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The early 1950s was the golden era of Japanese cinema. Directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi, now freed from the constraints of making wartime propaganda films, produced masterpieces such as Rashomon (1950), Tokyo Story (1953), and Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) respectively. Of the three directors, Mizoguchi was the oldest and had already made more than 80 films, but was little known in the West. Today, he is still not as well known to American audiences as Kurosawa, but he is highly regarded by critics and film scholars. "Like Bach, Titian, and Shakespeare, he is the greatest in his art," wrote French critic Jean Douchet, and New York Times critic Vincent Canby called him "one of the greatest film directors of the sound era."
Mizoguchi himself once said, "It was only when I passed 40 that I understood the human truths I want to express in my films. And since then, the cinema has become an extremely difficult art for me." Born in 1898, Mizoguchi began his film career in the silent era, and became known for his women's films in the 1930s. After World War II his talent reached its full flowering, with films such as The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (both of which won awards at the Venice Film festival in consecutive years), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). He died in 1956, at the relatively young age of 58.
Based on two stories by the 18th century writer Akinari Ueda from his collection Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of the Moon and Rain), Ugetsu is a ravishingly beautiful meditation on war, greed, and sexual desire, and a seamless blend of fantasy and realism. Set during a civil war in 16th century Japan, it's the story of two peasants who leave their wives behind as they seek fortune and glory - the potter Genjuro hopes to make money selling his wares, and Tobei wants to become a samurai. Genjuro is seduced into forgetting his wife and child by a mysterious noblewoman, Lady Wakasa, who is not what she seems. Tobei achieves his goal of becoming a warrior through deceit. And both men's wives pay the price for their husbands' ambition.
Technically and visually, Ugetsu is a marvel. From the opening shot, the camera is constantly moving. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa recalled that Mizoguchi told him that the beginning of the film should unfold like an emakimono, a medieval Japanese scroll painting, saying, "The pictures should roll out like scrolls." Miyagawa estimated that 70% of the shots in Ugetsu were tracking shots. He also pointed out that the camera was never still during the scenes in Lady Wakasa's home, which was modeled after two historic Imperial villas. Sometimes the movement in those scenes is barely perceptible, but Mizoguchi wanted the constant motion to suggest something unsettling about the place and its inhabitants. Adding to the spooky atmosphere is a musical score by frequent Mizoguchi collaborator Fumio Hayasaka, which mixes Japanese and Western instruments and rhythms to great effect.
The famous Lake Biwa scene is pure visual poetry, with its boats moving in and out of the mist. But assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka remembered the filming of the scene as pure agony. It was shot in a studio tank, in freezing-cold February, with Tanaka and another assistant in the tank hidden behind the boats, moving them. In those days before wetsuits, they only had hip boots to protect them, but the smoke that was creating the misty look wasn't cooperating, and the implacable perfectionist Mizoguchi kept insisting on take after take, saying "the smoke is wrong."
Near the end of Ugetsu, a virtuoso 360-degree shot of Genjuro's homecoming follows him as he enters a cold, empty house, walks around and out and back in again, to find his wife cooking over a warm hearth. It's one of those breathtaking "how did they do that?" scenes that director Masahiro Shinoda must have had in mind when he commented, "No matter how often we watch Ugetsu, we learn something new each time about the possibilities of cinema."
Bosley Crowther's New York Times review makes it clear how "exotic" Ugetsu must have seemed to American audiences and critics who had little exposure to Japanese cinema's stately pace, stylized acting, and historic and cultural context: "Ugetsu...will be hard for American audiences to comprehend...both the theme and style of exposition...have a strangely obscure, inferential, almost studiedly perplexing quality. Indeed, it is this peculiar vagueness and use of symbolism and subterfuge that give to this Oriental [sic] fable what it has of a sort of eerie charm." More than fifty years later, informed by a wider worldview, the impact of this timeless film is stronger than ever. As Roger Ebert wrote in 2004, "At the end of Ugetsu, aware we have seen a fable, we also feel curiously as if we have witnessed true lives and fates."
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Producer: Masaichi Nagata
Screenplay: Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda, based on two classic tales by Akinari Ueda
Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Editor: Mitsuzo Miyata
Costume Design: Tadaoto Kainosho
Art Direction: Kisaku Ito
Music: Fumio Hayasaka, Ichiro Saito, Tamekichi Mochizuki
Cast: Masayuki Mori (Genjuro), Machiko Kyo (Lady Wakasa), Sakae Ozawa (Tobei), Kinuyo Tanaka (Miyagi), Mitsuko Mito (Ohama), Sugisaku Aoyama (Old Priest), Ryosuke Kagawa (Village Chief), Kikue Mori (Ukon).
by Margarita Landazuri