Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Yoshikata Yoda, Matsutarô Kawaguchi, Kyûchi Tsuji
Based on Stories by: Akinari Ueda
Starring: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyô, Kinuyo Tanaka, Ichisaburo Sawamura, Eitarô Ozawa
Producer: Masaichi Nagata
Country: Japan
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1953
BBFC Certificate: PG

It’s very interesting listening to the special features for Ugetsu (a.k.a. Ugetsu Monogatari) where mention is given to when the film was premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon had won the festival’s Golden Lion a couple of years previously and Mizoguchi was jealous. He wasn’t happy that this ‘upstart’ was one of the first Japanese directors to be recognised at such a level in the west. So he went to work on quite a personal project, Ugetsu, in the hope of dethroning the ‘youngster’ (Kurosawa was only actually a few years younger, but had been a director for far less time). It played at Venice and was declared the best film that year, but the judges refused to award it the Golden Lion, instead giving it the Silver Lion, claiming that no film was strong enough to gain the top prize that year. On top of this, Mizoguchi himself wasn’t happy with the film, claiming the producer pushed changes on him to make it more Western-friendly. However, these days Ugetsu is considered by many to be the director’s finest work and has cropped up on numerous lists as being one of the greatest films of all time, including the top 10 of Sight and Sound’s prestigious poll in both 1962 and 72. Personally, I think I’d side with Mizoguchi though, to an extent. As great as the film is, it doesn’t quite match up to a couple of his other films in my eyes, particularly Sansho Dayu which had a huge impact on me. However, Ugetsu is still an excellent film, so I wasn’t averse to giving it another watch when I was offered a screener to review the Criterion Collection’s Blu-Ray re-release in the UK.

Set during the Japanese Civil War of the sixteenth century, Ugetsu follows the trials and tribulations of two men, Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and Tobei (Eitarô Ozawa), as well as their wives (and son in Genjorô’s case). Genjorô is a hard-working family man who wants to profit from the war by selling his pottery to the soldiers. Tobei is a simple-minded man who wants nothing more than to be a samurai but is told he can’t even attempt to join their ranks without appropriate weaponry or armour. So he helps Genjorô produce a great stock of pottery to take to town and earn a slice of the profits. Soldiers attack their village while their wares are in the kiln though and the families are forced into refuge. Sneaking back into their village, the men do manage to rescue the results of their labour and take them to a further town, making a lot of money, but end up separated from their wives and pursue their own selfish desires. As the film goes on, the men are punished in various ways for their greed and their wives are forced to pay too. Genjorô’s story also brings a supernatural element to proceedings as he is seduced by the mysterious Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) and all memory of his wife seems to disappear during his new dream-like existence.

As mentioned, this didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, even on my third viewing, but that’s not to say it isn’t a great film and it does get a little better each time I see it. As ever, Mizoguchi’s direction and mis-en-scene is stunning. Employing his usual long takes and graceful tracking shots, the film looks fantastic and feels very much alive. The misty boat journey near the start of the film and the climax of Genjurô’s entrapment in particular are stunningly well-realised sequences that show why Mizoguchi is considered with such high esteem among critics and filmmakers. Perhaps the best shot comes near the end though when Genjorô comes home and the camera follows him around the empty house, only to have his wife appear out of the blue when the camera pans back to the hearth. It could be a gimmicky camera trick in the wrong hands, but here it’s a delicately moving sequence.

Ugetsu is also emotionally satisfying without ever feeling manipulative or melodramatic. A lot of terrible things happen to our protagonists, but no attempt is made to tug at the heartstrings. Instead events are presented as a harsh result of men’s greed and the greater impact of war on society, beyond battlefield casualties. The film’s finale/coda brings a poignant air to it all though, making for a satisfying conclusion. Mizoguchi utilises narration to tie things up, which is often a recipe for a syrupy or clunky disaster, but here it’s incredibly moving without overplaying anything.

Saying that, the only area I felt let the film down a fraction was the writing. The narrative of Ugetsu is beautifully layered and cleverly structured, but the dialogue, mainly in the first half of the film, felt a bit blunt at times. The theme of greed is spelled out in places by the characters and there are a couple of overly ‘convenient’ moments too, such as when Genjurô bumps into a passing priest who can instantly see he has been entranced by a ghost and helps him snap out of it. The film just didn’t seem as subtle as it could be in places. Some of the special features point blame towards the producer for these flaws.

On the whole, Ugetsu is superb though. It’s an elegant film with a fairly unique and layered structure, but based around a clear and grounded message. Speaking out against pride, greed and the less obvious ravages of war, it’s a morality tale that is in turns harsh, bewitching and poignant. It drifts between various styles, but never feels messy or episodic. It’s an astonishingly well-crafted film that grows better with each viewing.

Ugetsu Monogatari is out on 4th March on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The audio and visual transfer is excellent, as is to be expected from the label.

There’s a great collection of special features too:

– New 4K digital restoration undertaken by The Film Foundation, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– Audio commentary by filmmaker, critic and festival programmer Tony Rayns
– Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (1975), a 150-minute 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
– An essay by film critic Phillip Lopate and three short stories that influenced Mizoguchi in making the film

There’s a lot to get through here and it’s all first rate. Rayns’ commentary is superb, as usual, offering an extensive overview of the film’s production and reception. If there’s anything he doesn’t know about Japanese cinema, it’s probably not worth knowing and he’s always a welcome inclusion to any special features. The ‘Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director’ documentary is the star of the show here though. It offers a rich, detailed account of the director’s working life and doesn’t hold back on listing his flaws as well as his strengths. He sounds to have been an unusual character and this film does its best to examine why as well as how. It’s a must watch for fans of Japanese cinema.

The other interviews and appreciations are solid too, filling us in on anything Rayns or the Mizoguchi doc might have missed. It’s a wonderfully comprehensive collection of extra material and makes the set easy to recommend.

Ugetsu - Criterion Collection
4.5Overall Score
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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