Indeed as most of the second-half of the film would attest, the director bridges the realms of reality and fantasy effortlessly, as if both realms exist in a single construct that could be construed as the filmic reality. This filmic reality created by Mizoguchi is most certainly subjective, and is experienced through the eyes of the lead protagonist, but it provides viewers with a valuable lens to look at a myriad of elements as they combine to give a total effect. 

These elements include the above-mentioned themes of morality, greed and lust, and others such as the Japanese supernatural mythology, Eastern exoticism and sensuality.  Ugetsu’s message, however, remains universal.  Humans are fallible, but more importantly, they are also redeemable, though most of the time it is at the expense of grief and hurt. 

Mizoguchi fashions a haunting tale of love and loss, adapted from stories by Akinari Ueda and Guy de Maupassant.  Ugetsu fits snugly between Kurosawa’s more operatic and entertaining films, and Ozu’s calm and meditative films, offering viewers an intriguing, otherworldly take on “the ghost story”.  Despite its reality-fantasy underpinnings, Ugetsu never loses it moral focus, and that is what makes it such a great classic.


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