Film Review: Ugetsu (1953). 5/5 Stars.


The ghost of Lady Wakasa.

Japan began making films only a few short years after the medium came to light and by the early 1920s the industry was churning them out: horror, romance, dramas, thrillers, comedies. This was a self-made industry run and maintained by self-educated men and women. Rough and ready at first by the time the 1930s rolled around its players were becoming ever more ambitious and assured and by the end of that decade something extraordinary was happening.

Long time followers of more progressive filmmaking nations, Japanese directors and writers were beginning to find confidence in their own voice and over the next 25 years a slew of groundbreaking films hit the cinemas both at home and internationally. This was the golden age of Japanese cinema an era highlighted by three names: Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi. Between them, these three men led the industry into new territory, a purely Japanese way of story telling that took all that had come before and from afar remaking it into something unique, specific and wholly Japanese.

Mizoguchi, much like Ozu and Kurosawa fell into the craft and learned by doing. He made dozens of films, both silent’s and talkies, none of any great artistic value and most now lost to time but in the doing he honed, considered and pushed himself, often to breaking point. After each consecutive breakdown he returned to the harness, invigorated and with a fresh new vision and by the 1930s his films were no longer simple production line entertainments, he was reaching for more and was finding it.

By the time of 1953s ‘Ugetsu’ his reputation was complete. A perfectionist with high expectations of his crew, he was also kindly and encouraging bringing the best out of those around him while pushing all concerned to better and greater. With only three years left before leukaemia that would take his life set in he made six more films, all masterpieces that went straight to the heart of the human experience and the Japanese condition.

To contemporary eyes there is nothing all that remarkable about ‘Ugetsu’, but to Japanese filmmakers of the time it was a revelation causing the same kind of paradigm shifts in narrative possibility that Orson Welles ‘Citizen Kane’ did some 10 years earlier in Hollywood. Described as the first whole and complete Japanese film, it describes the world from a uniquely Japanese perspective drawing on Buddhism and Shintoism, the two religious world-views central to the Japanese experience. (Shinto predates Buddhism’s influence by unknown millennia. A primordial religious expression that describes a world where every object and living thing is animated one way or another by a spirit or god. The Shinto method is deeply ingrained into the Japanese experience and often the two religions overlap having soaked up elements of each other in passing)

Taking a popular 16th century ghost story, Mizoguchi turns the film method inside out establishing three layers of reality: As the individual experiences it, as nature proposes it and the unseen supra reality- the place inhabited by nature spirits, gods and ghosts. Of more contemporary Japanese filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki in particular has taken the narrative method laid out by ‘Ugetsu’ and has refined it to its purest distillation in films like ‘Spirited Away’. The method is also especially evident in genre films like ‘The Ring’ trilogy and any number of films by horror guru Tkakshi Miike. This world is infused by spirits and ghosts who walk among us but a step away as farmer/potter Genjuro is about to discover when his ambition leads him to the market of a far off city to sell his wares. Here he is seduced by the ghost of woman seeking to find the love that she never experienced when alive.

Japanese Buddhism plays a central role in ‘Ugetsu’ with the idea that reality is illusionary and that ambition is a delusion liable to lead us astray and indeed the central characters Genjuro and Tobei abandon home and heart in search of dreams and fortune only to find that the thing they were seeking was already right there in front of their eyes. Life is a learning experience and sometimes that learning is harsh. Sometimes we have to make mistakes in order to become wiser and to be satisfied with what we have. This is the only cure to the seductive concept of ‘if only I had a little more I will be happier’.

Mizoguchi’s camera spends most the film in deep focus drinking in time and place, giving us a clear view of the situation of life in 16th century Japan. It explains village life and the lot of the working peasant while telling us about the immorality of war and the wisdom of a woman’s love.

As it shifts between the seen and unseen it is helped along by a somewhat disturbing score, a surreal juxtaposition of sounds that mixes the music of traditional Japanese Noh theatre (the theatre of the common people) with Western rhythms giving us a template for every supernaturally themed film to follow. This is the music of the spirit-world- the lament of the dead and a warning signature for the living to be very careful about walking through doors of unknown purpose.

‘Ugetsu’ features on many ‘Greatest Film Lists’ composed by critics and filmmakers alike. It is a flawless composition and is a must see for any student of the cinematic arts. Also worth casting an eye over are ‘The Crucified Lovers’ and ‘Sansho The Bailiff’ two other late period Mizoguchi masterworks that like ‘Ugetsu’ explore the human condition with visceral honesty and profound wisdom.


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