It wasn’t long ago that talk of Japanese cinema was limited to the masterpieces of Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Ran), but as each decade passes the movie going public are discovering more and more the films of Kon Ichikawa ( The Burmese Harp), Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), and Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu). With each discovery, we are realizing what that Kurosawa was simply a master filmmaker among equals. If you don’t believe me, check out Ugetsu. This is easily one of the greatest films I have ever seen.
Ugetsu is a story about two selfish men, Genjiro and Tobei, and their families during the war torn 16th century. Genjiro seeks riches, while Tobei dreams of being a samurai, and they are both willing to sacrifice losing their families to reach their goals. After leaving their village, the two men sell their crafts and eventually go their separate ways. Tobei buys armor and a spear, and heads off to find a samurai that will teach him what he needs to know. Genjiro falls in love with a mysterious woman who he believes may be the answer to all his problems. Both men reach their goals for only a brief period of time before things go horribly wrong. The effects of war, greed, and infidelity take their toll on each and every character, and it is equally fascinating, creepy, and heartbreaking to watch. Ugetsu is often referred to as a ghost story, and for those of you who might have an interest in watching it, it wouldn’t be fair of me to give away the details. I will just say that reality and the supernatural blend effortlessly together, and you will be quite surprised in where this film ends up.
Of the four great Japanese directors mentioned above, Mizoguchi, who died in 1956, is probably the least known in America. The reason is that of the 100 or so movies he directed in his lifetime (90 of which were made during the silent era), less than a dozen were widely seen in America, and as of this writing, only Ugetsu is available on DVD. This is typical of the Japanese film market, it’s only been over the last few years that the films of Ozu and Ichikawa have been made more available. On the basis of this movie alone, I would say that Mizoguchi is easily as great a filmmaker as the other three, if not better. Mizoguchi revels in camera movement, long takes, and haunting images. His favorite cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa is in full swing here. His play with light and shadow gives a very hypnotic, almost dreamlike feel to the film. It is some of the most breathtaking cinematography I have ever seen.
The film is only 97 minutes long and it moves at a brisk pace. The first act takes its time setting up the characters, but once that’s out of the way, Mizoguchi goes full steam ahead into a story that becomes increasingly involving with every passing minute. There is never a moment that is predictable, and the film takes turns that are never preposterous, even for a film dealing with supernatural elements. I was genuinely surprised throughout the film, and was shocked at the end. Like Hitchcock’s Vertigo,Chris Marker’s La Jetee, or almost all of David Lynch’s work, this is a film that you could return to many times, and still be left with things to think about.
Ugetsu has been included more than once on Sight & Sound magazine’s list of the ten greatest films ever made, which is taken once every decade. It is known well among scholars and critics, but not among the masses, this DVD sets out to change that fact. The DVD is a two disc set from the great people at The Criterion Collection. The image and sound on this disc are as flawless as possible for a film made in 1953. The second disc includes a 150 minute documentary on the life and career of Mizoguchi. I only skimmed my way through it, but I liked what I saw, and it is an exceptional addition to Ugetsu. Seeing as how this is the only work of Mizoguchi’s that is remotely easy to get ahold of, I suggest you don’t waste time. Be warned, however, after you watch this film, you will be extremely upset the rest of his work isn’t more available. The good news is that in May of this year, The Criterion Collection is releasing a film he made a year after Ugetsu called Sansho the Bailiff. From what I have heard, Sansho is generally considered to be even better than Ugetsu. I, for one, can’t wait.