Mizoguchi’s magnum opus is one of the all-time greatest films ever made – a haunting tale of greed, lust and morality that is steeped in Eastern sensuality and supernatural mythology.
Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
1953 | Japan | Drama/Mystery | 97 mins | 1.37:1 | Japanese
PG (passed clean) for some sensuality
Cast: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo, Kinuyo Tanaka
Plot: In 16th century Japan, peasants Genjuro and Tobei sell their earthenware pots to a group of soldiers, in defiance of a local sage’s warning against seeking to profit from warfare. Genjuro’s pursuit of both riches and Tobei’s wish to become a samurai risks to destroy both themselves and their wives.
Awards: Won Silver Lion & Pasinetti Award (Venice); Nom. for Best Costume Design (Oscars)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Greed, Lust, Morality
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 9 Nov 2011
The great Japanese directors of the distant past had Akira Kurosawa to thank for when Rashomon (1950) made international reception and recognition possible for Japanese cinema with its famous Golden Lion win at Venice in 1951.
The floodgates opened and soon Japanese cinema became a beacon of shining light and pride for Asian cinema as films by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Kon Ichikawa, and later Nagisa Oshima, and Takeshi Kitano among others gave Western audiences a new, and often intriguing perspective on the cultural possibilities of cinema.
Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, one of the greatest works to come out of Japan in the 1950s, and most certainly a contender for one of the top fifty films of all time, is the legendary director’s magnum opus. It is the film that comes to mind whenever Mizoguchi’s name is mentioned.
Shot by acclaimed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and scored by Fumio Hayasaka, Ugetsu is a tragically beautiful film that transcends the boundaries between realism and fantasy.
Ugetsu tells the story of a farmer who has a talent for pottery. He lives with his wife and child in an old hut. Set in the context of the Civil War, the farmer attempts to make a quick buck by selling his wares in a prosperous village across the lake.
He meets a strange lady who tries to seduce him, and soon is drawn to the luxurious life that the lady offers him, while his family suffers from the consequences of war.
“Success always comes at a price, and we pay in suffering.”
Ugetsu is a strong moralistic look at the human condition, in particular of human desires such as greed and lust. Mizoguchi’s camera, always roving about in a composed fashion, is influenced both by Italian Neorealism and traditional Japanese picture scrolls.
Rarely do we see a still shot, but when we do, especially in the film’s most mystical scene of a boat navigating still waters in a foggy night as it moves toward and past the camera, we are left enthralled not only by the mysterious beauty of the scene, but also Mizoguchi’s mastery of tone and atmosphere.
Indeed as most of the second-half of the film would attest, the director bridges the realms of reality and fantasy effortlessly, as if both realms exist in a single construct that could be construed as the filmic reality.
This filmic reality created by Mizoguchi is most certainly subjective, and is experienced through the eyes of the lead protagonist, but it provides viewers with a valuable lens to look at a myriad of elements as they combine to give a total effect.
These elements include the above-mentioned themes of morality, greed and lust, and others such as the Japanese supernatural mythology, Eastern exoticism and sensuality.
Ugetsu’s message, however, remains universal. Humans are fallible, but more importantly, they are also redeemable, though most of the time it is at the expense of grief and hurt.
Mizoguchi fashions a haunting tale of love and loss, adapted from stories by Akinari Ueda and Guy de Maupassant. Despite its reality-fantasy underpinnings, Ugetsu never loses it moral focus, and that is what makes it such a great classic.