Review by Ed Nguyen
Masuyuki Mori, Kinuyo Tanaka, Sakae Ozawa, Mitsuko Mito, Machiko Kyo
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Audio: Japanese monaural
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Features: Commentary, Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, interviews, trailers, 72-page booklet
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2005
little money inflames men's greed."
Japanese cinema, there are the Big Three, and then there is everyone else.
Within Japan, Yasujiro Ozu is the most celebrated, while internationally,
Akira Kurosawa is the most well-known. Kenji
Mizoguchi completes this cinematic trinity, and collectively, these three master
directors are responsible for many of the greatest masterpieces of Japanese
cinema in the twentieth century.
Mizoguchi's name is well-known to cinema aficionados. Among his many masterpieces are The Life of Oharu (1952), Sansho
the Bailiff (1954), and Ugetsu
Monogatari (1953), arguably the director's greatest triumph.
In fact, Mizoguchi was at his best with eloquent dramas which presented
historical portrayals of Japan's past.
career began during Japan's silent era in the 1920's and 1930's.
During this time, he directed some seventy films, the majority of which
are now lost, although Mizoguchi himself considered 1936's Sisters
of Gion and Naniwa Elegy as the
true start of his more serious directorial career.
In the years before World War II, Mizoguchi experimented with keikō-eiga (social tendency film) and shinpa (costume melodrama). He
developed a reputation as a realist director whose pictures incorporated Western
literature and theater into Japanese mores, depicting Japan's own struggles to
the war, Mizoguchi entered his most mature period. Focusing upon the jidai-geki,
or period drama, Mizoguchi drew from Japanese folk literature to create some of
his most memorable films. Many of
Mizoguchi's later films featured strong female characters, as one of his
favorite recurring themes was the examination of the changing role of women in
traditional and modern Japan. Some
films, such as The Life of Oharu, went
further, exploring the imprisonment of women, psychological or physical, within
a harsh society.
was an auteur and an obsessive perfectionist, willing to rehearse or shot a
scene a hundred times until it was exactly as he wanted it.
Mizoguchi preferred a long-shot photographic technique with emphasis on
lighting and frame composition. His
"flowing picture scroll" style was followed a "one shot - one
scene" mentality that utilized a camera constantly in motion (in the case
of Ugetsu, for instance, the vast
majority of the shots were crane shots). Such
lyrical aesthetics were even revered by none other than Akira Kurosawa, whose
own Throne of Blood was clearly
influenced by Ugetsu.
was just one in a string of masterpieces crafted by Mizoguchi in the 1950's. It was also the second of three Mizoguchi films to be awarded
at the prestigious Venice film festival. Had
Mizoguchi not died prematurely from leukemia in 1956 (at the relatively young
age of 58), he may well have eventually surpassed even Akira Kurosawa as Japan's
most internationally-renowned filmmaker.
is set in sixteenth-century Japan at a time of social upheaval.
Civil war has broken out upon the land, and Ugetsu depicts the consequently terrible suffering of the common
Japanese masses. The film focuses
primarily upon two men and their wives in a rural village near Lake Biwa in Omi
province. Genjuro and his younger
brother Tobei are both peasant farmers who in their spare time away from the
fields turn to pottery for additional income.
is a skilled and proud potter, although his fixated pride in his wares will
eventually lead to his eventual disgrace. His
wife Miyagi worries for her husband: "He was always so level-headed before.
War certainly changes people."
the other hand, Tobei is a man of erstwhile disposition, taken with fanciful
aspirations of becoming a noble samurai. His
wife Ohama, however, being of a more even temperament, frequently expresses her
dismay at her errant husband's obstinancy in pursuit of such an irrational goal.
That the ineffectual Tobei should aspire to become a Nagahama samurai
while ignoring his wife's sensible criticisms belies the fateful pride that in
turn will lead to Tobei's own downfall, too.
war is a calamitous period, for no one is spared from its ravages, man or woman,
innocent or culpable. As the
warring factions approach ever closer to the brothers' village, harbingers of
ill times linger ever more ominously in the air like a stench of death.
