05th Mar2019

‘Ugetsu’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Masayuki Mori, Eitaro Ozawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Mitsuko Mito, Machiko Kyō | Written by Matsutarō Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda | Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi


Kenji Mizoguchi was one part of the Holy Trinity of directors – alongside Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu – spearheading the Golden Age of Japanese cinema in the 1950s. Released in 1953, Ugetsu is based on the book by Ueda Akinari, written in the 18th century (one of two known works by the author). Mizoguchi states upfront that he’s “refreshing the fantasies” of Akinari, which is a nice way of putting it.

The story opens in the village of Nakanogō in Omi Province, sometime in the 16th century. Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori) and Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa) are best pals. Genjūrō is a potter; Tōbei is a clutz who dreams of being a samurai. One day the village is attacked by soldiers. Genjūrō and Tōbei flee with their wives, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), along with Genjūrō’s son, Genichi (Ikio Sawamura). Away from the war, Genjūrō makes a success of his pottery business – so much so that he ends up having a fling with a wealthy woman named Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō), and briefly enjoys a life of luxury. Tōbei uses his profits to purchase some armour, so he can use the war as a way of making his name as a hero. Meanwhile, the men’s wives are suffering in appalling ways at the hands of roaming soldiers.

The film follows a pretty strict three-act structure: The families fleeing their threatened rural existence; the men enjoying the high life in the city at the expense of their wives; and finally the men seeing the error of their ways. I won’t go into detail about the third act – it contains a truly devastating twist – but suffice to say, this is not a straightforward redemption story and not everyone will make it back to normality alive.

Ugetsu is almost Shakespearean in its caution about how ambition can lead men away from duty and toward ruin. But it’s also about the nature of war (which, in the words of Ron Perlman, never changes) – specifically how it is those possessing the least who have the most to lose. Not only do Genjūrō and Tōbei lack the means to cope in wartime, they also lack the mindset. Ill-equipped to adapt, they still try to push their personal dreams while drunk soldiers circle their wives. It’s a fable not just about family duty, but the purpose of that duty.

Regarded as one of his best films, Mizoguchi is on top form as a filmmaker. His camera is fluid and alive, forever tracking and craning. Eschewing melodrama, the score is often very distant in the mix, like the incoming drums of war; or sometimes giving the sense that happiness and joy is just out of reach, something that happens to other people. At times there is no score at all – a decision which makes the brilliantly staged pillaging of Nakanogō all the more horrifying.

Mizoguchi shies away from vast vistas, focusing mostly on the immediate vicinity, so special mention should go to the incredible set design. There’s a sense of a heightened, almost theatrical reality as the group takes a rowboat through an impenetrable cloak of fog, and another boat emerges like a black ghost from the mist. On land, the ravaged villages stand like charred monuments to a tragic betrayal of duty.

The use of lighting is stunning (and the monochrome juxtapositions are particularly rich in this remaster). At one point Genjūrō goes mad, swinging his sword, knocking over candles, stealing the light away, until he is mere shadow – as if his identity is fading. And there is a beautifully quiet scene where a woman sits at her husband’s bedside, sewing as he sleeps. The light-shafts through the door change, and we watch the scene go from midnight to sunrise in seconds.

Ugetsu is not a long film, which makes certain events seem oddly sudden – for example, Tōbei’s elevation to noble, or Ohama’s decline into prostitution. But to me this speaks to Mizoguchi’s efficiency as a storyteller. Everything is deliberate in terms of aesthetic, performance and narrative – surely the sign of a master filmmaker.

It may be tough-going, and it may lack the high concept hook that makes the likes of Kurosawa’s so accessible, but Ugetsu is still an exquisitely well-made and moving work of art, and a key film from Japanese cinema history.

Special Edition Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by critic, filmmaker, and festival programmer Tony Rayns
  • Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, a 1975 documentary by Kaneto Shindo
  • Two Worlds Intertwined, a 2005 appreciation of Ugetsu by filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda
  • Process and Production, a 2005 interview with Tokuzo Tanaka, first assistant director on Ugetsu
  • Interview from 1992 with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa
  • Trailers
  • Plus: A book featuring an essay by film critic Phillip Lopate and three short stories that inspired the film

Ugetsu, aka Ugetsu Monogatari, is out now on Criterion Blu-ray.


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