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UGETSU

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Masuyuki Mori, Kinuyo Tanaka, Sakae Ozawa, Mitsuko Mito, Machiko Kyo
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Audio: Japanese monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, interviews, trailers, 72-page booklet
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2005

"A little money inflames men's greed."

Film ****

In 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.

Kenji 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.

Mizoguchi's 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 modernize.

Following 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.

Mizoguchi 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.

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.

Ugetsu 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.

Genjuro 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."

On 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.

Civil 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.

With 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.

But 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.

Genjuro 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 return.

The 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.

Enraptured 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.

But 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.

While 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.

Ugetsu 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 living.

Video **

Ugetsu 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.

Audio **

The 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.

Features ****

Ugetsu 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.

In 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.

The 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 trailer.

Disc 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, too.

If 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.

Three 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.

Summary:

Ugetsu 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 recommendations!

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