For Genjuro, such despair and blood-letting merely provides an
opportunity to profiteer, to move with apparent impunity and alacrity among the
approaching soldiers to sell his wares.
his brother Tobei, Genjuro sets off one day with a cartful of pottery, despite
the protests of their wives. The
indignity upon the wives' faces is soon replaced by surprise when the two
husbands return with riches in coins and material goods.
Genjuro, his hunger for wealth thus whetted, endeavors to forge more
earthenware that he might soon again wander forth to sell his wares.
the war comes to him as the clashing armies arrive at Lake Biwa, trailing in
their shadows the torment and anguish of boundless conflicts.
Fearing conscription or worse, death, the villagers flee into the
mountains, cowering within the thickets of trees and bushes until the samurai
warriors have satiated their own lust of violence and destruction and have moved
onwards. Yet, in the wake of
clashing samurais and feuding warlords, there come the bandits, scattered
remnants of fallen humanity bent upon scavenging over the refuse and
already-shattered lives of the rural folk.
and Tobei, the sanctity of their village home defiled, feel that they must test
their fortunes once more. They mock
fate with a daring crossing of Lake Biwa by night, meaning to transport their
earthenware to town for sale. Tobei's
wife accompanies the men on their trek, while Miyagi, burdened with the care of
her young child, must remain behind and await her husband Genjuro's promised
watery crossing, over mists and shadows of the night, signifies the threshold
between the stark reality of the war and the entrance into perhaps a darker
world of fantasy and the supernatural. Lust
and desire beckon the two men in town, and in their insatiable greed, they
succumb to ill-advised temptation. Tobei
forsakes his wife Ohama, sacrificing his own earnings to acquire war gear and to
transform, in his estimate, into a true samurai warrior.
Genjuro himself is seduced by a noblewoman who summons him to her
domicile under the pretense of purchasing his wares.
by the alluring presence of this Lady Wakasa, Genjuro abandons all memories of
his former life. As though an
obscure dream of filial love, the images of his wife and young child fade away
like mist in the morning dawn, for indeed, Genjuro now basks in the glow and
warmth of true beauty. The Lady
Wakasa loves him and dolts upon him, and Genjuro contents himself with the
knowledge that he has finally achieved all his own aspirations - wealth, fame,
and marriage to a beautiful woman who fulfills his every desire.
what of the true wives, Ohama and Miyagi? Ugetsu
provides a descriptive and poignant illustration of the victimization of women
by war. Ohama falls from grace, the
abandonment by her own husband condemning her to a life of prostitution to
survive. Miyagi stalwartly
struggles to carry on in the absence of her philandering husband, who faithless
in his forgetfulness, remains unmindful of the extent of his wife's suffering.
Even the plight of Lady Wakasa, apparently the sole survivor of the
destruction of the House of Kutsuki by the warlord Nobunaga Oda, is not as it
appears, for the Lady herself conceals a tragic and haunting secret.
Ugetsu is a period drama, it can also
be considered a parable for the sad consequences of the recent World War itself
upon the common Japanese people. However,
Ugetsu is not a war film.
Far from it. The civil war
merely presents a backdrop that propels this epic saga about human foibles and
tragedy in face of avarice, pride, and carnality.
The story is further laced with elements of the supernatural, providing a
decidedly oriental twist upon this tale of flawed human nature.
was adapted from two tales in Akinari Ueda's eighteenth-century ghost story
anthology, Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain). "Ugetsu"
itself is literally translated as "rain moon."
With these plaintive tales as the premise for his film, director
Mizoguchi unmasks the true heartbreak of Ugetsu
- the resentment of its dead, the despair of its dying, and the suffering of its
is shown in its original 1.331: aspect ratio.
While contrast levels are generally excellent, the images suffer from
occasional density pulsing in the film's emulsion as well as some age-related
defects or spool scratch damage. The
source print was a 35mm fine-grain master positive.
