Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Hailed as one of Japan’s greatest masterpieces, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is a fable, a ghost story and a display of man’s tragic tendency to ignore what he has, in order to pursue what he cannot achieve. Released in 1953 to critical acclaim, Ugetsu received the Silver Lion Award for best direction at the Venice Film Festival. In the 50-plus years since, it has made multiple appearances on the Sight & Sound Poll, which is taken at decadal intervals to determine a consensus among critics on the greatest films ever made. Ugetsu was chosen as the 29th best film of the 20th Century by the Village Voice newspaper. The love for this film will likely remain undeterred and perhaps it will even grow as we go further into the lifespan of the young art that is cinema. It embodies much of what we seek in a film; It take us into a world, a world close enough to our own to engross us but inventive enough to fascinate us, and while we are there we can find something within ourselves.
Inspired by short stories written by Ueda Akinari and Guy de Maupassant, Mizoguchi’s most celebrated film takes place in medieval Japan in a time of war and follows two peasant couples. The main pair includes Genjuro, a man looking to make immense riches through his pottery, and his wife Miyagi who is more concerned of their little boy’s well being. Tobei and his wife Ohama make up the second couple. Tobei unrealistically dreams of becoming a powerful samurai, something Ohama scoffs at. The two men essentially abandon their families in the pursuit of their lofty goals.
In one key scene, their village is being marauded by warriors, everyone who is able to escape takes to the hills. However, Genjuro, who was hard at work on a gigantic batch of pottery before fleeing, risks his safety to return to his kiln in order to keep it burning. He is horrified to find the fire has gone out already. Genjuro then discovers that the pottery had finished baking prior the fire’s extinguishing. At the moment this seems a victory. Looking back, however, perhaps if his wares had been ruined, Genjuro would have moved on, and focused on his wife and child. Instead, he now has a huge batch of goods to sell and the riches he desires seem within reach.
In what may be the film’s most memorable scene, both couples acquire an abandoned boat and sail across a lake. The mise-en-scene here is awe-inspiring. An eerie fog rolls along the surface of the water. Ohama sings a moody song perfectly suited for the moment. As they row along, they encounter a dying man in a boat who manages to warn them of deadly pirates before he passes on. This scene is otherworldly and enchanting and the best example of Mizoguchi’s ability to shift between the natural and the unnatural. Worried about the possible danger, they return to the shore to drop off their wives. Miyagi returns home, but Ohama insists on joining Genjuro and Tobei.
Before long, Tobei wanders off without his wife. He finds a samurai who has just killed a man. Tobei shamelessly kills the warrior and steals the head of the man slain by the samurai. He presents this head to the samurai lord, claiming he was the one to kill the foe. He is rewarded with samurai armor, a horse and a group of men to be his followers. To celebrate his false pride, he and his men stop at a geisha house. Tobei is shocked to discover that since he left his wife, Ohama, was raped and has now become a geisha. Tobei is quick to renounce his new samurai lifestyle in order to restore the life he once shared with Ohama.
Now in the city, Genjuro has had great success selling his wares, and is invited to the castle of a noblewoman who admires his craftsmanship. Once in the castle, the woman tries to seduce Genjuro. He succumbs to her devious wiles. The woman, Lady Wakasa, wants to take Genjuro as her husband and he leads her on, but she is eventually revealed to be a ghost. With the help of a local priest, Genjuro manages to escape the beautiful specter.
The men return home, with the hope of restoring their modest lifestyles. Genjuro finds his wife and son at home, just as he left them. The reveal of Lady Wakasa being a ghost was expected but it is the revelation of a second ghost that creates Ugetsu’s most profound moments.
Mizoguchi (1898-1956) began with silent films in the 1920s and made such acclaimed films as The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums. He was notorious for his work ethic, finishing his early films in mere weeks. Ugetsu (1953) was made in the middle of several impressive films, Life of Oharu (1952), Sansho the Baliff (1954), and Street of Shame (1956), which would be Mizoguchi’s last. Unlike some other filmmakers of his era, he showed a great empathy and admiration towards women. Many of his female characters were portrayed as unfairly oppressed while Mizoguchi’s male characters make mistakes with their dominance. This is clearly the case with Ugetsu, as the women are levelheaded and sensible while the men ignore their blessings in order to pursue their unreasonable obsessions and they face heart-breaking consequences.
The films of Mizoguchi feature a gorgeous, painterly mise-en-scene, which evoke comparisons to the aesthetic of Japanese Art. He avoids close-ups; something Western films were and are riddled with. Famously, he would often employ a one shot-one scene system. These meticulously crafted long-takes would require hours of rehearsal. It is even rumored that he has rehearsed single shots a 100 times before filming.
The story of Ugetsu feels ancient, and while it is, in part, a ghost story, it seeks not to frighten us but to enchant us. In the case of the second ghost, the film aims to surprise and move us. Like any great fable, the film is a lovely work of fiction, a fantastical story, but also on some level, we accept it as truth. Mayhap, we are all guilty of wanting more than we have even when what we do have should be treasured. Like Genjuro and Tobei, some of us must learn the error of our envious desires the hard way. The pressures we face can blind us of our blessings. It is best to let the fire in the kiln go out. The steadfast abundance of praise the film receives is understandable. We all love being engrossed in a story that takes us to another world. One with rolling fog, and of ghosts good and evil, one where we can confront our follies. Ugetsu is a timeless classic that is both haunting and beautiful. It is, and will remain, a true testament to the transcendent powers of the medium.
posted by adam cook
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