Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi’s most widely heralded film, Ugetsu is also a stalwart presence in worldwide cinema-history polls, perhaps because it not only encapsulates so many of Mizoguchi’s concerns (post-WWII questions of jingoism, the plight of women trapped in patriarchy, and conversely issues of national character), but because he also folds them into a dense, fairly complicated episodic narrative, taking place during Japan’s civil wars of the 16th century. (Because the storyline has what could legitimately be considered “twists,” be advised that the rest of the review contains spoilers, though Mizoguchi purposefully undercuts the plot’s potential surprises by foreshadowing every revelation through internal, formal echoes.)
The film’s main storyline, in which a destitute potter is sidelined from his wife and child by a seductive spirit, is an adaptation of a short story from Ugetsu Monogatari by popular 18th-century writer Akinari Ueda. Genjuro makes an attempt to stockpile his ceramic wares into a skiff along with his doting, maternal wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), and young son, Gen’ichi, so that he can cash in at the city street market. (The son is prepubescent and, in Mizoguchi’s critique of masculinity, nearly invisible in his father’s eyes.) Genjuro’s sister, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), and her husband, Tôbei (Eitarô Ozawa), tag along, though Tôbei is far more interested in pursuing his dream of becoming a renowned samurai warrior than helping Genjuro sell his merchandise.
Adrift in the night-shrouded lake blanketed with Val Lewton-esque ruffles of fog, a seemingly abandoned boat glides up to the quintet and an emaciated near-corpse warns the men in the boat to watch out for marauding bandits and to keep a close eye on their women. In the very next scene, Genjuro is dropping his wife and child alone on the shoreline to fend for themselves because, so he says, it would be too dangerous for them in the city.
He’s correct, of course, but the danger in the city is directed toward him, whereas the countryside brings Miyagi almost immediate death at the end of a scavenger’s spear. Because Genjuro unloads his family so swiftly at the first hint of danger, and because his peril comes accompanied by the sexual rapture he experiences with the spirit Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyô), it wouldn’t be a radical leap to chart his misguided anti-domestic detour with that of Tôbei. Ohama Immediately succumbs to prostitution after Tôbei leaves her so as to pursue his selfish, quixotic quest of becoming a samurai legend.
In other words, it seems as though Genjuro is already subconsciously aware of the erotic rewards of his bad judgment. Which turns the film’s finale, in which Genjuro is enchanted a second time by a dead woman’s spirit—this time his murdered wife—into a withering hip check against machismo: Genjuro’s wandering hips are checked and he realizes the price of his sex folly.
In Ugetsu, the female characters are put through the wringer; even Wasaka, who might be expected to drop the painted-eyebrow façade and emerge as a malevolent demon in the final reel, is actually a crushed, tragic victim of earlier male violence, a woman who never lived long enough to experience love. But interestingly enough, it’s the men who end up shouldering the emotional toll. With all due respect to Mizoguchi’s mysterious, incantatory, gorgeous parable, is it this crucial variation on his approach to feminism that causes Ugetsu‘s pinnacular reputation in the film-critic boys’ club?
Many of Mizoguchi's films have been lost in the ravages of war, time, and negligence. So it's something of a relief to say that, while he still lags behind Ozu in restoration terms, Criterion's release of Mizoguchi's 1953 film looks significantly better than their disc for Ozu's concurrent masterpiece Tokyo Story (which was marred by excessive grain, blotchy, pulsating luminescence, and print damage). The print is far from flawless, so reel changes are marked by the sudden appearance of what, at first, seems like indoor rainstorms but are really just thousands of scratches, and the climactic scene where Genjuro rebuffs Wasaka is branded with a bright white vertical stripe. But for a film that I originally saw on a widely-distributed, bootleg-quality VHS and then, later, on a disappointing theatrical projection, I was astonished that there was still a print extant with this sort of clarity and focus. The black-and-white hues still bounce bright-then-dark a little bit too much for comfort, but unlike Tokyo Story's harsh disc, the contrast is subtle and gorgeous. The sound is fairly weak, and the biggest casualty of the entire presentation is the film's multicultural music score.
While not, on the surface, as packed as some of Criterion's other tent-pole releases of 2005, Ugetsu comes accompanied with one of their greatest documentary additions, especially for those of us in R1 territory who have been longing for a glimpse at Mizoguchi's filmography (if even in a few clips): Kaneto Shindo's comprehensive, exhaustive, two-and-a-half-hour long 1975 documentary Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director. It's nothing if not comprehensive, and includes clips from such sought after titles as The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, Street of Shame, and Crucified Lovers, as well as a positively epic cast of collaborators. Though the ultimate result is that it just makes you hungry for more actual Mizoguchi DVD releases, it's still a venerable extra feature. The documentary takes up the whole of the second disc. The first disc comes with a feature-length commentary track from critic Tony Rayns, who comes off as erudite but without being stuffy. It's a fascinating listen that, for a change, focuses more on critical insight instead of historical minutiae (perhaps because it came from an abandoned book study of Mizoguchi that Rayns was working on for some time). Rounding it all out are 40 minutes' worth of interview footage with Tokuzo Tanaka (assistant director on Ugetsu), Kazuo Miyagawa (the cinematographer, carted over from the Criteron laserdisc as he died a few years ago) and Masahiro Shinoda, who provides an unofficial installment in Criterion's line of "director's introductions." There are also two original Japanese trailers and one incomplete Spanish preview.
Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is far from chivalrous, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of cinema’s most austere male weepies.