Director : Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay : Yoshikata Yoda (based on the stories “Asaji Ga Yado” and “Jasei No In” by Akinari Ueda; adaptation by Matsutarô Kawaguchi)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1953
Stars : Masayuki Mori (Genjurô), Machiko Kyô (Lady Wakasa), Kinuyo Tanaka (Miyagi), Sakae Ozawa (Tobei), Ikio Sawamura (Genichi), Mitsuko Mito (Ohama), Kikue Môri (Ukon), Ryosuke Kagawa (Village master), Eigoro Onoe (Knight), Saburo Date (Vassal), Sugisaku Aoyama (Old Priest)
Although largely unknown in the Western world until the final years of his long career, Kenji Mizoguchi is nevertheless one of the great masters of Japanese cinema, a pioneering auteur whose humanist vision, rigid formalism, and tenacious attention to detail garnered the admiration of numerous cinematic luminaries, from Akira Kurosawa, to the young turks of the French New Wave. Mizoguchi was first heralded for his expressive one-shot, one-scene approach to drama, in which he constructed films out of a brief number of fluid long takes, but his abilities spanned far beyond that innovation.
Although he had been making films since the 1920s, Mizoguchi garnered most of his acclaim in the 1950s, when he made a series of historical dramas that helped define post-war Japanese cinema. Among those is Ugetsu (1953), the middle of three Mizoguchi films that won top awards at the Venice Film Festival three years in a row. Based on two stories from a collection titled Ugetsu monogotari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) by famed 18th-century writer Akinari Ueda, Mizoguchi’s film elegantly transcends the boundaries of traditional historical drama by interweaving elements of the supernatural, thus placing its themes of war, survival, and human frailties into a context of universal appreciation. Shot in gorgeous, misty black and white by famed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (who also worked Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, among others), Ugetsu is a primal human drama of great visual beauty.
The story takes place in 16th-century Japan, when the country is sharply divided amid bloody civil wars, with various armies rampaging across the countryside. It is a time of strife and division, with danger constantly lurking over the horizon (if one were so inclined, one wouldn’t have to stretch too far to associate it with current world events). The main characters are two couples from a small village. Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) is a dedicated potter who wants to raise his station in life by selling his wares to the warring armies. His wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), worries about her husband and the risks he faces by traveling the countryside amidst all the violence. Genjurô’s younger brother and assistant, Tobei (Sakae Ozawa), is an idealistic fool who dreams of becoming a great samurai warrior, much to the chagrin of his more practical wife, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito). Thus, Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda set out a quartet of characters who represent various facets of human desire, greed, ambition, and fear--all traits that come into sharp relief amidst the violence of the crumbling world around them.
The story turns in the middle when Genjurô and Tobei leave their wives to travel to a nearby city in order to sell their pottery. Genjurô falls under the spell of Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô), a noblewoman who lulls him into her arms with both her beauty and her ravishing compliments of his work, which suggests that Genjurô is led astray as much by his desire to be appreciated as an artist as he is by her feminine wiles. Mizoguchi portrays their time together as an idyllic escape from the chaos of the world, but the transient nature of happiness and contentment intervenes when Genjurô realizes that he has been seduced by a ghost. The intrusion of the supernatural not only upsets his contented state in life, but his very understanding of his own worldview; it’s a moment of supreme realization, one that will be replayed again when Genjurô finally returns home to his wife. At the same time, Tobei makes good on his desire to become a samurai warrior, although it is achieved through dubious means and ultimately means little when he discovers that Ohama has been reduced to working in a brothel in his absence.
Mizoguchi masterfully handles the interweaving of the stories of the two couples, allowing the various themes embodied in each to reflect and therefore strengthen each other. The film seems to suggest that the ones we love are often the ones who pay for our sins of greed and ambition, although Mizoguchi doesn’t allow the film to sink into simplistic platitudes about respecting one’s station in life and not overreaching. By allowing his characters to reveal themselves as flawed, but understandable and sympathetic human beings, Mizoguchi helps us see ourselves in both their follies and their triumphs, however short-lived each may be.
|Ugetsu Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||November 8, 2005|
|Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of Ugetsu, taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive, is excellent, although not without its flaws. Despite impressive digital clean-up, some scenes retain a fair amount of vertical scratching, which was obviously extensive enough that digital fixing would have resulted in more unsightly artifacts than the original damage. The black-and-white image is somewhat soft without a great deal of contrast, which is the intended look of the film. Detail is good and grain structure looks perfect throughout.|
|The monaural Dolby Digital soundtrack, mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and digitally restored, sounds excellent for its age.|
|Filmmaker, critic, and festival programmer Tony Rayns, who wrote an unpublished book on Mizoguchi in the late 1970s, offers his thoughts on the film in an informative screen-specific audio commentary, which replaces the commentary by media artist and critic Norman Yonemoto and Mizoguchi expert Keiko MacDonald that was available on the Criterion laser disc. With his British accent and clear, concise speaking style, Rayns packs a great deal of information into the commentary, rarely pausing for a beat. The breadth of knowledge he conveys is impressive and will no doubt increase anyone’s appreciation of the film and Mizoguchi’s career in general. |
Other supplements on the first disc include three interviews: a 2005 interview with filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda (14 min.), who offers his thoughts on why the film is so important to him; a 2005 interview with first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka (20 min.), who gives us an intriguing inside look into Mizoguchi’s filmmaking practices; and an interview with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, (10 min.), which was recorded in 1992. Also on this disc are three theatrical trailers, two from Japan and one incomplete trailer from Spain that has been matted to make the film appear as though it were shot in CinemaScope (an unfortunately frequent practice for Academy aspect ratio films in the 1950s).
The entire second disc is filled with Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, a 150-minute documentary by filmmaker Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba) made in 1975. Given its running length, it is not surprisingly an exhaustive documentary that covers the entirety of Mizoguchi’s life and all of his major films. Since Mizoguchi had been dead for almost 20 years when the film was made, he appears only in archival interviews; however, Shindo tracked down dozens of his collaborators for then-new interviews, including cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, producer Masaichi Nagata, and many of the actors with whom Mizoguchi worked.
Lastly, this impressive set includes a 72-page book featuring a new essay by film critic Phillip Lopate and English translations of the three short stories (two by Akinari Ueda and one by Guy de Maupassant) that were the basis of the film’s screenplay.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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