Overall, Ugetsu looks its age
but retains a high level of clarity and details.
original Japanese soundtrack for Ugetsu
has been relatively cleaned of background hiss and miscellaneous pops or
crackles. The audio quality is
quite serviceable if not remarkable. Of
particular note is the unsettling score, by accomplished Japanese composer Fumio
Hayasaka, with its eerie tonality and hyoshi
rhythms played out upon koto harps and Noh tsuzumi drums.
deservedly receives the gold-star treatment from Criterion in this excellent
two-disc set. The film and many of
the bonus features can be found on Disc One.
There is a commentary by film critic Tony Rayns which is highly
informative, if somewhat dry in tone. This
scholarly commentary will be appreciated most by film students, as Rayns is
clearly quite an expert on Kenji Mizoguchi, judging by his comments about the
film and Mizoguchi's career in general.
addition, there are a trio of interview segments. Two Worlds Intertwined
(14 min.) is a tribute by director Masahiro Shinoda in which the director
attempts to describe Mizoguchi's masterful fusion of fantasy and reality in Ugetsu.
He also contrasts Mizoguchi's fluid camerawork to the static style of
Yasujiro Ozu. Process and Production (20 min.) offers an interview with Tokuzo
Tanaka, the first assistant director on Ugetsu
and later director of many Zatoichi
films. Tanaka discusses central
themes in Ugetsu and dwells upon
Mizoguchi's very demanding, sometimes downright maddening, directorial approach.
In the final interview (10 min.), cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa
describes how specific scenes in Ugetsu
were influenced by Mizoguchi's directorial style.
Miyagawa also takes a few minutes to bemoan what he senses is a loss of
artistic integrity in most modern films today.
bonus features on this disc are rounded out by a number of theatrical trailers.
Two are Japanese trailers, while the third is an incomplete Spanish
Two only has one bonus feature, but it is an absolute gem - Kenji
Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director.
At 150 minutes in length, this truly epic documentary is quite
comprehensive, covering Kenji Mizoguchi's life and extensive career from his
earliest days with the Nikkatsu studio in the silent era through his greatest
triumphs with the Daiei studio in the 1950's.
There are two intriguing anecdotes about Mizoguchi.
One involves a Kiyamachi yatona
prostitute who once stabbed Mizoguchi in the back; the other involves the sad
illness of his wife. Both
experiences were to have a significant impact upon the director, definitely
influencing his depiction of women in his films.
Other events from Mizoguchi's life and career can be gleamed from
numerous interviews with Mizoguchi's colleagues, including cameramen, directors,
and actors, as well as through stills or occasional clips from Mizoguchi's
numerous films. This documentary
also provides a decent glance at the evolution of Japanese cinema during its
early silent days. Acclaimed
director Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba)
produced and directed this documentary, and he conducted the interviews himself,
the ample offerings on these two discs serve to whet one's appetite for more
features, there is also a 72-page book which accompanies this release.
The book features the essay "From the Other Shore" by film
critic Phillip Lopate as well as several short works of fiction which formed the
basis for the story of Ugetsu. Lopate's essay
discusses Mizoguchi's career in microcosm before elaborating on the artistry and
themes which make Ugetsu so memorable.
short stories are provided for reading pleasure in this book.
"The House in the Thicket" and "A Serpent's Lust"
contribute to the Genjuro tale and are derived from Akinari Ueda's anthology Ugetsu
Monogatari. A Guy de Maupassant
story, "How He Got the Legion of Honor," provides a loose basis for
the Tobei portions of the film. Numerous
movie stills accompany the essay and short stories in this fabulous book.
regularly appears on top ten lists of the greatest films ever worldwide,
including Sight & Sound's own prestigious list.
Ugetsu is a towering
achievement, a true masterpiece by one of Japan's greatest directors, Kenji
Mizoguchi. This excellent Criterion
release does the film justice. Top