Ugetsu (1953)

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

After having had the Criterion edition of Ugetsu sitting waiting to be viewed for over a year, I finally took it out and watched it. Now, I want to watch it again without the distraction of sub-titles. Movies are visual by definition but some are more visual than others and Ugetsu is definitely one of them.

Director Kenji Mizoguchi is an artist I know next to nothing about. But as this movie illustrates, he liked a camera that moved. This is in contrast (for me) to many of my favourite films and directors where the camera is often static and, in a sense, so self-effacing as to be not noticed. Mizoguchi, as I’ve since learned, liked the shot that travelled and was famous for his “scroll shot,” a shot that moved from one place to another, one scene to another, as if unrolling a scroll.

In an essay by Phillip Lopate included in a booklet with the Criterion edition, we learn that 70 percent of Ugetsu was filmed using a crane, according to Mizoguchi’s cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. Watching the movie, you may notice not just the camera’s movement but also its positioning – often from above (crane) but sometimes close to the ground. Mizoguchi’s shots are seldom remaining still.

In Ugetsu, this ends up creating various effects. In some cases, it’s a very dispassionate, objective observation of what is happening. It’s almost cold-blooded. In other cases, it creates a lyrical, moody effect (such as the boat scene).

Why would any of this matter? It matters because of the story Mizoguchi is telling and the way he wants it told. Set in 16th century Japan, a time of civil wars, two brothers are seduced by war though in different ways. Genjuro becomes obsessed with the opportunity to make money. Tobei wants to be a samurai.

Indulging their obsessions, they neglect their families – specifically, their wives Miyagi and Ohama. And that is what Mizoguchi is really interested in: how women suffer from the self-serving interests of men. (He’s interested in much more than this, of course.)

The result of pursuing their own interests is the death of Miyagi, Genjuro’s wife, as well as the rape of Ohama, Tobei’s wife who is forced into prostitution. Made to suffer as well is Lady Wakasa, the first ghost.

This is where Mizoguchi’s moving camera becomes interesting in its effects. The movie begins in a dispassionate, even indifferent manner, that might be called naturalism in its showing of peasant life. Later, however, it becomes lyrical in its seamless movement into the ethereal and ghostly. We go from the natural to the supernatural almost without notice.

An example of this is where Genjuro first encounters Lady Wakasa. She and her maid approach him in the chaos and cacophony of the market, where he is selling his pottery in the hopes of making even more money. Lady Wakasa buys his wares and asks for them to be delivered. Genjuro follows her to her home. It is that transition that takes us from the natural to supernatural. And we scarcely notice how we’ve been transported.

Ugetsu is a fable. You might think it is a movie about comeuppance where a character “gets what is coming to him” because of what happens after Genjuro and Tobei give themselves over to greed and ambition. But it’s not. It’s about consequences and randomness. While it has the form and characteristics of fable, the characters are not caricatures and what happens is not presented as inevitable.

The bad guys aren’t all bad and the good guys are not all good. For example, Tobei is a victim but she’s also a bit of a harridan constantly belittling her husband.

A better example, however, is the death of Miyagi. Carrying her child as she tries to make her way to safety, she is set upon by bandits. The camera, watching from above coldly, shows us the bandits, all hungry and desperate for food, attacking and killing her. As she dies (in the foreground) we also see (in the background) the bandits fighting over the food. What we see are people reduced to barbaric circumstances because of poverty. Mizoguchi doesn’t sympathize with them but you do get a sense of empathy. What happens to Miyagi might have happened even had Genjuro remained at home. It is the consequence of war and the randomness of life that she falls victim to.

This is truly a beautiful film, one that is strangely indifferent, lyrical and angry all at once. It’s a ghost story that doesn’t frighten by what is fantastic but by what is real. The fantastic element is used to heighten the sense of what is real and true.

As an older film and one in a language that is foreign to me, I had expected Ugetsu to take some time to engage me. Not the case. I was with it from the opening scene and flowed with it effortlessly.

However, I need to see it now without the subtitles.

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